The Canning Industry in San Jose

The canning industry got its start in 1871 when Dr. Dawson and his wife canned some fruit over an old cook stove in their backyard on The Alameda.  From this humble start, a huge industry developed right here in San Jose for three basic reasons: the fruit was grown here, there was a ready supply of labor and two railroads, Western Pacific and Southern Pacific, built rail sidings right to the canning plants.

The United States Products Cannery (USP) was established at 570 Race Street in 1924. I worked there as an office helper accounting for the loads being trucked to the cannery during the 1941 summer vacation while I was attending Santa Clara University.  Much of the heavy manual labor was done by male college students during the summer while women were employed to do the cutting and packing.  This was a desirable job for women for two reasons: they had a chance to gossip with each other and there was an indirect subsidy; the women would work for four or five months and then collect unemployment compensation for the balance of the year.  This provided a work force when needed and kept the labor costs reasonable.  Cleanliness was important in any cannery, and at USP the women wore white caps, white aprons and white dresses.

In the early years, husky college kids moved the fruit to the canning lines using special hand trucks with 40 lb. lug boxes stacked seven high.  When the forklift appeared during World War II, the hand trucks quickly became a thing of the past.  Of course, the canning and shipping of food for the armed services was a major contribution to the war effort.  Even candy was canned by O’Brien’s Candy Company, and I well remember their English toffee when I was overseas.

USP was one of the few canners to use glass. By canning in transparent glass jars they made a very appealing product and I particularly remember the lovely green, mint-tinted pears; they always looked delicious.  But I was never too fond of fruit cocktail because much of the waste product was saved and used to make it

In 1941, there were eleven major canneries in San Jose and six more in Santa Clara County, employing many thousands of people. Many other local industries supplied the canneries; Muirson Label printed the labels, and American Can and Continental Can manufactured the cans.  The raw fruit was put in cold storage plants until needed.  After canning, it was again warehoused until orders were received, and then the cans were custom labeled and shipped.  Doudell Trucking hauled fruit for USP during the 1940’s and the giant Food Machinery Corp. made the machines to do the food processing. Smaller businesses cropped up near the canneries, particularly restaurants and bars that catered to the workers. 

United States Products was sold to Consolidated Foods in 1972, and the canneries started closing one by one, coincident with the tearing up of the orchards for houses and factories.  Finally, the Del Monte plant, the last cannery still operating in San Jose, closed in 1997. 

As hard as it is to believe these days, during the 126 years that the canning industry operated here, the valley changed from a wheat-growing area into one of the major fruit-producing regions of the world. Some of the richest agricultural land in the country is now covered with cement, houses, hi-tech plants, freeways and parking lots.  Will there ever be a time when this is reversed and this wonderful land grows nature’s products again?

11 Comments

  1. I’m afraid not Mr. McKay.  They let it get all away.  You can see the same thing happening in Watsonville today.  It is a shame that the city goverments don’t have the ability or courage to stop this developments.  Everything doesn’t have to get bigger with more homes and WalMarts.

  2. Sorry Leonard, regretfully the almighty dollar speaks louder than pastoral rural scenes.  The Valley of Hearts Delight is a thing of the past.  I can remember the blossom tours in the spring time. We were all known, proudly, as prune pickers.
    We can’t ever go back but we can save a remnent of what we have left.  I’ll probably get castigated by angry landwners but I truly believe that we need to save the Coyote Valley from any kind of development.  I would be very interested if David Pandori made a platform committment in this direction.  What can we save of our heritage.  I was born and raised here but I can’t visit any of my old schools, they are all gone.  I was raised near the bean fields and walnut orchards at the San Jose/Santa Clara border.

  3. I also worked on the line at USP and agree that even today I am leary of “fruit salad.”  But I also worked at Richmond Chase one summer hand trucking cans to storage, and another summer was spent at Chevy Chase working in the syrup room; then the War came along!

    Those are great memories of the Valley of Hearts’ Delights.  Of course one cannot go back in time, but we can remember what used to be!

    Jerry

  4. At some point a decision is going to need to be made.  Do we want crops so we can all eat, or do we want more development to the point that the fine soil in the state that feeds the rest of the nation and the world is all paved over?  Just last week there was a story on how farmland outside of Stockton is being developed at such a fast clip.  We all know this, as the commute from the Valley over to the Bay Area is already huge.  It’s gotta stop sometime or there’s going to be a major issue around food shortages in the not-too-distant future.

    Dan, I think your idea for Coyote Valley is excellent and there are plenty of others who are thinking the same thing.  Too bad none of them are on the 18th floor at City Hall.

  5. Reading about San Jose’s past is always somewhat heartbreaking for me. I’m both young and a newcomer to the area, so I don’t know first hand what it was like to live here, before the valley transformed into what it is now. But, in the course of my readings (I’m a grad. urban planning student at State) it just seems that at so many junctures somebody, anybody, should have said, enough. By the time all the growth has slowed, it was too late and that’s the real tragedy. I can only imagine what this region could have been like if the area had established strong rural/agricultural buffer zones between the cities. Well, hopefully San Jose, like L.A., can provide an example to other growing regions of what not to become. Perhapts others will learn from the mistakes of our past.

