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.”