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Saturday, May 24, 1997

Mail-order business was plumb hard work

Kristin Delaplane

Rising costs hurt enterprise but packing shed fire did it in

During the Depression Era . . .
“The farmers weren’t shipping much. Plums were being shipped and so on, but nowhere near like they had been. Of course, the person who could dry apricots, they were drying them instead of shipping or selling them to the cannery.

“They had a lot of Sugar Prunes around here that could either be shipped fresh or dried into prunes. They define a prune as a plum that will dry.

“The average plum, you can’t get to dry. It just shrivels up and turns sour on you. A prune has enough sugar, so it dries with some meat on it. They have several varieties. The Sugar Prune was a lousy prune, but it did have the advantage that you could both ship it and dry it.

“The French Prune was the big backlog. A lot of these growers were straight shipping people, so these prunes could be plums to ship and could also be dried. They had apricots that could be shipped fresh, dried or sent to the cannery. Peaches could be handled the same way. After the Depression, the farmers came to where they dried and sold to the cannery everything they could, rather than ship it.

“I tell you there was practically a split in this town between those who were shipping-fruit growers and those who were drying- and cannery- fruit growers. The shipping-fruit growers had us all look down our nose at all the boys who dried and canned. You really had class if you were shipping fruit fresh. We belonged to the aristocracy.

“That’s what made it particularly tough on the aristocracy when the thing collapsed. They not only had their noses in the air, but they were bankrupt, too. That makes it rough.

“There used to be a candy store, Edwards, next to the Masonic Hall. They had what they called the Ulatis Club in there - an elite club for the fruit growers. Apparently they had this candy deal up front and then there were a bunch of tables where people ate. A whole wall was lined with Indian arrowheads. The Ulatis Club members used to walk in and go through a door into a back room where they played poker.

“Everything this side of town (east), the fruit came in too late to ship profitably. We were just marginal out here. In 1929, when things were booming in shipping, we would make a little money out here, maybe. I finally had to put in my lease that nothing was to be shipped without my consent. My tenant, Ynei, would just gamble the whole crop away because it was such a big deal if you were in with one of the shipping fruit boys.

“Ynei would take a whole Sugar Prune crop, ship it, having to pay the shipper two thousand bucks for freight. I wanted to eat. I had a mother and a brother to support. Why should I let him go on gambling just so he could be a big shot in town?

“We became the only mail order business in Vacaville. When the Depression of 1937 hit, we had a couple hundred ton of dried fruit here and lost our pants on it. We loaded the truck up, took a pan scale and went down and started peddling it door to door. We did that for about six months and found there was no pay in it.

“In 1938 we got hold of an advertising guy in the city and started advertising in farm papers back east. Then we started running mailings to individuals. We got lists from the Frank Davis Fish Co., preserve, cheese and sausage companies, and so on. You buy their lists. They charge you maybe eight bucks for 1,000 letters. You send back the envelopes and they run them through the Addressograph and mail them. You build your customer base from that.

“Of course, a lot of our business came around Christmastime. They would write in and ask us to send gifts to five friends or so on. Or you’d get a company to order 800 packs to be sent out to their customers.

“We included a questionnaire, ‘What’s wrong with my stuff?’ when we started putting out pectin jelly candies. Most of these candies are made with artificial color and artificial flavor. We were trying to make an apricot jell with one-third apricot pulp in it. It really made a nice candy, but you got all fouled up in your pectin-sugar-acid balance when you put that much bulk in. It varied with every bunch of fruit.

“We had a helluva time getting these formulas worked out. The damn things would sweat. You’d send somebody a nice redwood box full of jellied candies and it would arrive a bunch of mush with the syrup running down the corner of the box. We tried putting out these pickled figs in little wooden kegs. People would write back, ‘I set it in my beautiful bedroom and it blew up. Now I’ve got figs all over the ceiling!’

“After you’ve been in it awhile, you take a customer list and appreciate it just like you would a piece of machinery. You find so many of them re-order in the fall mailing, a certain percent will re-order in the spring and in the fall, another percent will order.

“Over a three-year period, you’d get about a third to 40 percent re-ordering. Some would keep re-ordering for years; some, 18 years after we got them. We still get an occasional inquiry. They’ll send an order in with a newspaper ad we ran in the New York Times in 1946 that’s been sitting in somebody’s drawer or was a bookmark for 30 or 40 years.

“We’d have the letters printed up, assemble it and sort it by places, states, and all that stuff. We sent out dried apricot samples with the letters. We tested with and without samples and found it paying out more with the samples. Using one of these lists from back east, we’d send what we had assembled and mailed out 50,000 at a crack. We’d send like 10,000 to Davis Fish and so many to another company. They’d address them and mail them.

“We did quite a bit of advertising in magazines like House and Garden. We ran in about 20 magazines. The Christian Science Monitor and New Yorker we could run a prune ad year-round. The New Yorker or Time Magazine would never pay out until in the fall, so we’d only hit them in October and November.

