Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Morgan Hill, As Seen From Shipping Receipts: Prunes, Wine, and Stove Pipes

Receipt for prunes shipped by E&J Bender from Morgan Hill to San Jose, 1896

I've had a couple articles here about how the dried apricots and prunes made it to the packing house; we learned about the San Tomas Drying Company and the trains coming down from Wrights, and we've heard about the packers having agents ready with train cars at Niles in the season. But were there other ways?

Through another EBay find, I've got some more details. Someone was selling a bundle of old shipping receipts from Morgan Hill in the 1890's; I've, of course, scanned them all and put them on Flickr. And in those receipts, we get a few answers about how orchardists got their prunes to the packers and eventually to the East Coast and Europe.

For example, E. and John Bender, local orchardists, had a pretty good season in 1896, with four loads of prunes being shipped from Morgan Hill in October. First,they shipped 456 sacks - 48,000 pounds of prunes on October 2, 1896, shipped on Central Pacific boxcar 19678 as inferred from a quick scribble. Then, 40,000 pounds of prunes on the 3rd in 600 boxes. On the fifth, 540 boxes of boxed and dried prunes for another 34,000 pounds on SP 1750. And finally, on October 7, they shipped 560 sacks of prunes - 53,500 pounds of prunes - out on SP 38626.

I didn't have an Official Railway Equipment Register to track down all these cars, but SP 38626 was a 33 foot ventilated boxcar with a 50,000 pound load limit. That car managed to survive until 1913 according to the 1913 ORER, but the rest of the cars didn't survive the additional fifteen years for us to identify.

So over four days, the Benders shipped around 200,000 pounds of prunes. That may seem like a lot, but if you poke around on the internet, you'll find that modern prune orchards can produce around 4 tons per acre. California currently averages around 2 tons of dried prunes per acre of prune orchard. With such numbers, the Benders would only have needed 50 acres worth of prunes to produce four freight cars worth of fruit.

For my grandfather's ten acres in Hayward, that means that every harvest season would produce around 40,000 pounds of apricots, and that's not including fruit dried at his yard but produced by neighbors. That would have been a lot of fruit to haul to the station in a horse-drawn wagon... and he was doing so in the 1920's.

All Bender's Morgan Hill prunes were going straight to Porter Brothers on Julian at Bassett Street, just west of the San Jose Depot. Porter Brothers was a Chicago-based wholesaler. The Binders must have been pretty happy clients of Porter Brothers, but hopefully they weren't selling fruit in 1903 when the company surprised Valley fruit men with a surprise bankruptcy.

There's occasional other details in those old receipts. The Binders also sold wine to Paul Masson in San Jose in 1896, though the receipts list them as puns. I'll leave it as a puzzle to you, the reader, to figure out what a pun is. There's also a bunch of household goods being shipped around, some to a George V. Herbert who doesn't appear to be the same as San Jose's own George N. Herbert. I'm also surprised at the number of tents and camping gear that appear in the shipping receipts; I suspect mid-September was a good time for vacationers returning from resorts like Sveadal, the Swedish society's campground in the hills.

Another cute detail are a few receipts from the Bisceglia Brothers for boxes of tomatoes - usually less than a thousand pounds - going to San Francisco and the California Canneries plant at Fourth and Townsend. The four Bisceglia brothers - Joseph, Alphonse, Bruno, and Pasquale - came to the U.S. in 1885 and, at least from the receipts, must have been farming by 1898. Like many immigrants, though, they worked their way up, starting their own cannery in Morgan Hill in 1903, and then moving the business to San Jose by 1913. The receipts not only catch them on their rise, but also highlight that the San Francisco (and probably San Jose canneries) were attracting fruit from many miles away. Importing fruit by railcar isn't that crazy an idea on my model railroad.

For my modeling, the receipts highlight just how much freight even a small depot like Morgan Hill would handle. If I ever wondered why railroad stations had such big freight depots, the idea of Bender's sacks of prunes and barrels of wine certainly explain the purpose. On my model railroad, I disregard the freight depot at Campbell, partially to avoid blocking a passing siding and partially because I didn't think there would be enough freight traffic to deserve blocking the siding with a boxcar. If I want to be able to load Bender's prunes, spotting the occasional boxcar against the depot might be worthwhile.

Check out the full set of receipts and see what you can learn about Morgan Hill at the turn of the century, and add your comments to the scans there. And if you figure out what a 'pun' is, throw your guess in the comments here.


  1. Might the tents etc be housing for the pickers?

    1. Charlene, that would make an awful lot of sense. A few of the tent shipments were from Poncelett (sp? Porceletti?); one even went to San Jose Awning and Tent Co.: http://www.flickr.com/photos/47871268@N02/12889047643/in/photolist-kCXJPn

      So I guess we're seeing the 1890's side of "The Grapes of Wrath", with landowners renting or borrowing tents for workers, then returning them to rental places at the end of the season. The receipt I linked to was from August 23 - a reasonable time, I suppose for the prune harvest.

  2. Summer camp is looking more likely. The April 21, 1902 San Jose Evening News has an ad for the “Mountain Home on Llagas Creek”. “An Ideal Summer Resort: Health, pleasure, swimming, dancing, and hunting. New dance pavilion. The table unsurpassed. Send for circular. Stage at Madrone every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday, connecting with the train leaving San Jose at 11:05 am.

    Poncelet was also the postmaster of Llagas; he died in 1906.

  3. Link to ad: