Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Unleash the Scanners: Rosenberg Brothers and "Years Mature"

What can you get from a company’s self-written biography? Lots, in the case of Rosenberg Brothers "Years Mature" book celebrating their 50th anniversary in business back in 1943. While full of interesting facts - photos of the packing houses, and stories about crazy salesmen - it highlighted how I’d been missing half of the whole dried fruit industry.

When I started learning about the fruit industry, my point of view was completely focused on the product at hand. The farmers brought in fruit, the cannery or packing house put it in containers, the trains took it away. With this kind of view of the system, it’s no wonder that I only thought about the business in terms of the technology of cleaning, preparing, and boxing fruit.

Rosenberg Brothers: Abe, Adolph, and Max. From Years Mature.

But that’s a remarkably simple version of the business. Working in either canned fruit or dried fruit was just as much about finance - choosing a price for buying a future crop, and choosing a price for selling a future or current crop. The company’s buyer would talk with a farmer about buying a crop months before the crop appeared, and would have to set a price high enough to get the farmer to sign a contract, but low enough to ensure a profit could be made. We saw that in my Uncle Carl’s story - his father would act non-committal towards the buyer at 5 cents a pound, and would wait for him to return to the farm with an offer a half cent higher. Sometimes an orchardist might be having financial problems, and requires the packer to provide an advance on the crop assuming they think the farmer can deliver enough to pay back the loan.

Meanwhile, the packing house was also dealing with sales on the other end. The broker and packers were having to make sure they had sufficient money to cover the purchases they were making, had to be drumming up sufficient interest to sell fruit with a bit of a profit, and keeping track of the market enough to know when to sell futures. They had to set prices for selling the season’s fruit ahead of time, and decide how much to hold for later sale.

When you think of it this way, the fruit industry sounds a lot more like the stock market, with the buyers selling stock futures and the broker handling the day-by-day market. If it weren’t for the fact that America was relying on all four men - the orchardist, the packing house operator, the buyer, and the broker - to make sure that Santa Clara prunes were making it into breakfasts in New York... or Hamburg... or Buenos Aires. It might seem more like a casino than a drying yard. I suspect all the fruit businesses were like this to some extent, whether large firm, a co-op like Sunsweet, or a canner selling to a small number of New York wholesalers.

But that speculation on future prices was what made the fruit industry challenging. I was reminded of the complications of the real fruit industry when I was trying to track down more information on Rosenberg Brothers, “the most successful of the speculative packers.” Rosenberg Brothers was one of the largest packers and buyers, trading in almost any dried food product: rice, raisins, prunes, figs, or beans. Rosenberg Brothers operated in San Jose and Santa Clara for fifty years, and also had the dubious distinction of its packing houses being subject to the numerous fires. Their plant on Ryland Street burned down in 1905 (under George Hyde’s reign), while a fire in 1916 caused by a shifty-eyed socialist, destroyed the historic Santa Clara County Fruit Exchange plant.

Rosenberg Brothers Santa Clara packing house. From Years Mature.

Information about Rosenberg Brothers is sparse until you encounter the company’s own history. “Years Mature”, the history of Rosenberg Brothers, was written in 1943 for the company’s 50th anniversary just as World War II ended.

Along with descriptions of the company’s products and plants, it describes the early history of the company and the three founders: Abe, Adolph and Max Rosenberg. The three Rosenberg brothers were the children of a Gold Rush era general store owner. Adolph, a fresh fruit buyer, saw the promise of dried fruit selling on the east coast. He convinced his brother Abe, bookkeeper at a shoe company, to join in, and the brothers soon pulled in their youngest brother, Max. Adolph was the idea man and salesman, going to Europe to open markets for unfamiliar fruit. “Blond, jovial Adolph, always with a pad of paper in his hand, a flower in his buttonhole, was the human dynamo, the idea man. Adolph almost ran to the office every morning to be the first man there and open the mail and telegrams he constitutionally declined to answer.” Abe was the financial man and bookkeeper. Max was the buyer and broker. The description of the company’s early years talk less about the packing than the contracts: keeping their word on their contracts, being profitable with a small but well-selected staff, and expecting as much candor and trust on the part of their customers. The stories tell of help for customers needing help, but lawsuits if a buyer tried to renege on a contract.

The company’s own description mostly talks about the business. It mentions all three brothers as equals - a small and tightly knit company, profit sharing, and care with business. When quoting Mr. Abe, they noted a financial story. “Mr Abe used to say to one of his younger buyers “there are five fingers on your hand. I don’t expect you to check “right” against every one of them. But I do expect you to be right three times out of five.” Many of the wallopings that came their way were resounding, involving sums that made the “street” gasp. But usually from this month’s beating emerged next month’s reward. The brothers’ power of recuperation, their ability to turn disaster into victory, became legendary. And the rewards were plowed back in.”

The book also lists the many employees who had been with the company for many years - a mix of folks working in the back office, as buyers, or at the packing houses. 21 men and women had been with the company for at least thirty years, some at the Santa Clara and Fresno packing houses, or the Oakland warehouses, or the head office.

Rose Selene, for example, was a thirty-year veteran in the head office. She was cashier and later treasurer for Rosenberg Brothers, and a 1940’s city directory mentioned she was also working for Atlas Merchantile Co. Single, she lived at the Fairmont Hotel in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Albert Beitler was also a thirty year employee, starting off as a “car loader”, then “foreman” and eventually listed his occupation as “fruit man”. Clarey Armstrong from Fresno had similar roles in Fresno.