  6. Has anyone demonstrated the NEED to develop the Coyote Valley vs. the agricultural benefits? The Coyote Valley development plans illustrate a trend happening all around the US.

    Right now a tremendous amout of the produce sold in the US is imported from Mexico and South America. Locally we see Gilroy, the Garlic Capital of the World, squeezed by garlic imported from China.

    Does it make sense to outsource so much of our food supply? Does it make sense to cover the most fertile soil with spec homes and industrial facilities that could be built in places where crops don’t grow?

    There needs to be balance.

  7. Coyote Valley is important to me as well.  I don’t know how else to make that statement other than at the polls.  I would like to see better development plans than just sprawl – be creative people!!!

    Yes, it is so scary how we are erasing the character of our past/heritage – especially when agriculture resonates with so many people in this community. 

    On a side note, I do thank the folks who stuck with the development of the Guadalupe River Park.  I still can’t get over how wonderful it is to use that open space!!

  8. Can you imagine?  No more strawberries and artichokes from Watsonville and Castroville.  That can happen.  Developers are there.  Take a ride through the area.
    Driving south on Santa Teresa from Bernal Road over the hill then you can envision what the whole valley floor was like when I was a child.  Driving north on El Camino Real all of the little towns and communities had their own identities and you drove out into the country between them.  Meridian Ave (Road) was a drive in the country and ended at Dry Creek Road. One of our newest mayoral candidates has family ties to the old Mayfair Packing Company.  Fruit packing.

  9. Great story, Leonard.  My father worked over 40 years in the canning industry.  He started as a boy picking prunes and cutting cots.  He also worked at USP after the war, then California Canners and Growers and ended up as President of TriValley Container Corp.  I had the pleasure of working at F. G. Wool Canning Co., San Jose Canning, Richmond Chase in San Jose, and Felice and Perelli in Gilroy and Shuckles in Sunnyvale.  What great memories-what great people. 
    We lost our local canneries for lots of reasons.  Greed certainly but they also disappeared because 1.  it became too expensive to pay the huge fee that Janet Gray Hayes’ administration put on the canneries to discharge the water into the treatment plant.  By the way, a young councilman by the name of Tom McEnery was the only council person to support the canners.  2.  As crops were grown throughout the state, it logistically became less advantageous to be located in the Santa Clara Valley.  3.  Labor costs were higher here.  4.  Most importantly, starting in the 70’s, fresh fruit from all over the world became available year round.  Though canned tomato production has increased over the past 30 years, consumption of canned fruit has continued to decline.  Foreign competition, for shelf space, has increased.  I ate canned fruit for breakfast, lunch and dinner (probably because it was free) and loved it.  As we point fingers for the loss of local canneries, we must ask ourselves, when was the last time we bought a case of fruit cocktail??  Finally, it doesn’t appear our city leaders have any more respect for our rich, agricultural heritage than they did in the late ‘70’s.  Though San Francisco has its Ghirardelli Square and Monterey has its Cannery Row, San Jose City Council recently voted to demolish the Del Monte plant rather than incorporate a portion of the historic structure into a housing project.  History keeps repeating itself.

  10. This valley was indeed a beautiful place and the memories of the blossoms and the farms are certainly a large part of my heritage and obviously of many others who have commented here.  The fact of the matter is that this land has become too expensive to farm and thus the farms have moved to other areas, where land and labor is cheaper.

    Everyone, including me, would love to see the preservation of our remaining rural areas but how many are willing to pay the price for that vision. It is easy to say “protect the Coyote Valley and keep out development”, but is it fair to the farmer to make him sit on that land and lose money so that the rest of us can enjoy the beauty of his land.  I don’t think so. I would venture to guess that almost everyone whose comments we see in this forum are living on land which once grew apricots, prunes, wheat , tomatoes or some other crop.  We all have contributed in some way to the changing landscape that once was the Valley of Hearts Delight.

    If we want to preserve it, we must be willing to tax ourselves to pay for it or depend on the generosity of others through organizations such as the Conservation Land Trust or MidPeninsula Open Space to acquire those lands for the public enjoyment.  Talk is cheap but preservation is not.

  11. Every Summer, my parents who are now in their 70’s and 80’s, go to the Central Valley to pick apricots.  They often take grandkids along to give them a feel of what their childhoods were like.  And whether or not I ask for it, each year, I’m given a lug of ‘cots to turn into jam.

    My kids complain that I always seem to pick the hottest day of the year to can, but I really don’t plan it that way—Blenheims just can’t wait!  No matter the heat, we spend the day all sitting around the kitchen table, cutting ‘cots, juicing lemons, cleaning jars, cooking, and canning.  And all the while, sharing stories. 

    At the end of the day, we have filled dozens of jars – enough to share with friends, and enough to last our family the entire year.  In this day of plastic-tasting, hydrogenated food with imitation flavoring, something that was so commonplace in this Valley, has become a treat.

    We feel quite satisfied with ourselves…until my parents return from Watsonville with freshly picked strawberries!