Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Buying Fruit at Wrights: San Tomas Drying Company

It's still true: all we often know about the San Jose dried fruit packing houses is how their baseball team scored, and why they got sued.

Wagons line up at Wrights Station to load and unload from boxcars.

Today's lesson on that subject comes from the San Tomas Drying Company, another dried fruit packer who appeared in city directories between 1900 and 1910, but left few other traces. Heck, they didn't even have a baseball team, so we don't get to see how they stacked up against J.K. Armsby or the Guggenhime crew.

But, luckily, they got sued, and that suit hints a little at life at the San Tomas Drying Company, as well as the life of the plaintiff - an orchardist up in the Santa Cruz Mountains at the turn of the century. When you see that photo of the boxcars loaded at Wrights with the names of the buyers emblazoned across them, the suit explains how those prunes got to those boxcars.

The specific case is Morrell vs San Tomas Drying Company. J.B. Morrell ran a large ranch up along Summit Road at the crest of the Santa Cruz Mountains - an awfully long way out in the hills, but luckily convenient to the former South Pacific Coast railway line at Wrights Station. Early in the 1907 season, Morrell succumbed to the sweet pleading of the San Tomas fruit buyer, who offered to buy his whole crop for $70 a ton (around 3 cents/pound). That price assumed that the prunes would come in at 75 per pound; if they were larger or smaller, the price would be adjusted up or down.

For San Tomas Packing Company, Henry Booksin Jr., son of a famous San Jose orchardist, signed the contract. Booksin also noted that the crop was going to be sold to Balfour Guthrie, a large British food importer (who, twenty years later, was trying to buy the Virden Packing canneries when Charles Virden's empire collapsed, so Morrell's prunes were probably going for export to feed the children of Europe.

The contract's a little scattered about exactly where the prunes needed to be delivered. First, it says Wrights, then it says San Jose:

"[buying] the entire crop of dried Fr. [french] prunes, season 1907, and estimated at 100 tons, and grown and dried in the orchard known as Morrell Ranch - Wrights, f.o.b. [freight on board - Morrell was responsible for loading] cars Wrights, tested at Wrights… All fruit to be sound and merchantable and well dried, free from slab, of choice quality, and delivered f.o.b. packing house, situated on the Infirmatory Road, Santa Clara Co., California, packed in sacks furnished by the buyer, original condition as taken from the drying yard…
"San Tomas Drying and Packing Company agrees to pay balance of purchase money as soon as delivery is completed and sizes determined. Delivery to be made as directed, final delivery before November 30, 1907."

One obvious question is the location of Booksin's packing plant, for the city directories only say it was on "Infirmatory Road", now Bascom Ave. Booksin addressed the contract as "Moulton's Switch, Santa Clara County", and indicated that the fruit would need to be delivered there. Now, Moulton's Switch helps us place San Tomas Packing, for Stillman Moulton ran a dried fruit packing house on Infirmatory Road in the late 1890's on some land he had next to the South Pacific Coast narrow gauge tracks. (A September 1, 1890 San Jose Evening News gives us details of the operation.) Period USGS maps show the likely location as the triangular lot at 1400 South Bascom in San Jose; it's now the home of a dated 1950's strip mall, but the USGS maps show signs of buildings and industries around the turn of the century.

So when the buyer gave Morrell the contract, he also handed over $1 to seal the deal, and then everyone waited for the harvest. And it wasn't too bad a year; after the drying was done, Morrell grabbed a bunch of teamsters and hauled 134,000 pounds of dried prunes down to the Wrights train station, then loaded them on the equivalent of five or six railroad cars.

But Morrell had actually harvested and dried 172,000 pounds. San Tomas Drying Company, with its bins already packed, asked Mr. Morrell to hang on to the rest of the prunes for a while… They went up to the Morrell Ranch in December, inspected the prunes, and said all but a ton were in fine shape, but again asked to hold off on taking the prunes until May because their bins were still full. Finally, in April 1908, San Tomas dances around for a bit, and says they're not willing to take the last ton of prunes. Morrell, fed up, sells the remaining prunes at auction, then sues San Tomas for the difference in the promised price and what they got at auction.

San Tomas Drying Company lost the suit - they'd promised to buy the crop and they didn't. Considering the times, it's possible to guess why they were being so ornery. 1906 had been a bad year for dried fruit as the Great San Francisco Earthquake destroyed packing houses and disrupted travel. Even with that, the crop came in larger than expected, and prices dropped from an expected 3.5 cents/pound to 2 cents a pound.

