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Sunday, November 26, 1995

After Depression hits, fruit industry the pits

Kristin Delaplane

Competition following WWII the final blow

Second in a series
As a result of the fruit industry, Vacaville alone supported several fruit-packing establishments. The township included 115 square miles of land, of which approximately 15,000 acres were planted in fruit.

Generally, there were 100 trees to the acre and sales were good. For example, early cherries, shipped at the first of April, brought from $3,500 to $4,000 per freight carload. One cherry grower with 90 trees cleared $2,200 in 1901.

The average proportions of shipments would be 25 percent peaches and plums, 20 percent grapes, 15 percent pears, 10 percent apricots, and 3 percent cherries.

The migrant workers who showed up for the season camped on the many ranches. Even in summertime, the workers from town camped at the ranches. The migrant workers were mainly white, but there were also Filipinos, blacks and Spanish. Each group camped in separate sections.

By 1908, it was reported that 100 Andalusians, an ancient Gypsy clan from Spain, were working in the Solano County orchards. The orchardists were well-pleased with their work. Additionally, the fact that the growers felt racially more akin to the Spanish than the Chinese and Japanese was a factor in preferring the Spanish laborers.

Some of the Spanish people came from Hawaii, where they had migrated to work on the sugar plantations. They became well-known for their ability in pruning the trees. In fact, they eventually took over the pruning phase of the industry.

A Spanish market sprang up in town and it made deliveries to the Spanish people camped at the ranches. More often than not, it allowed the people to pay at the end of the season.

Solano County, having a climate and terrain somewhat like Spain, was a favorable home for these people, and many sent for their families. By 1911, a solid Spanish colony was established. Spanish heritage clubs were organized for the purpose of preserving the language and culture and a few started up the popular Spanish bands.

According to Babel Alonzo, born in 1905, “the area around the Basic Plant was called Spanish Town, where maybe 100 Spanish people lived. In the summertime they picked the prunes and the whole family worked. There was no child labor law then. Little toddlers used to pick up the prunes in the summertime.” Plums were not picked off the trees, but rather the fruit was shaken from the trees and the prunes then picked off the ground.

The Burton brothers, Lester and William, were partners in the fruit ranching business. Their business was mainly dried fruit, but they also sold their fruit to the canneries.

During the season, the labor they hired was migrant workers. “Most of the time, people were coming from Oklahoma and Arkansas. And quite a few Japanese.”

The Burton brothers also recalled that the “wind usually give us all our trouble. We had a lot of wind falls. That was the worst. It shook all the ripe peaches off the trees. They’d hit the ground, and the dirt would go in them. You couldn’t get the dirt out of them, so you couldn’t dry them.”

The most noted orchard business locally was in Buck Town. Launched in the 1800s by Leonard Buck, it fell to his oldest son, Frank H. Buck Sr., in 1881.

By the turn of the century, Frank Buck was the undisputed leader in the fruit industry, and he expanded the family operations into the San Joaquin Valley. With his many investments and success, he eventually moved to the financial and cultural center, San Francisco.

In this boom time, Vacaville was a prime living area in the county. It was said to have a large number of handsome homes surrounded by semitropical gardens.

Buck Avenue was the leading residential street. Lots went from $100 to $750 and houses rented from $5 to $15 per month. Business lots were worth $40 a front foot and store rentals ranged from $15 to $50 per month.

The public school was located in a brick building, and there were six full-time teachers in 1904. Additionally, there were many rural schools in the towship. The Union High School had a staff of five fully accredited teachers

The town supported many churches for the population. There were churches for the Adventists, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists and Presbyterians. An Episcopal Mission was maintained in the IOOF Hall.

Many of the leading fraternities were represented, and the Ulatis Club, a social organization made up of the leading citizens, had large quarters.

A steam laundry and a bottling works plant were among the town’s industries. Of course, there was a main bank, The Bank of Vacaville, and many mercantile establishments.

North of town, the Steiger rock quarry had a crushing plant. In 1915, the Carnegie Library was completed. By 1925, Main Street was dug up and the town’s sewer lines were put in place.

The fruit production reached its peak in 1895 and was a stable industry until the 1920s. But boom times were not to prevail.

The fruit industry started to meet its decline when other areas in California, particularly the San Joaquin Valley, began to irrigate fruit crops. This meant they could produce fruits that were much larger in size than the smaller fruits produced from these non-irrigated lands.

Also, by now the rains had mostly eroded the rich hill soils where trees were planted, and the harvests were showing poor results.

By the start of the Great Depression, around 1930, losses exceeded profits for Vacaville’s once lucrative fruit crops. The prices the growers were able to fetch back East did not cover the cost of freight, materials for packing and the merchant charges.

At this point, the panicking farmers cut the wages of the laborers to $1.25 for an eight-hour day. The Burton brothers recalled, “Well, one year we sold apricots for 6 cents a pound and peaches we got 3 l/2 cents.”

Then the workers organized the Agriculture Workers Union and went on strike in 1932.

Alonzo remembered those days. “The people that were striking were the Spaniards, because they were the only ones in there. That’s why it turned out to be more or less a race war. You were either Spanish or you weren’t. That was it.”

The strike ended in a matter of months, but not without a share of riots and hazing incidents. The end result: It was back to work as usual with no wage increase.

During the lean Depression years, some work could be found along “fruit shed row” at 33 cents an hour, but the thousands of acres that had once produced the nation’s best fruit could be had for the taking. Some ranchers even abandoned entire farming operations.

The final blow and greatest decline came around World War II and after, when fresh fruits were more readily available to people year-round. At this point, canned fruits and dried fruits became less important, meaning the growers could no longer capitalize on their broad-based marketing.

And so the big fruit era passed. But still, the old-timers would long have fond memories of the tastes and smells of those luscious, sun-ripened fruits from the valleys that when bitten into, a blessed sweetness spurted in your mouth.


If you have photographs illustrating the life and times of Solano County, contact the Vacaville Heritage Council at 447-0837 or 448-6737 or the Vacaville Museum at 447-4513. Ask about duplicate copies for your family or business archives.