Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Tomato Paste Land Rush

When you search on canneries in San Jose, you'll find a sudden explosion in tomato canning starting around 1915, and lasting well into 1918 or 1919.  One cause was all the new Italian immigrants who considered tomatoes and tomato products to be essential for their dinner tables.  In previous years, those immigrants had been buying imported tomatoes from the old country, but World War I made those harder to get.

Actually, there's a fair amount more to the story, not only in terms of what happened to the imported tomatoes, but also in terms of what the American producers had to do in order to take that market. How those different canners attacked the the Great Tomato Paste Land Rush doesn’t sound that unlike things today in the Internet era.

The actual details come, of course, from a court case. (Scroll a third of the way through the PDF to hit the story of Pastene vs. Greco)  And it's a good one too - full of drama, and direct quotes, with a cast of canners stepping on the witness stand to support one side or another, horror stories from the engineer trying to make experimental machinery work, and arguments over a farmer’s size estimates for the “tomato crop that got away”.

Greco Canning Co. Ad from October 1921 Western Canner and Packer

Our two main characters are Victor Greco and P. Pastene of New York.  Greco was the Elon Musk of the Valley of Heart's Delight, continually was coming up with new ideas for products to can, and experimenting with the machines needed to make these.   In 1916, three years after he started the cannery, Greco figured out that he could make a fortune if he could figure out how to make tomato paste. Pastene was an east coast wholesaler looking desperately for a source of tomato paste.  And just like Silicon Valley, these two men ended up in court because sometimes plans don't go the way you want.

It's 1915; World War I is raging, and Austria and Italy are fighting toe-to-toe in the Alps.  In 1916, Italy realizes that food for its people is scarce, and places export restrictions on canned tomatoes.  France does the same. The U.S., with a huge Italian immigrant population (three million Italian immigrants arrived between 1900 and 1915), is now desperate for tomato paste. Prices double and triple to 10 cents a can, much more than the average immigrant can pay.

But Santa Clara Valley canners were already good at growing and canning tomatoes, and how hard could it be to evaporate a bit more water?  Victor Greco decides to see if he can make tomato paste; with a bit of work on the stovetop, he sees that the process of evaporating away the water is easy.

Greco and Pastene start trading letters in January, 1916, with Greco noting:

"Regarding Naples Tomato Sauce packed in small 6 oz. tins, in view of the present conditions in Europe which makes it almost impossible to receive any of this commodity from said country, we are contemplating to pack about 60,000 cases of the article above mentioned which will be sold as a substitute of the Imported.
As we are Italian and know what the Italian people must have and being very familiar with the method of manufacturing this article, you can rest assured it will be the equal of that imported from Italy..."
"P.S. We are located in the heart of the Santa Clara Valley where some of the finest tomatoes in the world are grown."

Pastene, on a visit to the West Coast in April, 1916, hears about the great plan, and signs a contract for 3,000 cases.

So now Greco Canning needs to scale up on the tomato paste project. Victor Greco goes to San Francisco, bringing drawings of the evaporators used by the finest canners in Naples. Greco convinces the Oscar Krenz Manufacturing Company, normally active in coppersmithing, to make some vacuum pan evaporators in the the Neapolitan style - no one else had tried making such equipment before in the U.S. Greco installs it in his cannery and gets to work making tomato paste, with engineers from Krenz helping get the machinery running smoothly.

But there’s risk here: there’s the usual questions about getting sufficient fruit, but Greco is also trying novel machinery to cook the tomato paste, a process that hasn't been tested at scale, smaller 6 oz cans to match the Italian style, and is even trying fiberboard boxes (instead of the traditional wooden boxes) to save weight. That’s very Silicon Valley - it’s a new product and a bit risky, but Greco thinks he can pull it off.

And they hit snags. Greco had chosen the vacuum pan approach (boiling the tomatoes at a lower temperature in a partial vacuum) because it concentrated the tomato flavor better with less heat. The Italians used to cook down tomato sauce in an open pot, but the better Italian canners have rejected that approach for the vacuum pan. Greco's variant on the machinery is a 750 gallon cooking vessel eight feet tall with one inch tubes to circulate the stuff being evaporated near the heat. Unfortunately, the prototype's narrow tubes - appropriate for reducing sugar solutions - are too small for the thick tomato pastes. The tomatoes keep sticking into the tubes and burning, forcing the repair crew to shut down the process and clean out the entire machine. Sometimes they need to use electric drills to remove the hardened paste, and once it took them five days to get the machinery back into action.

