Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dried Fruit Packing Houses of Santa Clara Valley

Ok, it’s time to replace Abinante and Nola, the dried fruit packing plant on San Carlos St. at the Los Gatos branch railroad tracks. The old model went in soon after the layout was built, but I've decided it's time to replace it with a model that actually looks like the real packing house.

Luckily, I have a couple pictures of what the packing house looks like, but to make sure I got the details right, I did a quick sweep over all the packing houses I knew about. Looking at all those packing houses, I remembered how the "typical" dried fruit packer in the Valley differed from my idea of a "typical" 20th century industrial building. With all that detail in my head, it seemed like a great time to share some of those observations of what a classic packing house of the Santa Clara Valley looked like.

In the Santa Clara Valley, dried fruit packing houses took the already-dried fruit from growers, usually in large sacks or (later) in huge boxes, sorted the fruit by size, washed and processed the fruit for sale, and boxed or bagged the fruit for export. Fruit usually went back east or abroad. Each packing house also needed a way to store the fruit, both unprocessed and ready for sale. Packing houses usually required bins for the unprocessed fruit, warehouse space for the bagged and boxed fruit, storage for the empty boxes and shook (box materials), and room in between for the women and men to sort and pack the fruit. Life at the packing house, though, was less frenetic than in the canneries; because the dried fruit wouldn’t spoil, the plant didn’t have to rush to deal with the just-arrived fruit, and the workers stayed employed longer.

Early Years: 1880 - 1890: Any Covered Shed Will Do

Dried fruit packing houses in the Valley evolved a great deal during the Valley of Hearts’ Delight orchard years. The earliest plants before 1890 only show up as a collection of sheds on available land, built to handle the small quantities of fruit being dried and their builder's concerns about whether this dried fruit thing was going to be a hit.

Porter Brothers

Bassett St, 1884

Roper Fruit Packing Depot

Terraine St., 1891

A preferred neighborhood was around San Jose's broad gauge railroad station on Bassett Street, just north of downtown, with easy access to the Southern Pacific freight depot for shipping. Porter Brothers, a Chicago grocery wholesaler, had a "fruit packing depot" on the southeast corner of Julian and Bassett in San Jose in 1884 that was little more than a collection of sheds. Spencer I. Roper, on Julian at Terraine, also shows up in the 1891 Sanborn map as a collection of sheds and that same "Packing Depot" title over the door.

Other plants appeared a bit more substantial. L. G. Sresovich, on San Pedro south of Bassett, had a mix of one-story buildings and sheds, including a long low building along one edge of the property listed as "drying crates" on the 1891 Sanborn map. Other packing houses existed out in the countryside in rude sheds near the orchards. Lossckuhn and Larger, which appears to be one of the many names for a company run by A.C. Kuhn and H.E. Losse over the years, was just north of the railroad tracks on the east side of San Pedro St., and received a complimentary and unusual "substantial and well-painted" annotation from the Sanborn map author.

Steady Business: Borrow an Existing Building

By 1890, the dried fruit business looked like it was going to be a big deal, so the packing houses in the next decade were built with some expectation of lasting more than a season. These were the garages for Santa Clara Valley fruit startups - simple single-story wood-frame structures or sheds, either reusing or imitating existing commercial buildings, warehouses, or barns.

Start and Morrison packing house and dryer

Alum Rock Ave., 1890's

Herbert Packing Co. in 1896

Moorpark and Lincoln Ave., San Jose

Start and Morrison's dryer out on Alum Rock Road (pictured) had a couple of frame structures on the edge of the drying yard, all in the style of buildings back in town. George Herbert's Herbert Packing Co. and the Santa Clara Valley Fruit Company, both around Moorpark and Lincoln in San Jose, had near-identical single-story buildings with their very fashionable false fronts to show their high standing. Both may have been built for the company, but they resembled every other barn-like business in town.

Santa Clara Valley Fruit Co. in 1896

Paula And Northrup St, San Jose

Central Santa Clara Fruit Co.

Campbell Ave., (built pre-1905)

Others repurposed other buildings. The Central Santa Clara Fruit Company, starting around 1902, simply took over a nearby livery stable and used it for packing and warehousing. A & C Ham's first warehouse was simply their existing bacon and ham warehouse. Others packers just moved into the existing grain warehouses - large warehouses intended for storage of the entire crop til it could be shipped eastward. Inderrieden's warehouse at 200 Ryland Street had been a produce and grain warehouse in 1891, but was appropriated for dried fruit by 1893.

