Sunday, March 8, 2020

We All Scream for Location-Accurate Buildings

I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream. Well, hopefully not, or the garage is going to be awfully loud.

I’ve slowly been filling out the Los Gatos scene. A few years ago, I added a shelf to cover the staging tracks, and used the space to add some much-needed houses along the railroad tracks in Los Gatos. I also had a bare spot immediately in front of the Hunt’s Cannery. Historically, the spot was some charming and quite pricey houses on University Avenue. However, expensive real estate wouldn't match the theme I'm trying to capture. I want to hint at the industrial side of town here, so the space deserved something utilitarian. My first cut was a low-slung warehouse made with board-and-batten siding. The warehouse never looked correct - too low, too plain.

I feel back to my usual tricks: look through old photos to see what was actually along the tracks. I knew there was a lumber yard along University Ave near the Old Town development which deserved a space. Looking at some of the 1940’s photos, I found what looked like a boxy cinderblock building with a strange contraption on the roof, just north of Elm Street. Captions mentioned this as the ice cream plant for Eatmore Ice Cream and Creamery at 46 N. Santa Cruz Ave. The building’s on the wrong side of the railroad tracks for me, but it’ll look fine on the University Ave. side.

The History

Eatmore Ice Cream was founded by Hans Nielsen in 1922, an immigrant from Denmark and new arrival in Los Gatos. Eatmore’s location was in the middle of downtown at 52 North Santa Cruz Ave. at Elm Street. Nielsen ran the place solo for many years, working “at night to make his ice cream and delivered it during the daytime.” The company must have done well; several of Nielsen’s helpers in the ice cream business turn up in the historic record. Eatmore also had several outposts, including a takeover of a San Jose manufacturer and an an ice cream factory in San Francisco at 1525 Union St. Eatmore lasted as an independent business for about twenty years. Nielsen finally got an offer he couldn’t refuse from Beatrice Foods in 1944 and sold out; he continued as manager for the newly rebranded Meadow Gold branded creamery. Newspaper articles describe the company as delivering 1100 gallons of ice cream a day through ice cream plants in Watsonville, Santa Cruz, San Jose, and Palo Alto. This sounds more like what Meadowgold (owned by Beatrice Foods) accomplished; census records show that Nielsen continued to live and work in Los Gatos after the takeover, so he sounds more like the small-town manager than the ice cream unicorn entrepreneur. Meadowgold lasted at least into the 1970’s, manufacturing ice cream right there in downtown Los Gatos.

The creamery on Santa Cruz Ave was a simple storefront on the main road through town. A photo from the 1930's shows a large "Eatmore" sign painted on the Elm Ave. wall of the building. (The photo also shows an Associated Gasoline station on the opposite corner - imagine trying to put a gas station on Santa Cruz Ave. today!) Sanborn maps show Eatmore sharing a building with a grocery next door. Although the creamery storefront was on Santa Cruz Ave., the ice cream manufacturing didn’t stay there for long. A cinder block building behind the creamery storefront shows up in the 1928 Sanborn map with 18’ ceilings, a two-story office at the front, and a boiler room at the rear.

The only photos I’ve found show the building from a distance; it looks blocky and unpretentious with only the cooling tower on top seeming out of the ordinary. Example photos include a 1950's shot from Charlie Givens in Arcadia Publishing's "Railroads of Los Gatos".

Meadowgold still shows up in 1950’s photos, and articles reminiscing about the old Los Gatos seem to mention Meadowgold and Eatmore more often than I’d expect.

Eatmore, 1944 Sanborn map

Manufaactured gas plant, 1930's SP Valuation Map. CSRM Collection.

The space wasn’t always an ice cream factory. Railroad valuation maps into the 1940’s still displayed the previous inhabitants - the manufactured gas plant for Los Gatos. Manufactured gas plants processed coal and oil to extract lighter-than-air hydrocarbons, and took the remaining coal tar and lampblack and either sold it or buried it out back for future generations to discover. The gas holder was at the front of the plot, facing Elm St., with a corrugated iron building at the back. PG&E shut down the plant in 1924 when a natural gas line from San Jose arrived. The ice cream plant seems to match the location and floor plan of the manufactured gas plant building; the two story office at the front appears to date from the ice cream era.

The Model

The model required a fair amount of guesswork. There were no good photos of the building, just distance shots showing a tiny featureless white box and dark cooling tower. The Sanborn map shows a bit more about heights and number of floors in the building, but I forgot to double-check the Sanborn map before I started construction. Instead, I looked at photos online for ideas about cinder block building from 1930’s. When those searches didn’t work out, I ended up searching for ice cream plants, and found some photos of Treat Ice Cream’s San Jose plant off Alum Rock Ave. Treat’s a local ice cream manufacturer that provides the store brand for our local grocery, and their plant is hidden at the back of a main street business on San Jose’s East Side. The cinderblock building and steel windows gave me the inspiration I needed.

The general construction was straightforward, but it’s definitely a 21st century project. I used styrene sheet for the walls and ceiling (using 1/16” styrene sheet from Tap Plastic - cheap and available in any size you want up to 4' x 8') and strip styrene for the front and side deck. The doors are Grandt Line parts. Rather than simulate concrete block, I fell back to a stucco look, and again used an acrylic gel with pumice from the art supply store to give the walls a slightly rough appearance.

I couldn’t find any windows I liked, so I instead fell back on the 3d printer. 3d printed windows never print as nicely as the commercial windows - tiny muntins just don’t print well. To avoid a trip to the store, I made the windows solid, with muntins and panes embossed into the solid casting. I painted the windows glossy black to simulate glass, then painted the window frames. I used a similar trick with baggage wagons in the past, making the wheels solid with raised spokes rather than trying to make spindly and open wheels.

The 3d cooling tower was another challenge. Some folks have modeled cooling towers for ice plants; Suydam’s cardboard kits have one example. The models always look a little rough, both because of the material and its toughness. Instead, I fell back on the 3d printer. I figured out my design from looking at previous HO models (such as Suydam's) and also checking old trade journals such as Refrigeration World for photos of past equipment. (For example, here's the Burhorn cooling tower.)

Although the design seems complex, it's geometric and pretty straightforward. The model's designed as two copies of the same part, each printing two sides. Real cooling towers appeared to use corrugated iron for the fins; I held off on adding that detail from impatience. If you want one of your own, the 3d model can be downloaded from

My final touch was milk pails, a combination of 3d printed and commercial (Tichy) cast parts. Photos of Eatmore's San Jose plant showed the classic tin milk pails all over the place. Although common in industry, tin milk pails aren't a common sight on railroads in California - I've seen little evidence for milk trains in the Santa Clara Valley. Pauline Correia Stonehill's Barrelful of Memories: Stories of My Azorean Family" described life in growing up on a Central Valley dairy. She remembered her father using a wagon to carry the day's milk to the Los Banos dairy. A combination of good roads and nearby processing plants may have made remarked how many dairies delivered milk via wagon and truck. There may have been milk trains elsewhere in the Bay Area; the Niles Depot website claims two or three milk trains a day through Fremont.

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