This blog was condensed from my new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story.
I chuckle every time I hear someone say, “Lōs Gatōs.” To refer to the town in that way is to make a declaration that you are a newcomer and not accustomed to the local dialect. Everyone I knew when growing up referred to the town as “Lasgadus.” This gringoized pronunciation is disappearing in the area, but I’m afraid many of us will go to the grave with it. Likewise, we did not usually refer to apricots as apricots. They were simply ‘cots.
‘Cots were a way of life for three or four generations in the Santa Clara Valley. The climate and soils of the Valley—especially along the hills from Los Gatos to Los Altos—were perfect for growing apricots, and after Henry Coe and others figured out how to dry them successfully, ‘cots became big business in the area.
From the 1880s to the 1950s, nearly everyone was involved. There were about 7000 family farms in the Valley, and before we were taught that child labor was a bad thing, typically the entire family worked together to pick and cut the crop.
In the early 1960s there were still some apricot orchards left near our home, and after I had finished 6th grade, I decided to get a summer job. The first place I went was to a large wooden shed at the edge of an apricot orchard where there was a fair amount of activity going on.
Some kids were outside unloading boxes of apricots from a truck, so I walked over to them and asked who I should speak to about going to work. I was pointed to a young man who asked me, “Do you have a work permit?”
“Come over here.” He led me through the shed which, coming in out of the bright sunlight, seemed quite dark. The shed was full of kids, all older than I, who were standing at what appeared to be tables cutting apricots and placing them onto wooden trays. The young man led me over to an unoccupied space at the back of the shed, put a large wooden tray over four wooden fruit boxes that had been stood up on end, and had someone else bring a box of apricots. The box arrived and was emptied onto the tray. The young man then cut a couple of apricots to show me how it was done. He cut the apricot along the seam, dropped the pit into a coffee can, and then placed the halves cut-side up on the tray, starting in the corner. He then told me it was fifty cents a tray, handed me the knife he had used, and walked away.
And so I began my career as a ‘cot cutter.
Other than getting tired from standing on your feet all day and needing to stretch now and then, cuttin’ ‘cots is easy work. Picking ‘cots, on the other hand, is hard work. A ‘cot picker is up and down a rickety 3-legged ladder all day and cannot avoid looking into the sun more than what is comfortable. Extending the arms out to pick fruit will build the muscles, but makes them quite sore first. Frequently the picker must reach into the tree and push the small branches aside to get to some of the fruit. The reward when withdrawing the arm is often not just the fruit, but a slap in the face from one of the small branches. The larger branches are scaly and rough, and tear at the skin. And splinters from the wooden ladders are unavoidable. But picking paid more than cutting, so the job was attractive to the older boys and young men.
Cuttin’ ‘cots, however, was different. It was a social event. It was “what was happening” for a lot of kids. Perhaps it was not on par with attending a high school football game, but at times it was close. In the cutting sheds, most of the kids were from the same area and went to the same school, so it was an opportunity to be with friends and earn some money for school clothes at the same time. The work stations were close together, and unlike picking, the work was light, so it was easy to talk to your neighbors or even to yell at someone across the shed. The radio was on, and it was possible to cut to Lemon Tree or The Hop equally well. When Ray Charles came on singing Georgia on My Mind it was like taking a break, because everybody joined in the call-and-answer of the song.
Unlike today, when so much emphasis is placed on giving to kids, in those days kids gave productive work and learned from it. Work was part of our educational experience.
I think we were the richer for it.
The Last of the Prune Pickers is available on line at www.2timothypublishing.com