Looking Back: Canning in the Valley of Heart's Delight

Blossoms in bloomIn the history of San José, before the tech growth and boom from the 1960s to the present, the most significant industry in the Santa Clara Valley was in agricultural products. While the agricultural and horticultural production of the valley was limited before American statehood (1850), by 1890 the valley had a total of 4,454,945 fruit trees, a doubling in only a decade. In 1915, the tally stood at some 7,829,677, a healthy 57% increase. Around the turn of the century, after a drought had damaged the valley's production and pride, an individual by the name of Edwin Sidney Williams organized the first "Blossom Festival.” Despite the bleak outlook that year, Williams wanted people to continue to celebrate and commemorate the valley's abundance and enjoy the orchard blossoms that blanketed the landscape during the spring. In each succeeding year the festival did gain popularity, with up to 20,000 people attending in one year alone. To many, the future of the valley’s agricultural and horticultural productivity remained positive.

By the inter-war years (1920s & 1930s), these industries were well developed and known around the world, with 18 canneries, 13 dried-fruit packing houses, and 12 fresh-fruit and vegetable shipping firms, some of the largest in the world. The industrial processes brought employment to thousands of workers all across the county. Not surprisingly, with another boost to the city’s pride, San José was one of the first California cities to create industries for making the mechanical equipment used in specialized farming and processing. This could be seen in the many labels, packing materials, and specialized equipment stamped “San Jose, Calif” that were used in the valley throughout these years. By the early 20th century, domestic population growth in the valley and immigration from abroad increased the productivity of these industries, supplying the world with renowned California fruits from the "Garden City." This abundance was the result of, according to the San José Chamber of Commerce in 1915, the “best ever” climate in the nation.

canning warehouseThe warehouses that housed the canning and processing machinery were quite large as well. In many of them, like the one seen here, each worker performed a specialized task on the production line. In many workplaces they were often divided by gender and ethnicity. To break up the monotony, and in many cases to improve safety, some employers would rotate employees to different tasks periodically. Some of the more dangerous work involved processing the valley's most valuable products, like plums, apricots, and peaches, where hand-operated mechanical knives were used to remove the pits to prepare them for processing and canning.

The dominance of food processing in the valley gradually declined after World War II as industrialized manufacturing of other goods took over, and the growth of residential neighborhoods crowded out the orchard acreage. By the middle of the 1950s, when the county's population soared above half a million, the new economy took hold and the idea of the Santa Clara Valley as the valley of Heart's Delight faded into memory and nostalgia.

Further Reading from the San Jose Public Library's, California Room:

by Mark Robertson

Comments

My great great grandfather was thomas Mitchell

"Keep in mind that home is where the heart is."

I made my way through San Jose State working evenings at Santa Clara Packing Company. My supervisor was Diet Wiens (sp?). He was an active churchman and hired a number of Iranian (engineering) students from SJS, but I was a good warehouse worker and each summer he'd hire me back and we'd work fruit for weeks, then pause and start canning tomatoes often until late in the fall. I can remember nights getting cold and the can coming out of the steaming cookers, then coolers, as we set the cans on pallets or stacked labeled and boxed cans--always starting at the furthermost corner of the pallet. Any writings or pictures of Santa Clara Packing and Mr. Wiens?

Nothing specific on Santa Clara Packing in our index, however I found a little information here: http://vasonabranch.com/packing_houses/index.php?title=Santa_Clara_Packing_Company and we may have some additional information in our California Room materials, please feel free to visit us: https://www.sjpl.org/usingcaroom

I work three summers mid sixties during my high school yrs picking the cans with hooks and stacking them on pallets. Put boxes together, stack boxes for shipping. Work the apricot and peach season. It was a great job making union wages. Some great folks to work for MR Buller was Forman during my time. A man by the name of John was manger.

Sounds like a summer job I would have enjoyed having.

Am writing a memoir of growing up in Campbell and am looking for stats on number of canneries in the county, 1950-to the last one.

I'm not sure that we have those statistics, however you're welcome to visit the King Library's California Room (5th floor) for research Mon 1-6 pm, Tues - Fri 11-6 pm, and Sat 1-6 pm. More info here: https://www.sjpl.org/caroom

I was living on Casey Road in Campbell when I had polio in my right leg, around 1942 or 1943. We later lived on Winchester Road. I'm writing a short biographical piece about my life and am looking for text and photos of Campbell in the 40s.

Hi Jerry, I'd suggest starting with the Campbell HIstorical Museum: https://www.ci.campbell.ca.us/332/Historical-Museum-Ainsley-House

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