It didn’t help that it was a bad year for tomatoes. Late frosts in May killed off some seedlings, and early rains in October and November ruined the crops. The normally ten week season was a month shorter than usual, with many tomatoes failing to ripen. William Greer, farming on “Mr. Kell’s place” (probably along Almaden Road) delivered 3.5 tons per acre to the cannery, but six times that amount was left in the fields, spoiled. J. L. Mosher, a farmer and orchardist, testified to an equally bad year, delivering two tons per acre instead of 12. “I have not been in the tomato business since.”

And now there was a problem. Greco had sold 18,000 cases of tomato paste that season (down from the 60,000 case goal) for prices between $6.50 and $8.50; between the problems with the vacuum pans and lack of tomatoes, he managed 3,500. Pastene was unhappy from several angles. He didn’t get the tomato paste he’d ordered. He wasn’t happy with the quality (some of the tomato paste had a “consistency not much greater than water.”). He felt that Greco had tried out a risky project without warning him. To add insult to injury, when he did receive the tomato paste, the railroad had billed the shipment at the freight rate for tomato sauce, twice the shipping cost for catsup, canned tomatoes, and other tomato products. (Oh, the railroad tariffs were twisted in those days.)

And even with all that disappointment, Pastene closed his last letter to Greco asking about tomatoes. "We would like to treat with you for a purchase of next season's pack. What can you offer?"

When the lawsuit over the missing and substandard tomato paste made it to court in 1920, Greco testified. “It was a defect in the machinery.” The farmers came to the witness stand and lamented the horrible season where the rain and frost forced them to leave behind a good part of their crop. Several canners (including Elmer Chase for the Canner’s Assocation and Richmond Chase, R. W. Crary from the California Cooperative Canneries, and Charles E. Hume of the G. W. Hume company, defined a “short pack” and how equipment failure was a valid reason for a canner to not deliver product.

H.T. Rigg, the engineer hired away from San Jose Ice and Cold Storage to run the plant shared stories of drilling out blocked tubes and warning Greco that they weren’t going to meet deadlines:

“The first date is October 10th when I began [keeping a production diary]. That day I was delayed two hours and ten minutes on account of the pulper, that is, the machinery on the lower floor. Then we were delayed two hours cleaning the pans, No. 2 vacuum that same day. The delay of the pulper necessarily stopped the vacuum. There is a continuous feed from the pulper to the vacuum. There was a total stoppage on that day of four hours and ten minutes… And on the 11th we started at 6 a.m. in the morning and stopped at 9:20 in the evening and stopped two hours for the pulper again. Stopped another hour and 30 minutes for lunch. Then we stopped again to clean No. 2 vacuum pan. This was on the 11th. On the 12th No. 1 pan stopped 23 hours for cleaning. This 23 hours carried us into the night. We worked during the night cleaning the pans. Mr. Greco was there off and on around where I was working. I cleaned it out by using an electric drill. The product had so caked and burned inside of the tubes that it had to be drilled out by an electric drill…”

That went on for days: problems with the vacuum plans clogging, failures in the pulper, cans jamming in the sealer machinery. The rotary cooker broke. All-night repair sessions aren’t unique to modern-day Silicon Valley.

And just as things were working, a lack of tomatoes and nothing to work with.

For the other side, Charles Bentley, of the California Packing Corporation, declared that they’d had no problems finding tomatoes to pack in the 1916 season, and that it was truly a rare farm in the Santa Clara Valley that could manage 25 tons per acre. Charles Davis, the general manager for the California Conserving Company in Oakland, described that he’d had fine luck with the closed kettle style of tomato paste production in the 1916 season, and that he’d treated “salsa de pomidoro” as an experimental product in his first season. When the judge asked him about the Greco machinery, Davis sounded a bit mystified about why they were using such a complicated method.

