Family Orchard Battles Local Museum Over How to Protect Sunnyvale’s Historic Legacy

For four decades, Charlie Olson has tended to 10 acres of the Santa Clara Valley’s agricultural heritage. It’s a family tradition that dates back to 1899 when his grandfather—new to California—planted his apricot and cherry orchard on the corner of Mathilda Avenue and El Camino Real in Sunnyvale.

His son took the reins after dropping out of school at the age of 13. Olson became proprietor of the city-owned Orchard Heritage Park grove decades later in 1977, just a few years before his father died.

Olson—tall, tan, rough-palmed, gravelly-voiced and approaching his mid-80s—remains under city contract to run the operation that produces apricots and cherries prized for their sweetness. Though his small patch of the valley, sequestered as it is by a public green and a pair of parking lots by the Sunnyvale Community Center, remains largely unchanged, the region around it has transformed into what’s known to the wide world as an innovation capital.

Surrounding swaths of farmland long ago gave way to drive-throughs and strip malls amid campuses housing titans of high-tech industry: Lockheed Martin, Yahoo!, Juniper Networks, LinkedIn. All the while, Olson and a handful of season workers such as Elisabeth Maurer dutifully purvey the orchard’s bounty from a roadside fruit stand.

The Olson orchard now faces a test.

In an ironic twist, it’s not Silicon Valley sprawl or the trappings of suburbia encroaching on the site’s anachronistic charm but curators of the community’s historical memory.

Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum, which sits just yards away from Olson’s beloved orchard, wants to extend its back wall enough to add a new wing showcasing the city’s aviation and technological history. Unfortunately for Olson, the proposed expansion to memorialize that part of the city’s past would displace as many as 10 healthy Blenheim apricot trees. “It’s for history,” museum chair Laura Babcock says.

The planned wing would tell an important story about Sunnyvale aeronautics industry, an inextricable part of the city’s history that dates back decades. In 1960, the US Air Force opened a base that in 1986 was renamed Onizuka Air Force Station in honor of Lt. Colonel Ellison Onizuka, one of the astronauts killed in the Challenger explosion. The military installation tested bleeding-edge satellites during the Cold War. Over the years, its distinct architectural style made it known to locals as the Blue Cube.

Sunnyvale’s tech boom began in the 1980s, just as the air force began reconsidering running operations in such a strategically vulnerable location. That decade, the military began gradually relocating its space-command missions several states away to Colorado Springs. By the ’90s, the entire Cube was shuttered. By 2014, it was razed.

Babcock wants to fill that gap in Sunnyvale’s collective memory with exhibits detailing that legacy of aviation innovation.

But Olson has his own ambitions about historical preservation, given how the vast majority of the valley’s agricultural past have disappeared, too.

The museum curator says she gets it, but there’s room enough to memorialize both parts of the city’s heritage. The facility includes an exhibit tailored to elementary students about the city’s agricultural roots and the orchards that once stretched for miles around. “The orchards are gone, and we have a rich history in tech now,” Babcock says. “And before that, we had a history in national defense and reconnaissance. ... Right now we’re world-known for our high-tech industry. Sunnyvale didn’t stop at a cherry orchard.”

Of Olson’s fight to preserve those four, five or six trees, she says, “People are grasping at remnants.”  ... “We’re talking fruit trees, not coastal oak trees,” she adds. “In balance, will you miss four trees?”

Olson says he would. “First four or five trees, but then what?” he asks. “We have an 1,800-square-foot barn that’s over 100 years old. Green open spaces. We can’t have any more of our land taken away.”

Babcock bats away his stated concerns as theatrics. Under alternative proposals, she says, “hundreds more” trees would have been lost. What’s up for consideration now is the pitch with the least impact. “No offense to Mr. Olson,” she says, “but he loves his drama.

“We have plenty of markers already to commemorate [that part of] our history,” Babcock continues. “Even the museum is part of that.”

