Thursday, May 16, 2013

Rosenberg Brothers Burns Again

One of the easiest ways to spot a dried fruit packing plant back in the day was to look for things on fire, for it seemed like the things were spontaneously combusting on a regular basis. Doing searches on "packing house fire" on Google News Archive or the California Digital Newspaper Collection turns up quite a selection of infernos from inside and outside California, though there's plenty of perils-of-packing-house stories from within California to keep me busily reading. (Examples? How about this, this, this, or this?)

I'd mentioned last time how one of the big non-cooperative packers, Rosenberg Brothers, got burned out of their building on Ryland Street in San Jose back in late 1906. They ended up moving down along the "narrow gauge" on Sunol Street for the next ten years to the areas which I model. Then, in 1917, they turn up in the "hopefully less inflammatory" Santa Clara. I was being a bit cheeky with that comment, but didn't realize how right I was.

After the 1906 fire, Rosenberg Brothers moved to an unnamed site on San Carlos Street for the 1907 season according to a contemporary city directory, but ended up in 1908 on Sunol Street near Auzerais - an address that didn't match any packing houses I knew of. That corner was starting to get busy, with the future Del Monte cannery on the northeast corner, a Standard Oil depot on the southwest corner, but no known large industries on the other two corners. With some additional searches, I found a clue - a search for "packing house fire" turned up a news story noting that the new plant burned in August, 1915. The most detailed story is the August 7, 1915 San Jose Evening News article, which declares that the fire started in a "huge pile of apricot pits near the railroad track."   The resulting flames spread into the brick packing house, and in spite of the firewalls, turned it into a pile of very hot bricks by the next morning.  Except, of course, for the fire still burning in the remains of the underground fuel oil tank:

At noon today 5000 gallons of fuel oil were burning in an underground tank near the ruined packing house.  The burning oil sent smoke hundreds of feet in the air, casting a gloomy pall over the whole country around the site of the fire.
It didn't help that the plant was outside the city limits, and thus wasn't protected by San Jose's fire department. Those cheaper property taxes also come with less services, which must have been sub-optimal when your business is rapidly becoming carbonized. I don't know if the packing houses were out here because of proximity to the growers, less traffic, better rail access, or cheaper taxes, but access to fire departments seems like more than a "nice to have" when picking locations for a packing house.
H. M. Barngrover, manager of the packing company, says he notified the San Jose fire department very shortly after the fire broke out, but that no engine was on the ground for several hours.
Chief Haley says that since the fire was far out of the San Jose district, the packing company manager should have at once taken up the matter with the mayor or with Haley, and should not have expected the firemen to answer the call until either the chief or the mayor had been notified…
It's worth mentioning that the manager, H.M. Barngrover - Harvey M. Barngrover - was another one of the Valley fruit industry men who keeps popping up over and over - it was a small valley even then for folks in the industry, whether that industry was prunes or web browsers. Harvey had been a vice president at Anderson Barngrover, the equipment manufacturer which became FMC in 1907, and I assume he'd been the namesake for the Barngrover part of that business. He headed over to manage the Rosenberg Brothers packing house some time before 1910, and left to be a cannery manager after 1918.)

FIREBUG CONFESSES TO I.W.W. PLOT The total loss from the 1915 fire was reported as $350,000. And fires like this didn't just happen from carelessness.  My original hint about the fire came from a Sausalito News report in September that a Wobbly - a supporter of the International Workers of the World, and the terrorist boogeyman of a hundred years ago - confessed to having lit the fire as part of a chain of actions against big business.

Deserted by Pals, Weak From Hunger, Man Surrenders to Watsonville Officer
Watsonville: James McGill, a man with a shifting eye and a face which betokens at least a weak character and mind, who declares he is a nurse by profession, but more recently has been engaged in the I. W. W. campaign of terrorism throughout Central California, surrendered himself to the police here on September 24 and made a confession which is believed to be true by local officers....
...he pled guity to setting fire to a grain warehouse at Lodi about ten days ago...planned the destruction of the George Hooke cannery on Walker Street [in Watsonville]... McGill had a part in the destruction of the Rosenberg Brothers cannery at San Jose on August 26...McGill declares his part in the affair was the stealing of some waste from a boxcar in the Southern Pacific yards in San Jose which was used in starting the blaze... set fire to a big lumber yard [in Anderson]."

There's some odd and incorrect facts there - the wrong date for the fire [Thanks, Sausalito News, for wasting a half hour of my life trying to find a mention of the fire around that date], and the description of the Rosenberg Brothers plant as a cannery rather than a dried fruit packing house. But if you were going to go to central casting to find a character to play the dissolute socialist torching our capitalist institutions, you'd be awfully happy with Mr. McGill and his "shifting eye... and weak character and mind."