1907 was better, with some of the highest prices in memory for fruit. But a sulfur scare caused France and Pennsylvania to ban sulfured fruits, and even though the prohibitions were loosened within a year, prices for the 1908 crop were unbearably low. For Booksin, with his packing house full of fruit that might have been selling slowly, picking up additional fruit must have been an awful risk, especially as the 1908 crop approached.

I like this story best for the details about what it took to ship hundreds of tons of prunes out of the mountains. The packing house had to send up sacks, which would have to be hauled to the orchard. Fruit would have needed to be harvested, dried, sacked, and stored. Multiple wagon loads would have needed to haul all the fruit down from the ranch and over to the station to fill a freight car. The fruit would have been hauled down to the packing house and placed in bins for storage until sale, then it would have been pulled out, cleaned, boxed, and shipped out again. All this work would have been manual, with the sacks handled multiple times. In these pre-automobile days, just hauling all that fruit around must have been costly and tiring.

And those teamsters at Wrights were only the first ones to get tired.

This story also states an important lesson: if the packing house asks you to hold onto the fruit for a while because their bins are full, start looking around for other buyers.

No matter how good their baseball team might be.

[Photo of wagons at Wrights Station from History Los Gatos.]

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Santa Clara Valley's Other Great Booms

As interesting as the Santa Clara Valley fruit industry can be, there have been other booms in the Santa Clara Valley, and their stories are as good or better. Here's a few great links to the history of Silicon Valley: as the source of computer chips, microwave tubes and defense companies, or software.

Steve Blank's Secret History of Silicon Valley, told often through his experiences in the defense industry of the 1960's and 1970's. Steve's also well-known for his other stories about the chip and internet industries, as well as his ideas about startups and entrepreneurial spirit.

Not Even Silicon Valley Escapes History, from the Atlantic magazine. It's mostly focused on the toxic contamination left over from the early chip companies.

The Atlantic also generated a map of Silicon Valley based on a 1977 directory. It shows the offices of all the companies that came and went. Not surprisingly for its era, most of the former cannery districts - along Fourth Street or Auzerais Street in San Jose, in Campbell, or on the north side of San Jose - show no signs of tech life.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Mountain Fruit II: More Questions About the Machado Ranch

(See Part One for more on the Machado ranch.)

A couple days ago, I gave the capsule history of my great-grandparents' ranch above Hayward. There's three last points I want to mention, one railroad and fruit industry-related, and the other two just for my own curiosity.

  • First, where did Joe Machado sell his apricots?
  • Second: does it look like there's any evidence that the orchard was run commercially after Joe died in 1939?
  • Third: where exactly was the farmhouse on the property?

Where did Joe Machado sell his apricots? When asked about the fruit buyers, Carl Machado just remembers the buyers were big from big companies.

Interviewer: After the buyers bought them, would he come and pick them up, or did you take them to his warehouse?
Carl: We'd take them down to… I don't know where it was now, maybe the depot, ship them out.
Interviewer: And you'd take them there.
Carl: Yeah, we'd have to sack them up, buy sacks, burlap sacks, and sew 'em all up nicely and take them down to… the buyer, the warehouse, wherever it was. We had a team of horses at that time, and the last few years we had a team of horses bring them down in the wagon.

Now, the uncertainty about where the fruit went intrigued me. In San Jose, you couldn't throw a brick without hitting a dried fruit packer, so it wasn't hard to haul a wagonload of dried fruit a short distance to San Jose, or Campbell, or Los Gatos to the packer of your choice. The San Jose phone book, after all, had a separate section just for dried fruit packers. I'd also seen a comment about how the packers tried to keep receiving stations close to the farms so they were within a short wagon ride from the orchards.

Hayward didn't appear to have any dried fruit packing houses, and so when Carl mentioned hauling the fruit down to the depot, I imagined that perhaps they had to pay to ship the fruit to San Jose to one of the large buyers; taking the horse and wagon to San Leandro, Oakland, or San Jose would have been unbearable. We also know the fruit wasn't staying locally; the processors nearby were all canners, and we know Joe was drying his fruit.

I did a bit more searching, and found out there were two other ways that Hayward area farmers could get their crops to the packers.