J.Z. Anderson packing house

Cinnabar St. (built 1890's)

Campbell Fruit Growers' Union

Later site of Hyde Cannery (built 1890's)

Others built the warehouse that best suited their purposes, and ensured there was warehousing space, easy access for wagons from the drying yards, and rail access for shipping the crop out. J.Z. Anderson’s “packing house” on Cinnabar Street was pretty much only a warehouse on an odd shaped lot in 1891, according the Sanborn map but with its own rail spur. The drying yard behind Anderson's mansion shows some random buildings but nothing substantial. The Campbell Fruit Growers’ Union plant (which would eventually become the Hyde Cannery) shows a slightly more substantial building, but with some thought on efficiency. The bay window at the office area hints that the plants were starting to worry about how to deal with the firehose of fruit coming their way at the peak of the season.

Joshua Cozzens drying yard

Willow Glen, 1896

The other model was to match what was already used out on the farm, and go for the large, barn-like structure. William Wright Cozzens had been running a fruit drying operation in "the Willows" (Willow Glen) since 1879, and had obviously prospered. Pen Pictures from the Garden of the World, or Santa Clara County, California has a drawing of Cozzen's drying yard. Cozzens bucked the trend with a three story building, looking more like a city warehouse than a small barn (see right).

William's brothers, John and Joshua, went for the less monumental. They leased 500 acres at the edge of current Willow Glen at Kirk Road and Dry Creek Road, where they harvested apricots, peaches and prunes. Their ranch producted three million pounds of "green" (undried) fruit in 1895; photos of the ranch in "Sunshine Fruit and Flowers" shows the much more conservative roofed shelter and acres of fruit flats.

1890 - 1900: Building With Brick.

Santa Clara County Fruit Exchange,

Sunol St. (built 1892)

Brick was also a common choice for purpose-built warehouses, often designed along the same lines as the grain warehouses around the Valley. The Castle Brothers brick warehouse on San Carlos Street was built in 1892, and had actually started life as a grain warehouse. The building burned in 1899, only to be replaced by a wooden packing plant in the early 1900's. Santa Clara Valley Fruit Exchange’s plant on Sunol Street, a few blocks away, similarly had that long brick warehouse look, though it was purpose-built in 1892 for the Exchange according to plans mentioned in the July 16, 1892 Pacific Rural Press, and intended to be substantial and two-story. The Griffin and Skelley dried fruit warehouse built before the turn of the century was also brick, as seen from photos of the plant in "South Pacific Coast: A Centennial". Way down south in Edenvale, next to the Hayes Mansion, the Edenvale Packing Company built their packing house out of brick as late as 1903. (Anyone ever see a picture of Edenvale Packing in its later incarnation as Richmond Chase's plant? It burned down in 1952, so it should have been a visible sight along Monterey Highway for many travelers.)

These brick warehouses probably had their advantages - even temperatures, and a ready supply of building materials from local brick makers. The most important, "fire-proof", turned out not to be so true. When fire touched the Santa Clara Valley Fruit Exchange in 1915 (then occupied by Rosenberg Brothers), the flames quickly caused the building to collapse into a pile of hot bricks. The common belief that the building could "withstand fire easily" turned out to be untrue.

And if all that wasn't enough to dissuade the use of brick, a quick glance at the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake probably encouraged packers to consider alternate materials.

1900 - 1920: Purpose-Built for Dried Fruit

Madison and Bonner Packing

Evelyn St., Sunnyvale, built ~1902

Guggenhime Packing Plant #17

Julian and Pleasant St., San Jose (built before 1915)

Around 1900, the size of the typical packing house grew immensely as new, purpose-built plants appeared. These plants, if anything, resembled huge barns like the Cozzens packing house more than anything else. The usual arrangement for these new plants was with three interior levels. When fruit arrived, it would be carted up in an elevator to the top floor where it would be sorted by size and dropped in large bins. On lower floors, the fruit would be hauled out and packed for sale. I can imagine lots of reasons for the new design:

  • Ten times more fruit produced. In 1890, California produced 16.2 million pounds of fruit. In 1902, the crop came in at 195 million pounds. Storing all that fruit required an order of magnitude more space.
  • Changes in processing and in branding. Before the turn of the century, prunes were often sold in 200 pound sacks, and a lack of branding meant that packers had little incentive to keep quality high and get repeat sales. By the turn of the century, packers started being more careful of quality, and packing in branded 25 pound boxes probably gave them a chance at premium prices with a brand known for quality. All that extra packing work required more space for boxes and the hordes of workers. (Actually, I'm not sure of this fact - I've seen comments about brand awareness being important in the 1900-1910 time frame, but don't know when boxed fruit started appearing.)
  • Changes in machinery. With electricity, multi-story plants were possible, with elevators lifting the fruit to the top of the bins.