Indeed, the museum grounds hosts a full-scale replica of the old farmhouse that originally stood on the orchard property, which long ago belonged to the Murphy family—some of the valley’s early European settlers, who predated the infamously doomed Donner party in their passage through the Sierra Nevada. Before the city was chartered under its current name, the Southern Pacific Railroad made it known as Murphys Station in honor of the family that donated vast reaches of land to extend the train tracks.

For generations, the Murphys were one of the area’s biggest landowners. To this day, many streets in Sunnyvale were named after members of the prolific clan.

A fire destroyed the family’s first farmhouse in 1961. A little more than a decade ago, the city of Sunnyvale commissioned construction of a replica around the original site off the Central Expressway.

Though not as prominent as the Murphys, the Olsons feature into Sunnyvale’s historical memory, too. CJ Olson, who launched the family business 120 years ago, owned large plots of cherry orchards. Decades later, his descendants operated a fruit stand that became an iconic fixture at El Camino Real and South Mathilda Avenue before it finally closed for good last fall.

Elisabeth Maurer, who worked alongside the Olsons at the fruit stand for 25 years, says she cherishes the orchard’s legacy as though it were her own family’s. A lot of people feel the same way and want to impart that appreciation to younger generations. Ahead of a City Council hearing on the museum expansion, officials fielded 38 letters supporting the proposal and 98 against it.

“If we don’t have this land, then all that history will be lost,” she says. “Where will future children learn about all the cherries and apricots and orchards that were here? It’s a missed opportunity.”

Last month, the council voted 4-0 to set the stage for the museum’s proposed expansion. The Sunnyvale Historical Society and Museum Association will foot the estimated $60,000 bill for an environmental review and raise money for the 1,600-square-foot addition. The council expects to review a revised expansion plan at some point in the not-too-distant future. Babcock says she wants to preserve as much of the orchard as possible, too, but expects a compromise.

“We looked at all other options,” she says. “This saved the most trees.”

Olson sounds hopeful about finding some middle-ground, too. “We’re just trying to make nice and come up with a solution that doesn’t split up the orchard,” he says. “We’re not trying to make any enemies.”

15 Comments

  1. Olson really deserves some respect for continuing his legacy. Does the County even want to weigh in? Of course not. Dave Cortese should say something, after all, he claims to be a part of a great agricultural legacy. Cortese’s great financial legacy? Delta Dental investments in one hand, stock options in the other. The guy is running for State Senate, and not one word about how good orchard lane has gone into more apartment buildings.

    Dave, Cash, Cortese.

  2. We have many, many reminders of our technology history and one can always build up rather than out. There are very few reminders of our agricultural past. Everyone should do as much as possible to save the last remnants of that past.

  3. When I first visited the Sunnyvale area in 1961, I had just graduated from a High School in New Jersey and the same year lost my mother to cancer. My dad and sister took an across country trip to deal with the life-milestones we had just experienced.
    I remember my first impression of this area as being a beautiful valley with orchards as far as the eye could see, country lanes, beautiful people. Just 6 years later, my career took me back to Sunnyvale and it felt like coming home again.
    Over the next 50 years, I saw this valley grow leaps and bounds. Technology here, technology there and the orchards were starting to fade away. The warm memories of Sunnyvale were not the huge technology companies or the elimination of traffic lights on Highway 101 or the expansion of the 2 lane country road from Sunnyvale to Milpitas but the springtime smell of the orchards in full bloom.
    Early on I had an occasion to meet the iconic Charlie Olsen. I was driving my little sports car on a road that ran along side one of his orchards. He had strung up a large watering pipe across the road with planks on either side to protect the pipe from cars driving over it. The planks and hose were high enough to rip the muffler right off my little Triumph. I met with Mr. Olsen and he paid to have my muffler replaces and he had a smile on his face letting me know what a kind humanitarian he was. Every year thereafter, my little family would make a trip to his stand on El Camino Real and buy 40 pounds of his wonderful cherries.
    I think it is more important to teach our new generation how the farmers and their orchards of this valley contributed to the culture and values of this area and how the current generation respects their efforts. Save these historic landmarks and preserve their memories. Build your museums on land that has been destroyed by technology instead.

