Since the beginning of the American era in California, the Santa Clara Valley has been the fertile ground for several high tech revolutions.
This article, condensed from the new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story, tells the story of what caused the Valley’s vast wheat farms to be transformed into orchards.
Not long ago, three technologies came together that would change the Santa Clara Valley forever. No, I am not referring to the silicon chip, the microprocessor, and Lotus 123. Those came later. The technologies I am referring to are the perfection of “tin” cans, the development of the pressure cooker, and breakthroughs in the refining of sugar. And I am not talking about the late 1970s; I am talking about the late 1870s
Food had been canned from the time that Napoleon offered a cash reward to anyone who could figure out a way to preserve food for his hungry armies. However, it was not done economically until these three new developments came together at nearly the same time, thus creating a great technology boom in the Santa Clara Valley.
Tin-covered wrought iron cans used for canning were commercially produced as early as 1812, but several decades were required before the idea was perfected. About the mid 1840s, the invention of sheet steel was a huge technological leap. However, early steel cans were soldered with lead-based solder and resulted in cases of lead poisoning. By the mid-1860s small machine-made cans were produced and made safer, but cooking to preserve most foods required about six hours, making canning uneconomical.
The eventual development of efficient pressure cookers shortened cooking time significantly. What had taken six hours to cook, using a pressure cooker required only about an hour. The amount of energy (fuel) consumed was also cut by about the same amount.
Sugar was used as a preservative in canning because, like salt, it dehydrates the cells of organic matter, thereby retarding the growth of microbes which cause spoilage. Refining sugar from cane and beets, though done in the US from the 1830s, was not perfected until the late 1870s.
It is interesting to note that, in the development of all three of these new technologies, a lot of companies went broke. Sound familiar?
However rough the start of the canning industry may have been, the effect on the Santa Clara Valley was that within ten years after these technologies were perfected nearly all of the Valley’s wheat farms had been replaced with orchards.
In the beginning of the canning industry in the Santa Clara Valley, most of the canneries were “Mom and Pop” operations. Several literally started out using the kitchen stoves in their homes. Once the process was perfected, however, most of the small businesses disappeared.
By 1919, the Santa Clara Valley was covered with 10 million fruit trees. At least forty canneries were operating in the Valley at that time. One of them, the Co-operative plant, was the largest cannery in the world. Total annual production in 1921 from several thousand farms was 100,000 tons of canned fruits and vegetables, 65,000 tons of dried fruit, and 12,000 tons of fresh fruit. At that time about two thirds of the output was shipped to the domestic market. At the peak of the agricultural era, around 1950-1952, this production was tripled. San Jose, in particular, was the thriving industrial center for processing these fruit and vegetable crops.
The most dominant orchard crop in the Valley by far was French Prunes. Blenheim Apricots were a distant second. Peaches, pears, walnuts, and cherries were also produced in large quantities.