E.E. Thomas

San Carlos Street at Race (built before 1896)

The earliest example of one of these buildings I've seen is E.E. Thomas's dryer at San Carlos Street at Race in San Jose. E.E. Thomas is interesting both because it's the first multi-story packing house I've seen (and close to the same age as Cozzens's warehouse-like barn), and because of it's odd set of rooflines and additions. I've bitched in the past about fantastical model railroad building kits with more rooflines than the Winchester Mystery House, but E.E. Thomas shows that there's a prototype for that busy look. It's not going on my model railroad, though.

George Herbert packing house

Lincoln Ave., San Jose (built 1901)

J.K. Armsby Packing House

Cinnabar St., San Jose (???)

But E.E. Thomas was only the first; there were plenty of examples of multi-story packing houses around the Valley in the heyday of the prune. George Herbert's packing house on Lincoln Ave. was a particular large example, built in 40 days in 1901 after a disastrous fire burned the previous packing house on July 30, 1901). Herbert's plant was bought by Sunsweet, and later photos show it plastered with a huge Sunsweet logo. J.K. Armsby, one of the precursors to Del Monte, built their dried fruit packing house on Montgomery St. in the early 1900's. Madison and Bonner built their packing house in Sunnyvale in 1902. J.Z. Anderson's warehouse was gone by 1903, replaced by a multi-story packing house used by Castle Brothers on the lot on Cinnabar St. We know it was multi-story because an employee was badly injured in the elevator in October, 1903.

Pacific Fruit Products

San Carlos St. San Jose (built 1903)

The Pacific Fruit Products plant appeared around 1903 next to the "narrow gauge" Santa Cruz line at 740 West San Carlos St. in San Jose. Pacific Fruit Products's building is the one I'll eventually model, though for a different occupant. That particular lot went through a chain of occupants, starting with the Ernst Luerning company. Luerning changed the name of the company to Pacific Fruit Products some time before 1914, I assume to avoid the anti-German backlash of World War I. Luerning started packing for Sunsweet when the cooperative was formed in 1917, then eventually sold out to Sunsweet in 1922 as they were trying to control packing costs. The plant then appears as the home of Higgins-Hyde Packing in the late 1920's, and when that company aroused the wrath of the whole valley in the summer of 1932, they disappeared and were replaced by J.S. Roberts, the company owned by their former vice-president. Abinante and Nola took over the space in the mid-1940's; Vince Nola remembers that his father liked the building on San Carlos Street best because there was plenty of space for trucks to drop off fruit. The plant disappeared in the late 1950's, and currently is a rather tiny lot used by a roofing company. The chain of owners isn't surprising; researching any of the Valley properties results in many stories of companies failing during hard times, or expanding to bigger sites in good years, or disappearing all-together when the owner retired or died.

Guggenhime had a row of three packing houses near Julian St. and Pleasant St. in San Jose, just southwest of the old Market Street depot. Guggenhime had a bloodthirsty elevator, too. Dangerous business, prunes. The Mountain View Fruit Exchange built their three story plant in 1906. J. K. Armsby had a plant off Cinnabar St. in the northern portion of San Jose. Campbell had the Farmer's Union, built in 1913; Gem City Packing (the future Sewall Brown plant) built their packing house at Vasona in 1913.

Mountain View Fruit Exchange

(built 1906)

Farmer's Union Packing Co.

Campbell (built 1913)

The Sunsweet plant at Mountain View deserves some more comment. The original packing house on the site was the Mountain View Fruit Exchange, which used a former grain warehouse. When that building collapsed in the 1906 Great San Francisco Earthquake, the owners rebuilt within three months, and changed the arrangement from a low one-story warehouse to the three-story, grader-at-the-top plan. The 1908 Sanborn map shows the grader on the top floor, and a separate sulfur house. The Mountain View Fruit Exchange building had a separate "facing room" building adjacent to the main three story building, which I suspect was a better-lit room for doing fancier packing of boxes so that the opened box would appear more appealing with carefully arranged fruit.

