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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Vaca was bountiful fruit bowl in early 1900s

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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The harvest filled many boxcars headed for distant points

Around 1900, the fruit industry dominated all other industries around Vacaville. This column continues the description of agriculture in Solano County, based on an article published July 12, 1902, in the Solano Republican.

“The area devoted to fruit for a considerable period begins somewhere east of the line of the Vaca Valley and Clear Lake branch of the Southern Pacific, and extends westward to the mouth of Putah Creek Canyon, and south through Vacaville township and includes the portion of Elmira,” the Republican wrote.

During the last decades of the 19th and well into the 20th century, local ranchers experimented with different kinds of fruit, hoping to discover new commodities, new markets or the best growing spot for a specific variety.

“Vacaville is pretty well known,” the Republican continued. “Its fame seems to have spread abroad. Walter T. Swingle, of the United States Agricultural Department, on returning from Africa, in connection with the Government importation of the date palms to be planted along the Colorado River, learned in Paris that in Vacaville the date palm flourished, and visited the place for the purpose of its examination.

“Along the south bank of the Putah Creek, and in a section tributary to Winters, the shipping point just across the creek, is the old Wolfskill homestead. Here some forty years ago the proprietor of the Wolfskill grant planted seeds of dates bought for his children. In a frostless area they grew unchecked, and near the house of Colonel Sam Taylor this purely tropical product - which demands that it plant its feet in the fountain, while its top revels in the furnace of a Sahara sun - can be found annually maturing its fruit. Date palms are not infrequent in California, but it appeared that, unless the Government experiments along the Colorado are a success it is the only fruit producing date tree in the State.”

Oranges and lemons were other exotic fruits that ranchers experimented with in those years. Due to a variety of factors, including the occasional frost killing the citrus orchards, citrus never developed into a major crop.

“In citrus culture the same tropical character is found. In Vacaville and in Silveyville Townships there are citrus groves aggregating forty acres in extent. That more oranges have not been planted is due to the fact that deciduous fruit growing has been found sufficiently profitable to suit the most exacting. Oranges may be grown in these sections in any quantity and placed in the San Francisco or Eastern markets ahead of the products of Los Angeles or Riverside. The quality of earliness is not confined to deciduous fruit but embraces the citrus varieties as well. The county took a premium for oranges at the Mid-Winter Fair, held in 1891, and can match from its groves with the best product of any part in California.”

Cherries became one of the main crops, earning Vacaville its nickname, “The Early Fruit District.” Due to microclimate zones, especially on the hills in Gates Canyon and other protected hillside areas, cherries ripened at incredibly early dates.

“No stronger tribute could be offered in the tropical character of the northern portion of Solano. It might, however, be supplemented by the shipment of cherries from Vacaville on March 31st during two seasons and an annual and certain production of the earliest cherries grown in California, as well as the first apricots, peaches, and other varieties.”

Interestingly, the article also names vegetables, a commodity that is rarely mentioned yet seems to have been grown in large quantities. “It is equally early in the production of vegetables, and holds the San Francisco market with its early products for weeks, to the exclusion of all other localities.”

East Coast shipments used produce picked slightly before full ripeness, not much different from today. Fruit too ripe for shipment was cut and dried before being shipped all over the world. The annual numbers of boxcars filled for shipment was impressive.

“(Northern Solano County) is a large shipper of green and dried fruits, and shipped in 1901, 831 carloads of grown fruit and enough dried to make the total 900 carloads out of Vacaville during the season.

“Out of the 1400 carloads of fruit shipped from Solano County last year, six-tenth were from Vacaville, three-tenth from Suisun, and the other tenth from the fertile strip along Putah Creek.”

While this 1902 article of the Solano Republican allows a good glance at how the various landscapes throughout the county were used for agriculture, it does not see the necessity to mention some aspects of life during the summer months that local residents encountered on a regular basis.

A 1921 novel was brought to my attention that is set in Vacaville and in Pleasant valley. Written by Charles G. Norris, it is called “Brass - A Novel of Marriage,” a gloomy story of a young couple whose marriage ends in tragedy. It is set in late 1890 and opens with a description of the area:

“The hot summer sun beat down mercilessly upon the little town of Vacaville. It was late June heat, when the ranchers raced with the steadily ripening fruit, and the days became an hour-to-hour struggle against the fast maturing burden of trees and vines. The heat lay quivering over the flat floor of the valley and upon the sides of the distant, hazy hills. It was dry heat and the air was thick with dust. Dust lay ankle-deep in the roads and in layers upon unpainted fences and brown wayside grasses; the tops and overhanging branches of bordering orchards were coated gray-white with it. One was conscious of the compelling power of the sun which drove the fruit relentlessly to its destined maturity. The atmosphere was charged with the sense of ripening things. Underneath protecting, limp foliage, the implacable heat made its way with soft, persuasive caresses. The fruit hung fat and heavy; the branches of trees sagged daily lower and lower; the pickers in the orchards worked with dogged persistency. From one end of Pleasant Valley to the other a mighty effort was in progress to harvest the crop.

“Vacaville lies less than eighty miles northeast of San Francisco, a busy, bustling town, intent upon its chief and only interest: the nurturing and gleaning of its fruit. A handful of streets and houses, it stands isolated in a boundless ocean of green tree-tops. The emerald sea spreads itself unbrokenly across the flat level valley and washes high up toward the crest of the hill barrier which forms the rim of the basin. It is here that the vineyards lie like thin foam, the outer rip of the billowy tide, and through the leafy greenness thread fine wavering lines of white road, concentrating near the center at the little island of roofs and pavements which constitute the town.”

Once the novel moves from the descriptive opening, several persons are introduced. Some are based on real people, others are fiction. Ray Bennett’s saloon, for example, was a popular place for the male population of the time and found its way straight into the novel. Mr. Bennett served a free lunch to all his customers. He was also known for his fancy outfits, complete with large diamond rings and diamond studs in his shirtfront.

Ranch names and that of one of the protagonists, Judge Baldwin, are made up, but may be modeled after local residents. Anti-Japanese comments on the other hand are more reflective of the author’s 1920s attitudes than those of the late 1890s when Japanese workers were welcomed to replace the Chinese workers.

“In the late nineties, the most popular spot in Vacaville of a late morning was Ray Bennett’s Caf. The first hauls of fruit came in from the nearest of surrounding ranches between nine and ten o’clock, and at the end of the hour the lumbering wagons had unloaded their toppling piles of clean, new-made boxes down by the railroad sheds of the shipping company, and the drivers congregated at Bennett’s bar for a beer or a pony of whiskey before the return trip. Many ranch owners and superintendents dropped in here after the visit to the bank or post-office which had brought them in to town, and there was a general meeting of friends and acquaintances. Outside, the street was all but blocked with waiting vehicles. It was before the day of the automobile, and the collection of conveyances was mixed and varied. There were iron-ribbed, heavy-axled trucks of the Donohue ranch, canvas-topped caravans from the Mackinnon orchards; varnished, green-painted, high-walled drays from the Coachman estate, with the golden Coachman emblem stenciled upon their sides; gaudy, decorated vans from the haciendas of Anthony Ferreira and his brother; and rickety, creaking, ramshackle affairs maintained by Japs. Scattered among these were smaller vehicles, buggies and buckboards, which had brought the ranch-owners and their superintendents to town. Conspicuous among these was the cream-colored, tassel-topped surrey which was always associated in the mind of the people of Vacaville with the gigantic proportions of Judge Baldwin.”

Hopefully, more research will bring up other facts about the author and his seemingly first-hand knowledge of life in Vacaville around 1900.