Judge: “And the process involved a forcing of the material being treated through a set of tubes, instead of being boiled in pans…”
Davis: “No, that’s a new one on me.”
Judge: “Your method did not involve that?”
Davis: “No, nothing of the character.”

The lawsuit also contains many of the letters between Greco and Pastene, at first in the spring of 1916 with a an optimistic tone: "being very familiar with the method of manufacturing this article", then with Pastene hopeful in October: “We certainly trust that you will find that you have been over-conservative in making this (25% delivery) estimate. Greco responds stoically in October with what he can deliver. “Twenty per cent is about the very best that we are going to be able to fill. Regardless of this, so as to make up a minimum car[load] we have shipped you 665 cases for which enclosed find copy of invoice…. we are now planning for a new arrangement for next season and will install a different system of vacuum pans, and hope to be more fortunate in our pack.” And finally anger from Pastene in December 1916: “This is not a fair deal and one unworthy of yourselves and unjust to us who trusted you, and were one of the first to sign your order.”

Victor Greco’s 1916 dash into the tomato paste market may have ended awkwardly, but he managed to fix the line in future years. Halfway through the 1917 season, he junked the old vacuum pans and tried a new design that clogged much less often. Two years later, at the beginning of the 1919 season, Edith Daley visited Greco Canning. Toma-Butter Soon To Appear on Every Table”, the piece started, as Edith explained how Victor Greco would introduce tomato paste to the American home. She also hinted at the complexity of the machinery:

The “heart” of this equipment is a 500 horse power boiler, 55 feet high and containing 200 four inch tubes each 24 feet long. This tremendous energy producer is exhibited with pride by Mr. V. V. Greco who tells you that it is the “Biggest boiler on the Pacific Coast”. This leviathan of boilerdom is manufactured by the Wikes Boiler Company of Saginaw, Michigan. It looks big enough to “boil” Lake Michigan, Saginaw included!… Two immense storage tanks furnish food for a battery of twelve vacuum evaporators with a capacity of 1500 gallons each.”

After all he’d been through in 1916, Greco certainly would have shown off the new machinery with pride. With twelve vacuum pans and twice the capacity each, he could produce a thousand cases of tomato paste a day, and could have filled the fateful order from Pastene with a couple days work.

But Greco probably had competition now. Even Victor's brother, Anthony, got into the act, leaving Greco Canning to start his own "Anthony Greco Cannery", producing $105,000 in tomato paste in the 1917 season. Upstarts like Contadina and Salsina Canning both started canning tomato paste in San Jose in 1917. Gus Lambrosa, one of the founders of Salsina, explained his vision to the Evening News: '“This country sends every year about seven million dollars to Italy for tomato paste, which is used in macaroni”, said Lambrosa today. “There is no reason why this money should not be kept in this country.”'

Lambrosa got his wish. Contadina was canning 150,000 cases of tomato paste a season by 1922, and Americans (immigrant and non-immigrant) got their tomato paste from California fields.

As for the lawsuit, which finally got settled in the early 1920's, I'd probably agree with the verdict: Victor Greco took a chance on moving into tomato paste, but hadn't completely worked out the process and the machines he'd need to do the job. Pastene was right to demand payment.

"During the year 1916, the peeled tomato and hot sauce departments of our canning plant were operated during the daytime while the Salsa De Pomidoro department was operating day and night. We would have made more profit out of the Salsa De Pomidoro. It was our interest to run the Salsa De Pomidoro plant at full capacity. We ran it to the fullest capacity that we possibly could. In other words, while running it, we had considerable interruptions, and, therefore, the capacity was reduced, owing to those interruptions." -- Victor Greco, from his testimony.

On the other hand, it's a very Silicon Valley story. Victor Greco's started a cannery; he's been running it for a few years, and he sees a big market opportunity. Grabbing for that - rushing to make tomato paste, and assuming that he'd work through any bugs - seems like the right choice for someone trying to make a big splash. All the other stories: toma-butter branded tomato paste, Grepo grape syrup, the Bottled Pure Juice Company making tomato and artichoke-based drinks - all suggests that Victor Greco was going to try for the big score. I think he'd fit right in to the modern Silicon Valley.