  4. Kinda sounds like Babcock is the biggest troublemaker with her lack of knowledge. Nobody goes to the damn museum anyhow. Leave the man and his family alone. Agriculture is what built this area long before folks like Babcock thought it looked better paved over.

  5. Given that the Olsons closed their store last year and no longer even have a retail outlet for their fruit, it’s really hard for me to take all the drama about 4-6 apricot trees seriously. Blenheim apricots are delicious and can be hard to find in stores, but they are not an endangered species. Expand the museum (which is fabulous) and plant half a dozen new Blenheim apricot trees nearby!

  6. Preserve green space at all costs!! Especially heritage green space. It is the slow encroachment, previously, now proposed and that will resurface again in the future that has eroded the precious green space that reconnects people with something that was vital, alive and amazing. San Jose’s Childrens Discovery Museum has expanded their green space with Bill’s Backyard to ensure that children can have meaningful experiences connecting with outdoors and agriculture. If encroachment continues… 10, 20, 25 years from now it will be down to one single tree. Surprised that this Babcock creature cannot fathom that and use a more innovative approach to expansion: BUILD UP! And, is there really the stats showing interest in what is proposed? Will it be supported, generate revenue and foot traffic et al? Do people actually care beyond the area’s tightknit community of folks interested in avionics. As a former Sunnyvale resident, those orchards ALWAYS stirred me, with peace, pride and with love for that past that was truly what this area was about for several hundred years…. that is richness to preserve.

  7. Living history (the orchard) needs to stay where it is. It is the very best reminder of Sunnyvale’s continuity from 1899 to the present. Have a lottery among the high-tech companies with 5000 or more employees in Sunnyvale to donate land for the museum’s second site. The existing museum site is already known to be too small to accommodate historical homes that are being displaced by development.

  8. My niece Dorothy and I often grab lunch from somewhere along El Camino and then we drive over to the Sunnyvale Community Center and park our car near the orchard. We enjoy eating our lunch as we watch whatever is going on that day amongst the trees. It’s one of our favorite things to do, and we would certainly miss any apricot trees that the mean ol’ Miss Almira Gulch (a.k.a., Laura Babcock) had removed. In the words of the immortal Ms. Glinda Olsen: “Ms. Babcock, the community is saving those Blenheim apricot trees! You have no power here. Now be gone before somebody drops a museum addition on you!”

  9. I grew up in Silicon Valley when it was known as “the Valley of the heart’s delight”. Summers spent in the early 60’s cutting apricots in half, popping out the pits and laying the tasty fruit face up on 3 foot by 7 foot wooden trays to dry in the hot summer sun. Learned to speak Spanish from the Mexican ladies surrounding me at the cutting tables. Riding to school on my rebuilt Schwin bike through plum, walnut and apricot orchards. Those orderly rows of trees would become the early offices of Apple Computer. College, graduate degrees and a lifetime later I’ve travelled the world working for those tech companies that changed the world and those fertile fields. The very people whose success drove the changes in the Silicon Valley floor don’t move to tight city confines when they chose to benefit from their work. They trade those stock options to create space around them for trees, flowers, and meadows. They seek the places where a person can dream, envision great ideas, create the next big thing. If we must have yet another building to celebrate hardware, let’s build it atop the one you have, keeping the open sky, birds, trees and the scent of blossoms in the spring for the next generation of thinkers and doers. Hopefully the museum will inspire the next Jobs, Wozniak, Packard or Hewlett to change the world again!

  10. from the Museum’s FB :Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum
    · March 20, 2017 ·

    Honeybee on Rosemary in Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum Garden
    Happy first day of spring! The honeybees are busy pollinating the rosemary in our museum garden and the apricot flowers in the Orchard Heritage Park next door. — at Sunnyvale Heritage Park Museum.

    I guess in the future they will have a hatch in the roof and a drone bee can go visit THE TREE that is left next door.

    Spray some vegan non GMO pollen at the apricot blossom and return to the display case.

  11. Why must it be all or nothing, one or the other? How about some housing, some retail, some commercial on a portion of the land, and keep the larger portion for the museum and a demonstration orchard, farm, or both?

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