Box makers seemed to be tasks for senior men; both Mark Pasetta in Santa Clara and George Avakinan in Fresno had that job during their 25 year careers. George Lasater, a manager at the Oakland plant, had also been with Rosenberg for 25 years. James Wollberg, one of the salesmen in the San Francisco office had a similar tenure.

And Minnie Pacheco, a Portuguese woman from Santa Clara, had been a fruit packer at Santa Clara for 25 years, living her entire life in the Santa Clara Valley.

Rosenberg Brothers was big business. Rudolph Peterson, a long-time Bank of America employee remembered them as one of the larger buyers of grapes and raisins - large enough to require a several million dollar credit line for buying fruit each year. He also remembers them as aggressive on pricing:

Peterson: I knew them [Rosenberg Brothers] as a kid… the big buyers of grapes in the San Joaquin Valley. They were headquartered in Fresno. They had always come in and gotten their line of credit reestablished each year for several million to cover the purchase of grapes, and in due course it would be paid back.
This was in 1936, by the way. Ralph Heaton was telling me one day that someone from Rosenberg Brothers had come in and said he wanted to set up their line of credit for this year to buy grapes. Ralph Heaton asked him what he was going to pay per ton of the various types. He outlined it.
Ralph said, "Well, that's all right. Good luck to you, but you're not going to do that with our money." He asked, "What do you mean?" Ralph replied, "You know damn well that you're not paying them enough to cover grower's cost up to now on grapes, and we both know that . "
"Okay, what should we do?" "Well, let's sit down and review it," and, as Ralph said, "in due course before we were through, we had arrived at a figure that at least covered the farmer's cost and gave him a modest margin." But that story wasn't confined I'm sure to that platform. This was the key to a line of credit all through the Valley, unless he paid the rancher a fair price.

One of the Rosenberg customers, the Draper Gordon Brokerage Company in Duluth, Minnesota, even provided a congratulatory letter for the company, and gave hints about how fruit was sold. Many of the articles I’ve seen suggest that the principals of the company did most of the contact with the brokerages and grocery wholesalers buying fruit. Rosenberg, however, was large enough to have its own salesmen roaming the midwest drumming up sales. R.H. Draper described the experience of having the Rosenberg Brothers salesman blow into town:

One day we heard that a man named Frohlich, who put Steele-Wedeles on the dried fruit map, had gone with Rosenberg Brothers. We knew something about his operations but had never met him. Well, one morning he blew into our office and believe me there was plenty of breeze. We visited for a few minutes then he asked for our best stenographer, opened the window (he seemed to like fresh air) and started to work. When dictating he never sat down - paced up and down the room - talked loud and fast, with plenty of gesticulations. He went through this procedure every time he came here - he would always call for Sadie (Mrs. Cole). Duluth was usually a one night stand for Al - he was always in a rush but did a thorough job and never once drew a blank - he sold something to someone whether they wanted anything or not.”

That whirlwind of a salesman was Albert Frohlich, the sales manager for Rosenberg Brothers, who lived in Berkeley by 1920. Albert also made it into history when he was a witness in a lawsuit against lawsuit against S.F. Buffum, a New York wholesaler who wasn't able to cancel some ill-advised prune order - 2300 boxes of prunes worth $10,000. Frohlich didn't make it to the 50th anniversary; he died in 1938 at age 54.

Raisins arriving at Rosenberg Brothers' Fresno plant. From "Years Mature".

Even if the principals weren’t the ones in the packing houses, they built a huge infrastructure for packing the fruit. Rosenberg Brothers was one of the first food packers to have their own warehouse and packing house at the Oakland docks. They had 150 buyers scattered across California, and packing houses in Yuba City, Sebastopol, Biggs, Santa Clara, Brentwood, Modesto, Fresno, Orange, and Oregon; “together these and our other packing houses and mills have a capacity of 70 full cars [“70 cars normally make up a complete train”] each normal (8 hour) working day.” We don’t know exactly how big Rosenberg Brothers are - they provide many numbers on California’s exported fruit, but are awfully shy about quoting their own production - at best, quoting they handled 40-50% of the California rice crop in past years.

Written during World War II, Years Mature didn’t just talk about the business, the long-time employees, or the product. They also commented on how the world changed during World War II -when the book was published. They mentioned that all of the 1942 crop of apples, apricots, peaches, and pears were requisitioned by the U.S. government for both military and lend-lease use, feeding both soldiers and the civilians of Europe. They also listed the season for each of their crops.

Rosenberg Brothers didn’t continue for long after the war. The long-serving general manager, Arthur Oppenheimer ran the company from the early 1930s to 1947. Oppenheimer performed two rescues during the Great Earthquake and Fire,saving both the company’s books and ensuring the firemen could hose down the packing house. Shortly after Years Mature was written, the company was sold to Consolidated Grocers (better known now as Sara Lee); apparently there was no heir apparent to replace Oppenheimer. Louise Rosenberg Bransten, daughter of Abe, served on the board but apparently wasn’t willing to follow her father as a dried fruit baroness. She and her husband, whose family was involved in M.J.B. coffee, were content as directors of Rosenberg Brothers. (Louise does turn up in later history quite a bit; she and her husband were politically active in both socialist and civil rights issues; both were tossed out of the Communist Party in the 1930’s, and Louise was indicted by the House Un-American Activities Committing for refusing to divulge whether she'd donated money to the Communist Party.). A third of the company was owned by the Rosenberg Foundation, contributed from Max’s estate. The Rosenberg Foundation still exists in San Francisco, and the profits from prunes, rice, and raisins continues to support racial and economic justice in California.

“Years Mature” is scanned and available on Flickr.

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