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.