Sunday, November 11, 2012

Virden Packing and Dreams of Great Business

I'm still thinking about whether to place the Virden Packing cannery on the layout. I did mock-up a paper model based on guessed measurements from the SP track drawings and Google StreetView photos, but it's looking awfully large and out of scale next to the gas station that I'd really prefer not to remove. Time for some more thought.

While we're thinking about whether to add the building, it's worth thiking about what makes the odd Virden Packing building special, and whether it helps with the story about what San Jose was like in the 1930's. Let's do a bit of historic research on that building, shall we?

The fact that 460 Lincoln Ave has survived is a pretty big accomplishment on its own. Before 1918, the building was just another lot on the western edge of San Jose. A 1915 Sanborn map shows it as additional storage for Santa Clara Valley Mill and Lumber's San Salvador Street yard, covered with twenty-foot-high piles of lumber. The odd-shaped lot was tiny compared with the main yard and mill further up along the track between Auzerais and San Carlos, but they must have needed the space.

Salsina Packing and Canning

Come 1918, things were changing in the valley. Straight from Western Canner and Packer:

Reviewing the canning industry of San Jose, the San Jose Mercury-Herald says six new canneries, representing an investment of $590,000, were constructed and put into operation in San Jose during the past year, making a total of 31 canneries now handling products of this county. This is in addition to the 30 packing houses. These six new canneries have outlined improvements which they expect to make immediately at the cost of $330,000.


The Salsina Canning Company, situated at the corner of Lincoln and San Salvador Streets, has an investment of about $200,000 at that site. The plant was installed during the past year and handled tomatoes and salsina exclusively. The company is now considering the advisability of constructing a new unit at a cost of $45,000 in time to handle fruits as well as tomatoes next year.

(The full article's worth reading, if only for the comments about the other canneries, the Santa Clara Valley orange business, and how all the canneries will operate cafeterias "with hot, nourishing food will be served to the workers in an attractive manner at cost." Sounds like Facebook or Google.)

Salsina Canning (misspelled as Salsini in a few places) was set up by "Italian interests in the Santa Clara Valley" according to California Fruit News. The name is telling; 'salsina' is the italian work for sauce (and perhaps implies tomato paste), highlighting that their market was the new immigrants and perhaps folks in the old country.

The original building wasn't enough; Salsina extended it in 1919 with a 60x600 warehouse according to a reference in American Architect and Architecture. Electrical World highlights how they're using fine electrical equipment for the new production line.

But what about those suspicious-sounding "italian interests" backing Salsina? They sound more upstanding when we look at old city directories, for it turns out the cannery is run by Gus (Gustave) F. Lion, son of German immigrants who arrived in San Jose in 1855. Gus was a serious mover-and-shaker: A Santa Clara University graduate, owner of one of San Jose's fine furniture stores, owner of the 5500 acre San Martin ranch out by Gilroy, banker, and even member of the Elks. A county history brags that he was involved both with the Republican and Democratic parties, back in the day when you could could straddle that fence. According to a 1919 San Jose City Directory, Gus was the president of Salsina, Alphonso Lambrosa was vice-president, and W. J. Leet was the treasurer.

Salsina didn't last long. By 1921, Lion was subdividing the San Martin ranch, and the same year sold Salsina to the Virden Packing Corporation.

Virden Packing

Virden's an interesting company. Charles Virden, the owner, had been active in the fruit business in Sacramento, and had worked for some of the large fruit distributors. He was also active in the Chamber of Commerce; internet research shows he broke the ground on a new country club east of Sacramento around 1920. Most importantly, he was a big booster for the Central Valley. He also spoke publicly about his frustrations with the availability of freight cars, and made some handy suggestions to the railroad about how to make sure businesses like his could ship their products. It's easy to find several speeches like this from Virden, and it's easy to tell his opinions.

But it sounds like Virden had more ambition, and decided it was time for him to take his personal Virden Packing business to the next level. He moved to San Francisco, and ambitiously snapped up several large canneries: Western Canning's plant in Emeryville (formerly Chinese owned and run), other plants in Sacramento, Marysville, Elmhurst (85th Street in Oakland), Fruitvale (29th Street, Oakland), Lindsay, and Oroville. (One contemporary report for the purchase said that someone wrote "Goodbye" in Chinese and English on the wall in the Western Canning plant.) On top of that, Virden also ran meat packing companies in Sacramento and in South San Francisco, and owned the Pioneer Fruit Company (according to a lawsuit from Zellerbach Paper). Virden's officers for the company include two early employees who had been part of the Sunlit Fruit Company that was swallowed up by the California Packing Corporation (Del Monte), so perhaps this was their challenge to CalPak, and their hopes of building a similarly huge organization.

Virden bought Salsina both for the existing business as well as a chance to do meat packing at the same location; Western Canner and Packer states that the "plant will be used for the packing of all the company's meats drawn from the field south of San Jose."