With all the lumber available, it’s not surprising these were often all-wood, though some buildings (like Farmers' Union, Mountain View Packing, and J. K. Armsby) were corrugated iron. A 1915 Sanborn map shows that Del Monte's Plant #3 (on Auzerais St.) had a dried fruit packing plant in a three story corrugated iron building on the property, with the usual grader on the 3rd floor, processing on the second, and a warehouse on the first.

The 1890's era packing house was little more than a large warehouse, but the 1900's era was heading straight into "dried fruit factory" territory. The Mountain View Fruit Exchange's former grain warehouse did have a small wood-powered "dryer" in one corner, but most plants weren't that sophisticated. The 1900's era plants, however, each had a boiler (for hydration and cleaning), an oil tank to fuel the boiler. Those oil tanks weren't inconsequential; five thousand gallon tanks were often mentioned, usually in comments about the source of the fuel fanning a packing house blaze hours after the packing house was gone.

Many packing houses also had a "sulfur house" or "processing room" on the second floor of the plant. I've heard the sulphuring was for apricots to brighten the color; I'd assumed the sulfuring occurred before drying, but the sulfur rooms' appearances in each packer suggest that an extra treating with sulfur helped make the fruit look more tasty. The Pacific Fruit Products sulfur room hung off the south end of the building, suspended off the third floor. The above photo of J.K. Armsby's plant probably shows a similar sulfur room hanging off the second floor. The Mountain View Fruit Exchange plant had the sulfur room in a separate but attached building.

Even with this laundry list of packing houses, there's still many plants I'm not mentioning: Los Gatos Cured Fruit Company (company founded 1904, three stories, wood), H.D. Curtis in Los Gatos, and the Morgan Hill Farmer's Union (wood, built in 1911, photo in the Sunsweet Story). There's also plenty of packing houses without photos that probably fit this model - the George Frank packing house on Paula St. where they had orchestras playing in the packing room to keep the workers happy!

Warren Dried Fruit

Ryland St., San Jose

Only two of these plants survived to modern times. The Madison and Bonner plant in Sunnyvale became part of Del Monte's empire, though the building was moved across Evelyn St. and into downtown Campbell. That building is now the "Del Monte Building" on Murphy Street. The Farmers' Union Packing Company in Cambell became Sunsweet's Plant #1 in 1917, and exists today repurposed as office buildings. Sunsweet Plant #1 also served as a bar and site for live music in the 1960's and 1970's.

1918 - 1940 Modern and Fireproof

Somewhere in the 'teens, the idea of wooden packing houses fell out of favor. New plants were instead concrete or concrete and brick. Castle Brothers at Cinnabar and Montgomery built a reinforced concrete packing house after a 1913 fire destroyed the previous plant. (Castle Brothers deserves an award for "most likely to be burned out, with A&C Ham and the Rosenberg Brothers fighting for second place.) According to a 1915 Sanborn map, their new fireproof building flipped the typical arrangement with fruit bins on the lower floor and packing on the upper floors. The plant continued as Richmond Chase Plant #2 after a sale in 1918.

The Santa Clara Society of California Pioneers have some nice aerials from 1941 that shows the Castle Brothers plant, looking like a bit of an afterthought. Most of the building is a single-story warehouse, but an inset second floor looks like an oddly-shaped box that someone dropped on top. Compared to the other buildings in the neighborhood - the Richmond-Chase cannery next door, Greco Canning on Montgomery, or the huge FMC plant across the creek, it looks puny, built for a less-productive era.

A&C Ham's 1917 Packing House

as seen on Sanborn map

A & C Ham on Cinnabar Street rebuilt their burned-out packing house as a modern three-story concrete packing house; they followed the traditional model of grading at the top, storage in the middle, and warehousing and shipping on the ground floor as seen in later Sanborn maps. Bob Morris captured some nice photos of the modern, concrete packing packing house and its warehouse, showing how much the scale of packing houses had grown between the turn of the century and the end of World War I. Their plant also shows up in the 1941 aerial photo (when it was another outpost of Sunsweet), and the three-story modern concrete building sticks up above all the lingering farmhouses, empty lots, and occasional low-rise industrial buildings in the neighborhood. These days, when the whole area around Cinnabar Street is a single mass of 1950's warehouses, the photos look positively empty.