“The Nut Tree didn’t have a mail-order business like we did. Most of their business was through people stopping there, buying a box and asking them to ship it back to old Aunt Suzy. They did run ads during the ‘20s, but Bunny [Power] wasn’t much for mail order. He was soliciting big business corporations to send out to their customers. He had a helluva business going for a while. Then he got caught for infringing on Lion Magnus’ glazed fruit products. He was paying off the results of the lawsuit until World War II ended. He practically ended up busted.

“We didn’t have any major competitors. One down south that started before us were good competitors and there was Bear Creek Orchards in Oregon that sold pears and fresh fruit packs. When we started, labor was 15 to 20 cents an hour. You could ship up to 10 pounds any place in the United States for 32 cents. By the time we got through, we were paying around a dollar and a quarter to dollar and a half for labor. Transportation had gone up to $2.85 from 32 cents for the same box. Before the war, we were buying these big Imperial prunes for about nine cents a pound. After the war, when they took the ceilings off, they immediately went up to about two bits to 30 cents a pound.

“We went to these big packers, like Rosenberg and the Association to buy the dried fruit. They bought it from the growers, graded it and had it in big bins. Here would be 50 bins with 20 ton of prunes in each. You’d sort through the bins to find those that had the fewest worms and the best quality fruit and you’d buy that bin. We were better off doing it that way than if we’d sorted out our crop for jumbo apricots and sold the smaller ones.

“At Rosenberg’s, you’d get a consistent bin that were all jumbos and good quality. We bought Burton’s crop of Imperials over here one year, 25 to 30 ton. By the time you grade out all the small stuff, selling it to Rosenberg’s, all that labor, it’s just about as cheap to go out and buy. Maybe you pay a cent or two more a pound. When you buy from these operators, you’re giving your customers the same grade all the time. If we bought from Burton’s, we’d have some bigger prunes too, so you send them to your customers. The next time they get the regular ones and they say, ‘They aren’t as good as the last ones you sent me.’ So you get in all kinds of trouble, see.

“Rosenberg had a great big packing house at the Port of Oakland and a big packing house in Fresno for figs and raisins. They were the biggest operator in the state. Bert Wycoff was buying for them. He bought our fruit and then we went down to Oakland and bought his. We were buying prunes, apricots, figs, dates and peaches.

“We bought it all from Rosenberg except for the dates. Those we bought from the Coachella Valley. They had brokers in San Francisco. We’d tell them what grade we wanted - you’d have to project what you’d use. You’d go down and pick the quality you wanted and put down maybe a 10 percent or 20-percent deposit. When it was in, you’d pick it up and pay for it.

“The fruit arrived up here in gunnysacks. The fruit was dirty and half of it was full of worms . . . You’d wash them and clean them thoroughly. Then you would run them through a hot water dip to sterilize them, wash them again and put moisture into them. We developed a special process where we’d put the prunes in 40-pound boxes and put them in a heat chamber where they’d hold that heat for about 24 hours. They’d be about 165 to 170 degrees when we took them out. That broke down the tissue of the fruit and tenderized them.

“The main deal was that people liked dried fruit so it’s nice and soft, so when they eat it, their teeth go through it without the feeling of it being chewy. What makes a good apricot or peach is how much water is in it. The commercial packers can’t afford to put as much water in as we could, because they’ve got to figure on maybe a six-month store life without it mildewing. They couldn’t be over 28 percent or 26 percent moisture content, where we could run ours up to 30 to 32 percent.

“We had to go to the bank every year and finance, except we never got very much. Since we were the only operation here, we always had a problem getting a line of credit. They didn’t understand the business. It wasn’t like an apartment house loan where the rooms were all laid out. If a loan officer keeps by those rules and it goes sour, well, he’s still safe. What rules could he have for a mail order? If it went sour, he just made a bum loan. I had to sit around here for two months every summer running projections until I went out of my mind. I had to set it up so that the purchases would come in about the time the sales would be coming in.

” Most of our help were women from the community. They did all the fancy packing right here on the property in our packing shed. That shed burned down in 1955 from our heat bin, the one we were tenderizing prunes with. Our operation ended right there. We’d just sent out a mailing and had to send everybody’s money back. We sold our mailing list to our competitor down south and went out of business.

“Our biggest year was 1948. This was just another one of these industries that the inflation killed. With transportation on 10 pounds going up from 30 cents to $2.85, labor and transportation went up about 800 percent. Bulk mailings were a cent apiece. There isn’t any such thing anymore.

“After ‘48 we were just fighting to hold on. Every time we raised our price, the volume would go down. We were basically priced out of a market. So when the shed burned, we just couldn’t see rebuilding a packing house and putting another hundred thousand bucks into the place. We’d had a belly full.”