First, there might not have been dried fruit packers in Hayward, but there was at least one in Niles, several miles away. An 1893 California Department of Horticulture report names the local farmer's cooperatives, and notes the existence of the "Niles Cooperative Fruit Association" at that time, with no co-ops further north. A August 23, 1913 California Fruit Grower magazine mentions that Ellsworth Packing in Niles had just shipped a carload of apricots to Hamburg, Germany, so perhaps some of Joe's apricots were in that boxcar. Ellsworth looks like they got swallowed up by the Schuckl cannery folks, for a 1918 Western Canner and Packer notes that Schuckl was leasing the Ellworth Packing Company's plant for use as a receiving station for California Prune and Apricot Growers (Sunsweet). Sunsweet's presence implies there may have been some Sunsweet growers in the Hayward area.

The other possibility is that the packers didn't have a permanent place, but did hang around Hayward when the fruit was coming in. Fremont's Tri-City Voice noted a 1891 newspaper article that explained:

Harvested fruit had to be marketed and shipped, so shipping depots were opened at the railroad station during the season by San Francisco firms. Ellsworth and Co. were the big shippers and handled most of the cherries.

Packers' representatives at Wrights station, 1893. From History Los Gatos.

If the California Packing Corporation or Rosenberg Brothers had bought fruit from farmers in the area, they may have just sent an agent out to the railroad depot where he could inspect and weigh the incoming fruit, and pay the farmer while shipping a carload back to the main warehouse. The well-known shot of boxcars on the siding at Wrights siding, each branded with the name of a separate packer, may have been displaying the temporary presence of each of the packers.

Was the orchard run commercially after Joe's death? All the stories I heard in childhood about the ranch made it sound like the orchard was in business right up until the suburbs intruded. I'd heard stories about how the trees were old, and keeping the orchard running would have meant replacing the trees, and I'd assumed that there had been serious thought of replacing the trees. I'd also heard plenty of stories about apricots on the ground, and assumed those were the ones that fell off before or after the harvest. However, Carl stated that they'd continued drying fruit for only a few years after Joe's death in 1939, but the kids lost interest in the work, and Carl didn't have the energy on his own to keep the business running.

Time lapse of changes on ranch in 1946, 1958, 1968, and 1979.
I asked family about this: did anyone remember the orchard actually running? All the stories I got back were that the trees were still there, but no one remembered commercial activity, just family and neighbors grabbing the occasional bucket of fruit.

Luckily, I do have a source to help get the truth: old aerial photos. Historic Aerials has photos of the ranch every ten years from around 1946. Looking at these (see the time-lapse photos to the right), I can see that the orchards were in good shape in 1946, but the trees disappeared or shrank by 1958, and many trees were gone completely by 1968, the year the orchard was sold for development. The last photo from 1979, ten years after the sale, shows nearly no trees remaining from the orchard. It sure looks like the ranch wasn't being run commercially by the 1950's. Our ranch wasn't unique; all the other orchards in the neighborhood disappeared at about the same rate. Dry-farming orchards in the East Bay Hills doesn't appear to have been a profitable post-war activity.

Where was the farmhouse?The only two photos I have of the house up at the ranch were the two in the last article, and there aren't many cues to figure out which way the photo was being taken. I always assumed the farmhouse was on the south end of the property, furthest from the road.

1946 aerial photo of ranch, with landmarks marked.

The aerial photos show I had that wrong - the farmhouse was on the west side of the property, shaded by eucalyptus lining the western end. This probably was a good arrangement in pre-air-conditioning days, with the farmhouse protected both from the hot afternoon sun and the winter winds. You can also see the dirt road winding up the hill from D Street / Quarry Road. The builders did a bunch of grading when they put the houses in; Google's satellite view shows large hillsides rising behind the homes on the west side of the property, so the correct location of my great-grandparents' farmhouse would be at about roof level of some of the houses halfway down the street.

Time to show the aerial photos to family, and see what memories they spur.

[Wrights Station photo from History Los Gatos. Aerial photos from Historic Aerials; captions are my own.]

Living History: Drying Some Apricots

And, of course, one of the drawbacks of researching the dried fruit industry is that at some point, you've got to try it yourself.

Exhibit A: a flat of drying apricots. Our friends Michelle and Jim have an extremely productive Blenheim apricot tree in their backyard. They kindly let me snag ten pounds of apricots, which got laid out on a homemade drying tray made of plastic pipe and plastic screen wire that was laying around. 24 hours in, the apricots are drying ok, but some clouds and cooler temperatures this evening had me watching the sky much as Joe Machado would have been doing on his drying yard a hundred years back.