(P. Pastene & Co., Inc. vs Greco Canning Co, case #16076, Southern Division of U.S. District Court for Northern District of California, Second Division, August 30, 1920. We get to see all the letters and testimony thanks to Greco's appeal of the initial ruling.) Scroll about a third of the way through the PDF to find the Pastene vs. Greco material.

Previous versions of this article declared that Victor Greco had made artichoke-based drinks and ran salt ponds. We were mistaken; the crazy inventor in the family seems to have been Victor's brother Anthony, who broke away from Greco Canning to make his own tomato paste cannery, fought his brother for a string bean canning tool, and believed that the quickest way to dispose of a debt was to tear the note up and flee to Oregon.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Everything's On the Internet These Days: Tracking Down the Lick Mill Mystery Industry

[Just found this half-written article hidden in my Blogger account. It's a year late, but worth sharing.]

Last year, I posted a link to the Dome of Foam’s wx4 Whatzit? Contest where E.O. Gibson posted some photos of some strange tanks behind the Lick Mansion in Santa Clara. (Go take a close look at the photos before proceeding; the research hints will make more sense.)

E.O apparently has multiple winners, for at least two good answers got sent by Bill Foley (who posts all the videos on Youtube for the Society of California Pioneers) and me. Now, the interesting about the search is that we both did our research in different ways. How we did the searches might be useful for anyone considering a future in the lucrative business of historic-web-blogging. Most importantly, the research really shows how much information's out there on the Internet... if you just know the right way to look for it.

Robert’s Approach When I started on E.O.'s challenge, I started from recent days and went backwards. All the piping in E.O.'s photo - especially the insulated pipes and strange machinery - suggested oil refinery or chemical process to me, so I started by checking recent (1960's) phone directories on for chemical companies in Santa Clara in the right area. No luck. I used Historic Aerials to try to track down a street address, and figured out the address of the plant was off Montague Expressway… but still no matches appeared.

Finally, I decided that if there’s one thing true of every chemical plant in the Santa Clara Valley, it’s that the place probably leaked chemicals in the groundwater, and they probably got caught. That means there’s bound to be a record of the cleanup, whether as a federal government superfund cleanup site, or as a local one. So, I started searching on “superfund santa clara”, “groundwater link mill”, and got my first clue: a reference in the EPA Superfund database mentioned groundwater contamination from “International Minerals and Chemicals, solvent distributor”, but provided no other details other than that the case was handled completely by the state of California. It did describe the site as “Mansion Grove” which turned out to be a key search term to use.

Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Now, I’d assumed from E.O.’s initial posting that the chemical plant was near, but not part of the Lick Mansion site. The Mansion Grove name turned out to be linked to the Lick Mansion, and encouraged me to learn more about the mansion itself. I finally checked Wikipedia and find that the Lick Mansion had been used for more than just paper making: “An 1882 fire destroyed the mill and in 1902 the Lick Mill complex was converted to the manufacture of alcohol. A series of owners, including Union Distilling, Western Grain and Sugar Products, Western Carbonic Gas, American Salt and Chemical, and Commercial Solvents and Chemical, manufactured a wide variety of products at this location.” (The quoted text sounded a little stilted, and a search on the exact words confirmed it had been cribbed from the Library of Congress’s Historic Architectural and Engineering Survey. HAES had done a survey, photos, and drawings of the plant in the 1970's, and so plans for the Lick Mill site are actually available online.

The reference to Commercial Solvents and Chemicals gave me another term to search for, and I found that company had invented processes for acetone and butanol, and was bought by IMC in 1975.

Finally, I found the details of the contamination at the site (now covered with apartments). The five year report declares that the site was used for solvent and alcohol production and recovery. So all that piping and distilling equipment makes sense - they were creating, distilling, and recovering alcohol and other solvents.

So, to recap: the piping suggested chemicals, but no chemical companies were listed in contemporary phone directories. After reaching a dead end, I started searching again looking for material that would get into permanent records: groundwater contamination reports and legal proceedings, and found both the name of the last owner as well as a report on the site. Wikipedia and the Library of Congress Historic Architectural and Engineering Survey then turned up nice summaries to help me track the property back.

