Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Public History and Private Stories

Jennie Besana (right), the "big little boss" of Contadina, with her husband Frank, sister, and nephew.

When I started researching the local railroad track and canneries, I was looking for dry, geographical facts. Where was this cannery? When did the railroad pull up those tracks? Was the cannery open during the summer, or year round?

I found a lot of those facts, but the more I researched, the more I found myself getting pulled into stories of the people. In old newspapers, I learned about business scandals at the Higgins-Hyde packing house. Business deeds for the Ainsley cannery highlighted that one oak desk, three oak chairs, and one gas heater wouldn't be included in any sale of the cannery. I did a fair amount of thought about why those chairs might not go along with the cannery. Edith Daley's puff-pieces on San Jose's canneries often included colorful quotes from obviously real people. ' "How long have I been engaged in the fruit canning industry? Must I tell that?" asks E. E. Chase with a smile. "That is almost as bad as asking a woman to tell her age!" '

And that's when the stories started getting personal. Dr. Nola shared stories of his father's packing house, and told me about playing in the heavy burlap sacks used to pack fruit for Europe. E. O. Gibson took a Southern Pacific engineering drawing of a land sale in the Almaden Valley, and shared family memories of the great-uncle who was trading in former railroad right-of-ways for fun and profit.

That's when the stories started crossing over from the straight history to the family stories. That's not a bad thing; history books can be a lot more interesting when they bring in the personal stories of the folks who were involved in the activities. I might even say my interest in the Los Gatos branch was encouraged by Bruce MacGregor's great books on the South Pacific Coast railroad, which all included colorful and down-to-earth stories about the employees and people along the tracks.

Doing more genealogical research - tracking down family trees for some of the people that turn up in these stories - makes it more likely that these stories cross over from public history to private story. The story of Jennie Besana, the "big little boss" responsible for bookkeeping at the Contadina cannery in San Jose is the most recent example. I'd taken Jennie's name from Edith Daley's San Jose Daily News story on the cannery, and tried to learn more. There wasn't much to go on - no obvious Google hits, and little in city directories. I ended up searching old newspapers and for more on her, and learned a bit about her family, her marriage, and her too-young passing. I found some others also doing similar family research; I chatted with descendants of her husband's family, and heard their stories of Jennie and of their family.

I'm still hearing stories. I heard a few weeks back from Jennie's great-niece; my original article on Jennie helped her learn more about her family, and provided stories she hadn't heard before. She also shared the photo at the top of this article. That's Jennie Besana on the right - the big little boss of the Contadina cannery. The others in the photo are Jennie's sister and nephew. It's a neat photo, probably from the early 1930's. Jennie and Frank show up as very happy. Jennie's dressed more conservatively than I would have expected for a woman who showed ambition and smarts to run the bookkeeping and contracts side of the cannery. (She wasn't completely serious; her niece remembers last seeing Jennie and Frank in Berkeley at a Cal game, where Jennie was wearing a yellow corsage in the shape of a "C".) They're both doing pretty well; Jennie worked at the United States Products cannery during the depression, while Frank was at Pacific Manufacturing over in Santa Clara. They own a house in the country out in Cupertino with a bit of land, and they can commute down Stevens Creek Road for work each morning - not a bad life. And yet,tragedy could still strike, regardless of how happy they are....

To be honest, as much as I'm glad I've done the research on the canneries, these stories are more satisfying. They make the places I'm modeling more real. They also tell about the dreams, successes, tragedies, and boring daily routines for folks of the Santa Clara valley a hundred years ago. They also remind us how much things are still the same, even as the Valley has filled up and the fruit industry replaced with semiconductors or software. I'm glad I've learned enough about the local canning business to know where the canneries were, or where a spur track was. But I'm happier with the stories of the people - hearing about Victor Greco's troubles trying to start a new tomato paste business, kids playing on the burlap sacks soon to send prunes to Germany, George Hyde's work to build a modern cannery, or my neighbor's summer job as the mechanic's assistant at the Dole cannery.

Or hearing about Jennie Besana, who was ambitious and smart enough at 20 to be the bookkeeper for a newfangled cannery selling strange new tomato products for Italian immigrants. There's a bit of her in every intern over at Google.

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