Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Setting the Scene: How the People, the Equipment, and the Containers Describe an Industry

So here’s a fun photo from the John C. Gordon collection at San Jose State: a photo of the California Packing Corporation’s plant #21 at Milpitas. The photo probably dates from the twenties or early thirties, I expect, and gives a lot of detail about both the workforce and the plant.

Now, there’s a bunch of interesting bits worth examining in this photo.

The workforce looks like it’s half men and half women, with the men primarily in coveralls and women primarily in white. There’s no obvious management; there’s a couple guys who look cleaner than the others - one in a jacket, and a couple with shirts and pants - but you don’t see the guys in suits or the owners like you’ll often see in the photos of a cannery. The men mostly look anglo; although there’s a few faces that look Italian or Portuguese, most look anglo. The women, however, seem to go more for that southern European look - I’m seeing a lot of faces from old family photos here.

Next: what’s with those cranes, and what’s that wilted stuff that’s on the truck and its attached wagon? My initial guess was that it’s bringing in some sort of plant where processing the crop in the field is too labor-intensive. One possibility is that they’re some tiny crop - maybe peas. Or maybe they’re the tops of plants that went to seed. There’s mention that there were seed farms in Milpitas, so perhaps Del Monte was letting the plants flower, cutting them down, then threshing the seeds out in the plant here? The cranes might be used for bringing in the whole plant - the whole plant would be cut down in the field, brought here to the packing house. You can also see some sort of hoppers located in the wall along the right loading dock, with wheelbarrow-sized openings to pour something into.

While we’re at it, how about that truck and trailer, and those cool wooden wagon wheels?

And finally, if you look along the loading docks, you’ll see an interesting mix of containers. Towards the center of the photo, you’ll see a stack of what look like trays, and then, just to the left, you’ll see some shiny objects. That’s tin cans, fresh from the can factory. They’re stacked up, with wooden sheets separating each layer of cans. Although there’s a lot of cans there, the pile of the separating trays, off to the right is even more impressive, suggesting it’s been a busy canning season.

Now I’ve never thought much about how cans get to the cannery. I’ve heard my dad’s story of a summer spent at either the Hunts cannery in Hayward or the Del Monte plant in San Leandro grabbing cans out of boxcars with a long stick with metal fingers spaced out a can’s width apart. That was in the 1950’s. It looks like in these earlier times - or at this lower-volume cannery - the cans arrived in a more primitive way.

Then you’ll see lug boxes for bringing in the crop, and a sign above the door that I’m sure says “POSITIVELY NO SMOKING”, and some sacks of something. And finally, at the far left, some Del Monte product boxes, all labeled “SUGAR PEAS”.

And the mystery is solved. The Milpitas plant was canning sugar peas on this day. The pea plants got cut down in the field and pitchforked up onto wagons, then hauled to the cannery where the cranes tipped the wagons and their loads onto the loading dock. The hoppers are actually the input side of the viners, which would strip the pods from the vines and the peas from the pods. The peas would go in the lug boxes, then be carried into the cannery for cooking and canning. The cans are there on the dock ready to put into the machinery. When the product was canned, the result would go in the nice wooden crates at the left.

There’s even a video confirming this; Del Monte filmed the action at a pea cannery in 1939, and that’s on YouTube. The 8 minute mark shows the peas being harvested; the 10 minute mark shows the pea vines being tossed into the viner.

And we’re learning all that from just the stuff out on the loading docks.

Now, as a model railroader trying to detail cannery scenes, what we’ve learned from this photo really highlights how the clutter on a model helps a viewer understand what’s happening. Being able to see the raw material (the pea vines and cans), the finished products (cases of canned peas), and the workers hints at what’s going on here, and helps the photo - or the model - set a story.

Let’s Build Containers!

Normally, telling a story through those details on a model railroad either takes a lot of work or a fair amount of cash. Take sacks, for example. A prune packing house should be overrun will full sacks of prunes around September, for the local orchardists bring in their crop bagged. If you've got a prune packing house on your layout (and I've got three), then you need a lot of very tiny HO scale sacks of prunes. There's normally two solutions: make them, or buy them. I've made sacks from Fimo clay, but it's a slow process. You roll out a long string of clay, chop it into pieces, flatten it a bit, shape, and bake. (Interesting bit of trivia: Fimo polymer clay costs $3.59 for 50cc of material, or around seven cents a cubic centimeter. It makes the resin for the laser printer at fifteen cents a cubic centimeter seem pretty affordable.) Getting metal castings of filled sacks is possible - the military modelers love them for making foxholes and protected positions. But getting a ton of sacks involves spending real money.

Boxes and crates have the same problem - there's store-bought ones, but they tend to be in a few designs, and you'll never find more than a few for sale at a time. They're also hard to make by hand; either you make a lot of fiddly details and glue them together, or figure out a way to mock up entire stacks or rows of boxes with a printed image or some artfully placed scribe lines. Boxes are also hard to get right because of the precise shapes. The sacks can have mistakes and look mostly correct, but if your scribe lines don't make all the boxes the same size, then you've spoiled the illusion.

And then there's other containers that you can't buy. You've already seen my drying flats - a detail that's both impossible to buy commercially and a pain to build from scratch. Empty boxes (such as field lugs) aren't available as castings, though Ken Harstine sells some beautiful stacks of fruit lugs on Shapeways.

And all of this makes 3d printing a great solution for printing large numbers of detailed containers for a particular scene. The 3d printer is great for doing runs of lots of duplicate items to fill out a scene. Digital models make it easy to do variations - this stack is 6 boxes high, that one's seven, and the other has one slightly out of line.

And the best thing is that 3d printing is a great way for those little details you wouldn't necessarily see across the US, and thus aren't popular enough for the manufacturers. Remember those stacks of empty cans? I've never seen those on a store shelf before, but with some judicious 3d drawing, I can make some stacks for my own canneries.

Photo from the John C. Gordon panoramic photo collection at San Jose State University. They also have the regular John C. Gordon collection which has a bunch of commercial scenes from San Jose over the years.

1 comment:

  1. "...grabbing cans out of boxcars with a long stick with metal fingers spaced out a can’s width apart"

    I had one of those, years ago. Mine looked like this:


    Around here, all I've found are cheap plastic versions at the local 100-yen store.