Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Profiting from Prune Pits

With the Santa Clara Valley producing insane amounts of prunes and apricots, we know that there were lots of boxcars heading east (and ships heading out over the seven seas) loaded with dried and canned fruit.  But all that fruit leaving California left behind a toxic legacy… apricot and plum pits.

Well, maybe not so toxic, but certainly space-hogging.  Those pits did have value, as we learned a while back when reading about Sewall Brown's profitable apricot pit business out between Campbell and Los Gatos.  And Sewall Brown wasn't the only one making money off waste products; we've also got the story of Stanley Hiller, Sr.

Hiller was, according to his contemporaries, an inventor and mechanical genius.  Stanley was down in Los Angeles during World War I, working in the fish canneries to turn the leftovers into chicken feed, when he heard about a problem the allies were having.  The poison gas used on the Western Front required good gas masks, and the U.S. Government wanted filters for these masks.  Henry quickly rushed off to start his own business trying various materials to use for charcoal filters.  He imported tons of coquito nuts from Mexico which worked ok, but fruit pit charcoal worked better.  The government had already cornered the market, and ended the war with an extra 7,000 tons of pits, stacked on rented land. Hiller bought them, as-is, where-is, thinking that charcoal might be useful for other purposes.

Hiller and his partner Louis Clark thought of various tricks for using those pits - grinding, charcoal, etc. Meanwhile, PG&E and Western Sugar Refining, the two landowners, sent them various polite notes asking him to vamoose with the pits ASAP.  Louis remembered:

"Right here Clark tipped back his chair, locked his hands behind his head, see sawed back and forth--and looked at Hiller--and laughed!  Then they made a duet of it.  "Member, Hiller, how they howled at us to move that mountain?"

"I remember one day in particular when the whole world--looked at over our shell mountain-- turned deep indigo. The fellows working for the two big companies stood around and kidded us. They told us we were broke and didn't have enough sense to know it. Said we might as well give up. Hiller and I went back to the office pretty well discouraged. The mail almost finished us. PG&E wrote, ordering us to move that shell."

Now, one of the problems of getting rid of the shell was the time needed to turn it to charcoal. The government process required twenty days, but it was cut down to six by the end of the war. Hiller needed to create charcoal faster if he was to get rid of those shells. Hiller and Clark created a continuous kiln (like a cement kiln) for processing the charcoal, and cut the processing time down to twenty-four hours, and got rid of the pile before PG&E could complain. You can even check out their patent if you want.

By 1921, Hiller's company, Pacific By-Products, was running in San Jose at the corner of Sunol and Auzerais (390 Sunol St.) and producing 75 tons of charcoal a day, and produced ten million tons during 1920 and 1921. The bagged charcoal, sent via railroad car from their 5 car siding, went for industrial uses as well as chicken feed. Hiller and Clarke didn't stop at that; they worked on other machines - one for clarifying the cooking oil used in fish canneries. Another invention inspired Hiller when he saw sugar syrup spilling out of canning equipment in a San Jose fruit cannery. With sugar at 25c a pound, that syrup represented real money. He created a new machine that could catch spilled syrup, clean it, and return it to the canning line, saving the canners big money. The 1922 Canning Age magazine shows the waste syrup refiner, both stock and in place at the Santa Clara Pratt-Lowe Preserving Company.

They also had their mishaps; a Sanborn map illustration on History San Jose's site shows the ominous warning that the plant burned down on May 6, 1932. The San Jose News's article on the fire called the two-alarm blaze "stubborn" but Louis Clark said the loss was almost completely covered by insurance. The article also mentions that the fire didn't reach the piles of sawdust used as part of the firing process.

Pacific By-Products must have stayed at the location; the 1933 and 1934 city directory still shows them at 390 Sunol. The 1934 directory also lists the manager as Roland Roderick as the manager and F.S. Lawrence as the superintendent. The plant isn't listed in the 1936 city directory - did they move, or did they shut down? I haven't looked yet, though now has all the city directories I'll need to answer the question. Only further poring through dusty volumes will tell.

Their five-car siding lasted into the 1950's, even if they didn't. I even modeled it on my layout, unsure when I laid the track why there was the long siding along the property line. I'd just assumed it was storage or perhaps (as one switching crew on my layout discovered) it was a handy place to store part of the train while switching the Del Monte cannery.

And if you're a Bay Area kid, that Hiller name ought to be familiar. Stanley's son, Stanley Junior, was also quite an inventor, and went on to design clever, utilitarian helicopters through his Hiller Helicopter company, a long-time fixture out on Willow Road in Menlo Park. Stanley Junior also tested some of his helicopter designs at the family estate above Oakland, now the area called Hiller Highlands above the Caldecott Tunnel portal. Stanley Junior also funded the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos. He wasn't the only aviator in the family; Stanley Senior had also built and designed planes in his day back in the 'teens, but luckily for us came back to the stable and profitable fruit business in San Jose.

[The interview quotes come from the Edith Daley columns in San Jose Evening News, July 19, 1921 and July 20, 1921 The photo of the infamous mountain of pits comes from the March, 1922 March 1922 Canning Age magazine. Sanborn map image from History San Jose - I'm glad I copied it because they've taken down the original site.]

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