Bill’s Approach Bill started from the other end - he had access to a good online source of old newspapers and local history books, so he started by searching for Lick Mill and turned up a distillery (the Lick Distillery) and a co-located chemical company.

“Lick Mill Chemical Company was hiring workers and a few laborers (blacksmiths and pipe-fitters) in May of 1918, (and a few laborers).  the factory seems to have taken the place of the paper and flour mills, and  used some of the buildings that didn't burn when the flour mill did in 1880.  Lick's buildings were supposed to be over-engineered, and Arbuckle's History of San Jose (p1390 claims that it cost $380,000 to build, and that "a former piano maker and artificer in woods, Lick adorned and finished his main structures with imported hardwoods.  His skill with these materials won for his mill the sobriquet "James Lick's Mahogany-Wainscoted Mill."

“The property also may have been shared by the Lick Distillery (initially known as the Union Distillery Company), which was in operation from 1902 through at least 1918, though an article at the latter date states that it could not handle pulp and had no tanks at the time.

The distillery made alcohol from sugar beet molasses.  Not too much of a stretch to say that prohibition may have curtailed those activities and made the chemical side of business more lucrative.  the distillery itself, however, was supposed to be making $100,000 right off the bat (article included).”

It also turns out that there are folks interested in distilleries, so someone’s recorded legal warehouse records for the Lick distillery. An old newspaper also noted that the distillery operated on waste material from sugar production (probably sugar beets). The San Jose Mercury News also included additional tidbits about the plant, noting “two cars of molasses arrived at the Lick Distillery yesterday”, helping us model railroaders understand both the loads arriving at the plant and the number of cars it received.

Interestingly, they weren't the only ones working with the waste product from the sugar refineries; the Stauffer Chemical on South First Street used sugar beets to produce Accent flavor enhancer (MSG). I made a joke to a former GE San Jose plant worker about headaches from MSG fumes, and she surprisingly confirmed that the Accent plant did put out not-quite-pleasant fumes that were detectable by the GE Nuclear workers.

Bill also checked some local museums, and found that the property flooded many times, including in 1902, 1903, 1907, 1938, and 1940. He even found photos of flood damage. One of the photos showed the tall smokestack used at the plant. Local history books also helped; Phylis Butler's "The Valley of Santa Clara" (1975) says that "for more than 50 years, it (the former distillery) has been the headquarters for a variety of chemical companies". Bill also went to Historic Aerials and noted that the plant had been leveled around 1986. He also found articles in the Mercury News in the mid-1980’s about plans to turn the site into a park. That didn’t happen; like much of that part of the Valley, it’s all a sea of apartments now.

"The property was leveled in about 1986, as you can see in Historic Aerials. San Jose Mercury News articles from 1987 indicate that a failed attempt was made to preserve the whole site as a park, but it was instead developed as apartments.  During construction, remains of an Ohlone barbecue site with charred elk bones was found.”

So to recap Bill’s approach: he started by searching on the initial connection - the Lick Mill, then moved forward in time looking for alternate company names. He then dived through the other sources he had - local history books, newspapers, and some friends who’d worked in the area to fill out remaining details.

Your Turn And so that’s how we tracked down the solution to the wx4 Whatzit? Contest. If you’ve done your own historic research (whether for model railroading or for general history), much of this might seem very familiar. Some of the tricks here would probably work for you:

  • search with keywords related to the parts of the history that would end up in legal or newspaper records
  • search both from the modern day back and early days forward
  • when all else fails, try out wild-ass guesses like the chemical plant searches.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Next Project Sneak Preview: Hart Convertible Gondola (G-50-3)

I've already shown pictures of my 3d-printed SP CS-35A flat cars. I've also hinted at my F-50-4 models - 1915-era flat cars with very thin decks. I've printed some of those flat cars; they're visible on the video that went along with the CS-35A article, but they're also a pain to decal because the prototype lettering looked an unreadable four inches high. I'm feeling pretty good about both these models, and happy to be on my way to having some flat cars for lumber service on the Vasona Branch.