Hamlin Fruit

Sunol St. (built 1920's?)

O. A. Harlan's packing house at Margaret and 4th Streets in San Jose, built in 1918, was concrete with a separate sulfur house. Harlan sold it soon after construction to Sunsweet, which called it Plant #17, and continued to use it through at least 1950. The site now sits under the 280 Freeway. Hamlin Fruit’s concrete building at 631 Sunol St. (probably built in the 1920's and later used by Mayfair and then Abinante and Nola) shows what could be done at a smaller scale. In Hamlin Fruit’s case, the grading machinery was still in a mezzanine.

Del Monte Plant #51

Bush St., San Jose (built 1926)

Del Monte centralized most of its dried fruit packing on Bush St. in San Jose in 1926, which doomed some of the corporation's local receiving stations such as the former Madison and Bonner plant in Sunnyvale. The new building, built in Del Monte's corporate style, was two story brick with high ceilings. The southern end of the plant, in what I've heard was the former Griffin and Skelley plant, contained a row of sulfur rooms. Del Monte continued with the style of grading, processing, and storage bins on the second floor, with packing and warehousing on the first according to the 1950 Sanborn map.

1940 - : Modern tilt-up

Mayfair Packing, South 10th St., San Jose

Sunsweet Plant #7

7th and Alma, San Jose

During the 1930's, drying yards became less important as mechanical drying took off, and after World War II, mechanical drying and industrial processes were the way to do things. Plants grew as the process became more industrialized. Both Mayfair Packing (on South 10th Street) and Sunsweet's main plant on 7th and Alma fit this model, and match most other tilt-up buildings in industrial parks across California.

Those Changes Over Time

Looking at all the packing houses together like this, it's easy to see both how the Valley changed over time. Because the style of buildings was changing so much, it's easy to see how the simple choice of building shape or material really defines the time it belongs in, and why being judicious about those model railroad structures is so important for making the scene real.

The packing house I'm building - either Higgins-Hyde or J.S. Roberts, depending on the year - will be one of those three-story, all wood buildings. I can get some details from that one 1930 era photo, but with all the others, I have a hope of filling in some of the additional detail that might make the scene perfect. The Madison and Bonner photo above hints at some of that - the chutes from upper floors to get rid of culled fruit, pits, and other debris, the cyclone blower built on a wooden tower, the large and clutered loading dock, and the nicely tended plants around the building.

My biggest surprise from all of this, though, is how distinctive the dried fruit packing houses of the Valley were. These buildings don't look like the valley towns around Fresno, and don't look like the citrus sheds of Southern California. Instead, they're distinctive and unusual to my eyes. Sometimes, they even seem oddly out of place (as with the Guggenhime plant that look like a picture out of New York City with the towering warehouses and narrow alley). But now that I know the style of a Santa Clara Valley packing house, I want to make sure my model reminds folks of how the Valley really looked.

[Photos of Start and Morrison, J.Z. Anderson, Campbell Fruit Growers Union, Herbert Packing, Santa Clara Valley Fruit Company, and Santa Clara County Fruit Exchange from "Sunshine Fruit and Flowers". Farmers Union Packing Co. and George Herbert packing house from "Sunsweet Story" by Robert Couchman. Del Monte Plant #51 and Hamlin Fruit photos by author. Pacific Fruit Products and Guggenhime plant photos from John C. Gordon photos from San Jose Public Library. Mountain View Packing photo cribbed from old EBay auction. Warren Dried Fruit from San Jose Public Library. Madison and Bonner plant from Sunnyvale Historical Society. Central Santa Clara Fruit Co. from "Campbell: The Orchard City".]


  1. Great info thanks! Love the NMRA Magazine article too. Do you know where I can find info on buildings and packing houses between Bakersfield and Fresno around 1979-1985?

    1. I'd check the Jim Lancaster's "Packing Houses of the Central Valley" website: He shared lots of photos and in some places shared track arrangements.

      You might also want to get in touch with Rick Watson in Tempe; he's modeling the SP Exeter branch in the 1980's, and built models of several modern packing houses around Dinuba, Sanger, Reedly, Exeter, and Lindsay.

      Arcadia Press books and other collections of local photos are also great sources for research, though they don't always capture the non-photogenic packing houses along the railroad tracks.