Louis Pellier

Who was the greatest motivator for education in “The Valley of Heart’s Delight?” For my money, it was a Frenchman who never spent a day in school here, never served on a school board and was not an instructor.

Louis Pellier was the man who introduced the prune to the Santa Clara Valley from his native France. The French prune became the dominant crop in the rich agricultural history of our valley for nearly one hundred years. If you grew up picking prunes from the ground under the trees, as I did, you soon learned that there must be a better way of making a living. Because I disliked prune picking so much, I was always both glad and eager to go back to school as soon as the picking season was finished. When we left school for summer vacation in June, we didn’t know exactly when it was to start again in the fall. The industry was so dependent on us, that school would open after the harvest was complete.

Louis Pellier arrived during the gold rush and set out for the northern mines west of Redding. He and his partner, Giacomo Yocco, did not strike it rich; rather they spent their meager savings before they went broke. Giving up on gold mining, they returned to San Francisco, where they found apples selling for $1 each, and decided that a better future lay in growing produce. Arriving in San Jose, Pellier started a nursery at a property located where St. James and San Pedro Streets intersect today.

Knowing of the success of the French prune, he dispatched his younger brother, Pierre, back to France on a twofold mission. Pierre was to bring back Louis’s fiancée to California, along with cuttings, or scions, of peach, pear, plum, cherry, apple and French prune trees. Transported in two great trunks, each cutting required special packing to keep them alive during the long sea journey; the prune scions were stuck in potatoes, and then packed in sawdust. The 500-pound shipment arrived in San Francisco in December, 1856, transshipped to Alviso aboard paddle-wheel steamer and on to San Jose by wagon.

The cuttings were planted and they flourished. More than 100,000 acres of this rich valley were covered with fruit trees during the heyday of agriculture—around 52,000 acres in prune trees.

A tiny park was dedicated to the memory of Louis Pellier and his pivotal role in local history in 1977. Located at the corner of Terraine and St. James Streets, the park has remained unopened since then due to the city failing to appropriate funds to open and maintain it. The good news is that it is now being expanded and completed by developer Barry Swenson as part of his adjacent building project, and the park will finally open to the public next year after a long wait of thirty years.

14 Comments

  1. Leonard, an interesting story, thanks!  And what a beautiful valley it was.  The mural inside of the County Courthouse is a wonderful memory the orchards in full bloom.

  2. As I recall, a postage stamp was issued for Pellier Park.  I’ll have to find mine to see what we were paying for a stamp in 1977!

  3. Leonard,

    I think every kid should have a prune picking type job.  I had several and it sure motivated me to get an education. 

    Thanks for a bit of interesting history.

  4. #3 WW, IIRC, the stamp that was issued in 1977 was the “Alta California” stamp and it depicted the Peralta Adobe, not Pellier Park.

  5. Leonard,
      Were it not for you and folks that value our past, all would be lost.
      I could write volumes of prune history. But today I will only share one with all of you.
      We lived in a barn, on Branum Lane and Pearl Ave.,  when Branum Road was dirt.
      Mom and Sis cooked our meals on an all wood stove. Bunk beds. Boiled our clothes in a wash tub. I can still smell all of those wonderful kitchen smells. Stacks of fresh hand rolled flower tortillas. Life was good.
        Purnes, cots, peaches, pears, string beans, strawberries, cucumber, corn, plums, tomatoes, cherries rabits, chickens, goats, pigs. We took great pride in gathering, growing, nurturing.
      Papa used to cut our hair with a pair of hand clippers once a month on Saturday morning. He’d fix our shoes with an old iron shoe tree and hammer. I used to marvel at how many tacks he could put in his mouth while tacking on new soles.
      Kick the can at dusk was our favorite pass time, next to swimming in the gravel pits, and building make shift rafts.
      I learned to straighten a bent used nail by watching Papa build rabbit cages. Nothing went to waste. Mom and Papa canned every thing. Papa made wine that folks would come and fill their juggs with. I really miss those simple times. Things are simple when one is doing something one loves.
      When school would start, all 6 of his children were required to attend school. He would forfit the bonus that was to be paid upon completion of the picking season.
      It’s at times like this that I see the sprit of our valley.
        One of his sons, now deceased, taught at San Jose State for twenty nine years. Sued the University for tenure, and the Attorney was his younger Brother. Me I went from straightening nails to building proto types. One of them just returned to earth only several days ago.
        When I effected Celebrations at the Mercury News, I hoped that history would be reflected as here on San Jose Inside. Perhaps there is still time. Might be nice to have a home town paper again. 
      Leonard, I am proud to know you and my heart swells as I am taken back to those days long ago when we were all busy simply being good friends and hard working neighbors.
      Viva La France, Viva Louis Pellier, gone but not forgotten.
                    The Village Black Smith

  6. Yeah my guess would have been around 15 cents.  Only reason I remember this is because I was living in LA at the time and a woman in my office collected stamps and mentioned that she had picked up the Alta California one, which I knew had a SJ connection.

  7. Leonard,
    I’ve enjoyed your historical short stories of this valley.  I am a resident of West San Jose just up the street from the Winchester mystery house.  Can you write a story or two about this part of San Jose?

  8. Thank you very much about this article about Louis because I was born and raised in San Jose and picked prunes as a kid.My dad was Suprintendent of Del Monte Plant #3 in San Jose until he retired in 1949.As a matter of fact Scott Herhold wrote a column concerning me and the history of old Plant #3 because I was tired of trying to introduce some of the great history and influence that the canning history in Santa Clara Valley contributed to the wealth of the valley by my memory of what agricultue and canning contributd to San Jose and the State of California. Canneries provided summer employment for high school students that would pay for their attendence at many of the local universites in the bay area.This contributed to the development of the electronic era in the valley. That is one of the primary contributions that the farming and canning industry made to now be coined Silicon Valley

  9. Hello
    I’m French and I am researching my great-uncle Timoleon Routier, former senator from Sacramento County.
    It was apparently one of the pioneers of fruit growing in California.
    Can anyone give me information about him or his descendants
    Thank you and long live America!

  10. Does anyone remember a song taught in school going something like this: “Louis Pellier came from France, with the prune he took a chance and today we have the best in all the land…”

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