So what's next? Looks like it's going to be the patented Hart Convertible gondolas, known to the Southern Pacific bean counters as the G-50-4. Harry Hart of the Rogers Ballast Car Company designed a gondola that could be used for different jobs repairing a railroad's maintenance-of-way. Doors on the side of the car open to dump fill dirt out. The floor hinges up to open a hopper area to dump ballast between the rails. The end bulkheads could be moved towards the center of the car to keep ballast near the hopper, or removed so that rail or other heavy material could be dragged off the end of the car. SP had around 700 of these cars, which existed into the 1940's.

This has been a pain to print. It's a forty-foot car, so it won't print flat on the Form One. Printing the model tipped up allowed the model to print, but the support material to hold the half-printed car used a ton of resin. I also had problems with dirty mirrors over a few weeks that resulted in several failed attempts and a lot of wasted resin. But after finally identifying the problem and cleaning the mirrors, I've been much happier. I've found that I can print the cars vertically with pretty good success. Those successes also mean that it's possible to print 50 foot HO freight cars on the Form One.

And the detail's mighty sweet, too - the castings for holding the door print cleanly, as do the underbody trusses and hopper assembly.

I'll tell more later - I'm still working on this. I've just finished a second print of this model with correct strapping for the hinged doors, hinged metal apron to cover the spaces between cars, room for the brake wheel on a corner, and a mount on the side of the car for the brake cylinder. However, this photo at proves that I'm actually printing non-trivial 40 foot cars.

3D Printing's Killer App: Printing Tons of Human Figures?

Human figures are a big problem for model railroads. There's few sources for the figures, they're often drawn to resemble 1970's European figures (because of the primary vendor). There's few figures available for the uncommon modeling scales. But we need those human figures to keep our scenes look like we're modeling a live, active world, and not some post-neutron-bomb apocalyptic scene. (Kids, if you don't know what a neutron bomb is, ask your parents. Or ask Google.)

One of my big surprises for the Form One is how beautifully it does tiny figures. showed some examples soon after I got the printer. This latest photo shows the results from letting the printer do lots of multiple figures over a couple evenings last week - about forty figures in four different poses.

The figures are all from the Great Fredini, who has scanned attendees at the 2013 World MakerFaire New York and other events on the East Coast. Here, I'm printing four models: MichaelZ, Sir Makealot, Kathy C., and Joe and his kids.

After making do with 1970's German figures from Preiser or random injection molded figures from unknown manufacturers, there's two things very special about these figures. First, they're very detailed - you can see some of the details of the person's face and hair. That's detail you usually don't see in injection molded figures. Second, these figures look like real Americans, because, well, they are. If you're not modeling a world filled with wasp-waisted women in tea dresses and conservatively dressed men from the Preiser line, these figures look much more suited for a modern American layout: people who are normal sized for America, or potentially wearing football jerseys, or t-shirts, or shorts and flip-flops. These models aren't perfect for me and my 1930's layout, but I appreciate that they look *right* for a modern layout.

These 3d models don't fully replace the injection molded people. It takes time and an expensive printer to make the figures. These models are skewed towards modern-day figures, so you're not going to be able to get a full set of 1940's figures any time soon. Still, it's going to make filling a scene with realistic people much easier for our modern modelers.

Technical details: I could easily print about 9 figures in HO scale in an hour and a half, printing at 0.050 mm (0.002 inch) layer resolution. The print time was driven mostly by the time to raise the platform; I probably could have printed 16 or 25 figures with little increase in print time. My only constraint was just getting the software to handle more figures; these models are very detailed, so just trying to do the slicing match on 25 figures brought my old laptop to its knees. Cutting the details on these models would have made printing 25 - or 75 - quite feasible. And the great thing, of course, is that none of this is HO specific. If you wanted S scale figures, or TT scale figures, or 1:43.5 figures to match your true O scale models, you can print all the human figures you need for your layout. So with a long weekend, I'd have the figures for a pretty big mob.

Fredini's models were scanned using a Microsoft Kinect sensor, a home-made scanning rig, and some off-the-shelf software for converting the Kinect's data into a three-dee model. He's continuing to scan folks at various events, and his collection of 3d models of visitors to his booth at Coney Island is another great source of figures for your model layout. I'm waiting to see a similar scanning booth at model railroad shows.