Lots of dreams and plans, lots of ambition. Very little news, though, between 1921 and 1926 apart from the daily stock ticker declaring the value of the Virden Packing shares.

By the mid-1920's, though, Virden's shrinking. The falling prices which hit other canners and dried fruit packers is one potential cause. Rumors of company meetings and potential sales appear in 1926. The March 13, 1927 Oakland Tribune notes that the company is abandoning the fruit business and is in the process of selling the canneries, "three in Oakland, one in San Jose, and a fifth in Marysville". Charles Virden claims that the company will be focusing on the meat business from now on. Balfour Guthrie, a British importer and owner of farmland in California, takes an option on buying the largest plants at Maryville, San Jose, Elmhurst, Fruitvale, and Emeryville. (The Lodi Sentinel said on May 6, 1926 that Balfour-Guthrie was already operating the canneries.) The Gridley Herald explains this only as a financing move, and the canneries will be managed by Francis E. Laney, head of the Sutter County growers co-operative.

But it doesn't look like the canneries go to Balfour; the former Western Canning in Emeryville is sold to CalPak, and becomes Del Monte Plant #35, a huge cannery that eventually disappears in 1989 and becomes the current site of Pixar. The Fruitvale plant also goes to Del Monte. The San Jose site keeps its name - there's nothing in the record to decide whether Virden did or did not sell out.

Virden died in January, 1932, leaving a million-dollar insurance policy to keep the company going. By 1935, it's all over for the meat business too as the remaining business, including the meat packing plant in South San Francisco, is sold to Armour, the monopolist in the meat packing industry. A 1936 lawsuit charges that Virden Packing overpromised the extent of the meat business in Sacramento when it first issued stock.

Virden's cannery in San Jose must have kept going, either under the old or a new management. It appears in the 1928 and 1929 San Jose city directories at the same location on Lincoln, and also appears on a 1930-ish Sanborn map, but it disappears from the city directories in 1930. It (tellingly) doesn't appear on that 1931 Southern Pacific track directory that I was given a couple years back.

San Martin Vineyards

I can't find any mention of the building through the Great Depression; it must have sat empty, just like the Hunts cannery in Los Gatos did. However, by 1949, the building is in use again, this time as a warehouse for the San Martin Winery. The existing building has a cask mounted on the wall as a reminder of the winery's days in the building. The 1950 Sanborn map shows the accessory buildings behind including the boiler and cooling tower (for former refrigeration?) SP engineering drawings from 1949 show a platform being added to the Lincoln Ave front, as well as work on the team tracks branching off behind the building. Interestingly, the SP SPINS booklet from 1970 shows neither of the spurs that were visible on the engineering drawing. By 1970, San Martin is out, and Hank and Frank Drayage is in the building; their sign remained on the building until recently.


And today, you can go wandering over to Lincoln Avenue, pass the new luxury apartment buildings going up on the former sites of the U.S. Products and Contadina canneries, cross the railroad tracks, and see the slightly orphaned and slightly worn concrete building on the right side. The cannery had a short life - maybe 1918 to 1930 as a cannery, then years empty, then downgraded to use as a wine warehouse, then a less prestigious warehouse, and now it's being used as a furniture discount warehouse, probably just as a temporary occupant until it's time for the building to be torn down and replaced by more housing.

You can go in and wander; it's a warren of rooms from warehouse days, with wood trusses overhead, the sawtooth roofline, pierced with banks of double-hung windows, are very visible above the dining room tables and nightstands. You can also see how the building expanded; the street side is definitely a different bit of construction from the east side facing the SP and WP tracks, and you can see the materials change as you cross through from one side to the other. You also can see that the east wall really is corrugated iron, highlighting the different eras of the building. If you noticed the small peaked roof visible from Auzerais St., you'll also learn it's actually a small house that got swallowed up by the building, and now serves as an office, sitting right there in the middle of the largest portion of the warehouse.

Outside, the concrete's looking pitted after a hundred years of hand trucks and rearranged loading doors. Below the loading dock on the Lincoln Ave. side, the rails are still poking up out of the asphalt, with strange rounded balls located where the end of the siding would have been, probably to block the wheels.

Virden Packing obviously didn't survive long - it was a small cannery during the great explosion in canneries in 1918. I suspect its backers weren't thinking big enough, and couldn't compete against the three big canneries surrounding it. Like the Hyde Cannery in Campbell, dropping prices in the late twenties doomed it, and the Depression must have closed it down forever.

That said, it's still got a bit of magic. You'll spot it as an obvious example of rail-served industry as you drive towards downtown San Jose. Some five year old is probably wandering through right now as his parents search for a new kitchen table, and he's looking up at all that trusswork wondering why someone built a building so odd and interesting compared to the boring buildings at the mall...

1 comment:

  1. And here's how Virden's first year as a canner went. Exports to Europe appeared to be a big deal - good sales in the UK and France.