The nice thing about the San Jose Evening News is their political bent was just a teensy bit less conservative. They labelled themselves as the "friend of the grower" in one editorial, and their only vice appeared to be baiting E. A. and J.O Hayes, the publishers of the Mercury Herald editor of the Mercury Herald and potential candidate for governor (and son).

Santa Clara County Fruit Exchange But I'm curious about where Rosenberg had relocated, and whether they were in the collection of buildings that would eventually host Del Monte, or if they were in some other building I hadn't known about. The Evening News reminds us that the building had been the Santa Clara County Fruit Exchange, one of the early dried fruit co-operatives, and a plant I'd never located. The article narrows the building's location a bit more, noting that the packing house itself was on Sunol Street, and too close for comfort to the Standard Oil depot (the brick buildings you still see at Auzerais and Sunol) and across the street from the Santa Clara Valley Mill and Lumber yard at Sunol and San Carlos. All this suggests the plant was on the west side of Sunol. The 1915 Sanborn maps can't confirm this, for they don't show anything along Sunol St. Later maps show the block of San Carlos, Sunol, Auzerais, and Lincoln as mostly occupied by the Peninsular Railway interurban yard north of the Western Pacific tracks, but those 1939-era aerial photos from U.C. Santa Cruz show some . I'd assumed this was virgin land, but if the Sanborn maps had been scouted after the fire, I'd imagine the demise of the packing house would have left quite a big void on the map.

It's too bad the packing house disappeared, for it sounds like a substantial and interesting building, purpose-built for storing dried fruit. The July 16, 1892 Pacific Rural Press even reported on the creation of the Fruit Exchange and the plans for the new building: "The " Exchange Buildings "will most probably be fireproof, two-story brick, contain the best modern appliances for grading and packing fruit." Well, maybe not "most probably".

The photos above (from the Sunsweet Story by Robert Couchman) show that the plant was like in its early days; unlike most of the industrial photos of the day, it looks like a pretty nice neighborhood with the trees along Sunol Street bordering the lumberyard, and a warm summer day "let's hang out on the loading dock" kind of feel. If I was modeling the early 1900's, I'd be desperate to know whether the plant was ever served by rail, but unfortunately the Sanborn maps before 1915 don't extend out beyond the city limits to hint at the arrangement of the plant.

The photos also hint at the arrangement of the plant: the long warehouses extended north-south along Sunol St. A boilerhouse, separate from the main warehouse, sat along the railroad tracks close to the intersection of Auzerais and Sunol. The pile of apricot pits must've been somewhere close to the boiler house and tracks, potentially behind the boiler house to the left.

So, yes, I was right. Rosenberg Brothers probably left for Santa Clara because San Jose was way too hot for their packing houses. After losing two packing houses in ten years (with one certainly undeserving of its fireproof label), I'm certain they cut their losses and moved somewhere safer.

Rosenberg Brothers History Rosenberg Brothers survived quite a long time for a fruit packer in California. They were founded in 1893 to pack and ship fruit from California. There really were Rosenberg brothers: Max, Abraham, and Adolph, and the last of the brothers died in 1931 leaving behind a chain of packing houses throughout California and Oregon. The Sunsweet Story labels them as the "most successful of the speculative packers" in the late 1920's, working outside the California Prune and Apricot Growers co-op system, sometimes in rather tense relations. Rosenberg Brothers lasted as an independent company until 1947 when they were bought by Consolidated Grocers. They finally disappeared as a concern in 1957; San Jose's own Mayfair Packing bought the dried fruit and walnut operations, and Bonner Packing (the Fresno-based remnant of the company that built the Del Monte Building in Sunnyvale) brought the raisin business in the Fresno area.

[Two historic photos from Sunshine Fruit and Flowers, an 1896 valley booster book. I copied the photos from the Sunsweet Story by Robert Couchman, which reprinted them but cropped out the railroad tracks at the bottom of the photo which cut diagonally across the street, hiding the best clue about the location of the warehouse. Aerial photo from a 1939 photo from U.C. Santa Cruz's aerial photo collection, originally taken by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Captions by me.]

1 comment:

  1. And yeah, the aerial photo's labelled wrong. The "Guggenhime" circle marks what I think is the former site of Rosenberg Brothers / Santa Clara Valley Fruit Exchange. Seems odd that it wasn't built on thirty years later, but about the same time it burned, the Western Pacific cut through the property to get to its downtown San Jose freight terminal. When I was leafing through old deeds, I thought I saw one for Abinante and Nola buying land on Sunol St. Perhaps WP bought the land in 1915 and kept waiting for a chance to sell it to an industry, but never found a buyer?