Sunday, October 27, 2013

Crossing the Boundary Between Modeling and History

As I've said over and over, one of the challenges of modeling the 1930's (or of doing family history) is that I can't just rely on experiences with my childhood or stories from friends to understand what San Jose, or the canning industry, or the agricultural industry was like. At some point, I've got to switch from an interested model railroader to an amateur historian, and I need to search out the documents that might explain what life was like.

I've already explained how documents on home loan redlining could tell me about the ethnicities in particular neighborhoods and fears of loan officers, but here's two more documents that are worth a glance.

Tenant Farmers: First is a study by the Commonwealth Club in the early 1930's about tenant farmers in different counties of California. (Commonwealth Club Tenancy Studies: April-June 1932, reported by R. L. Adams.) The first pages list the questions the club was asking, but generally, they were curious about whether renting land or owning land was better for the community. As a side note, they gave some nice, objective data about the agricultural industry in different areas.

For example:

The Amador valley of the region around Pleasanton is largely given over to tenant farming. Dairying is scattered throughout the lower and flatter irrigated lands. Hay and grain is dry-farmed in the valley and foothills... the so-called vegetable land is held by large companies and leased for sugar beet, beans, and the like. Vineyards are located to the south and southeast of Pleasanton. Almost without exception they are owner-operated...
The majority of tenants are to be found in the hay and grain sections. Closely following is the alfalfa land on which are run dairies... nationalities are as follows: Americans 50% - Foreign 50%. OF the american, quote a large percentage is of foreign extraction... Portuguese 40-60%, Scandinavian 20-30%, Italian 10-20%, German 5-15%, Asiatic: negligible. There is a very sparse sprinkling of Irish, and practically no Swiss.

For Alameda County and for the area around Hayward, the author notes that many of the farmers were Portuguese, and while some farms were tenant-owned, most of the fruit ranches were owned by the farmers.

Sadly, there's nothing on Santa Clara County, but it might be great data for understanding the farms and products for someone modeling another part of California.

How Do You Harvest Tomatoes? As much as we think of Santa Clara County canneries as preserving our apricots, peaches, and pears, tomatoes was also a common canning crop; as late as the 1960's, folks remember the smell of cooking tomatoes coming from Del Monte Plant #3 on San Carlos St. in San Jose. Now, I've commented on some of the process for processing fruit in the past, but how did tomatoes get handled? Here's the information - a contract for picking tomatoes in the Almaden Valley (San Vicente Ranch Contract for Picking Tomatoes, Los Gatos CA, August 31, 1927). Frank and John Joseph, probably the ranch managers for Harry Schumann's San Vicente Ranch, were contracting with C. M. Gomez to pick crops on McKean Road in the Almaden Valley, and they spell out both the process and the price:

"It is agreed that the party of the second part shall pick all the 1927 crop of tomatoes now growing on the Schumann ranch known as San Vicente ranch situated on the McKeen Rd. It is agreed that the picking shall be done in a clean manner and that no rotten or unfit tomatoes shall be placed in the boxes. It is agreed tomatoes shall be placed in boxes by party of the second part along wagon roads made through the tomato field by party of the first part.
It is agreed that as many pickings shall be made and at such times as the party of the first part shall designate. Also that party of the second part shall not harm tomatoes vines any more than is absolutely necessary in the picking operation.
It is agreed that parties of the first part shall pay party of the second part the sum of two dollars and sixty cents ($2.60) per net ton of tomatoes upon completion of the picking job. However if party of the second part should desire small advances to pay men or buy food, then party of the first part may make such advances at his pleasure."
These days, of course, tomatoes are all mechanized; the fields are swept in a single pass that pulls up all the vines, and the tomatoes are separated from the vines mechanically. The idea of multiple passes and "not harming the vines" makes the tomato harvest sound very manual and very hard.

But the neat thing is the document says a little about harvesting, and helps us guess at harvesting costs. Last year, I'd looked at that balance sheet for Farm Product Sales, and guessed they processed around 2200 tons of fresh tomatoes a year. FPS spent about $6600.00 to harvest their tomatoes; at $2.05/ton to pick and another $1.00/ton to get the tomatoes to the packing shed and packed for shipping, the 2200 ton guess is looking mighty reasonable.

Both these documents are mighty esoteric, and I don't really need to know any of this to run trains around my model railroad. However, they do help me understand the place I'm modeling and the people who were involved. Sometimes, that'll help with local color, such as choosing names for businesses; sometimes, it'll help to explain to folks why a particular ranch would have been similar to the one their Italian or Mexican grandparents rented or worked. Having those stories helps make the model railroad that much more special.

1 comment:

  1. BTW, the current name of the San Vicente Ranch property is probably the Rancho San Vicente, which was recently bought by the Peninsula Open Space Trust.