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?