Saturday, May 18, 2013

Intro update - Please Visit my Web Site

Coming on Saturdays: Local History Blog!
By Tim Stanley 2011

Hello Los Gatons!

I’m Tim Stanley, the author of the new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story, and I’ll be posting a Saturday blog in the Los Gatos Patch. 

Most of the content will be taken from the book, but from time to time I’ll digress, as there is always a large amount of interesting material that simply cannot fit in a book, regardless of how much we would like it to. The book contains plenty of Los Gatos-specific history, so I’ll go heavy on that material.

I grew up in the Saratoga-Los Gatos area, and as the title suggests, was one of the last of the prune pickers here. There was a time, not long ago (don’t go telling me I’m old) that that was how kids earned their school clothes.

In order to tell the story of the orchard farms that once graced the Santa Clara Valley, I needed to go back to the beginning.  The transitions of the Valley from the days of the native peoples until the demise of the fruit farms were many and colorful. Few locals know the story of the wheat farms that once covered the Valley. Fewer still know of the high tech boom that transformed the place they call home in the 1850s through the 1870s.
That’s not a typo. I did say 1850s and 1870s.

So watch this column to read about the Los Gatos oil boom, the pasteboard mill, one of the last Native American settlements in the Valley after the mission was disbanded, and of course, how to be a successful prune picker.

Tim Stanley is the author of the new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story. The book is available at several local independent stores and on line at

Friday, May 17, 2013

Poem: Of Plums and Prunes - Reposting

Of Plums and Prunes

Prunes are plums, I won’t deny,
But not all plums are prunes.
The kinds that ferment—those are plums;
Those that resist are prunes.

Plums are picked from ladders,
From branches of the tree;
Prunes are picked up off the ground.
This differs too, you see.

Plums are to be eaten fresh;
Prunes are grown to dry.
I hope this explanation helps—
At least I had to try.

Now if you don’t believe me,
With my grammar can’t agree,
Mr. Webster understood these things,
And he will vouch for me.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Los Gatos Innovators Circa 1925

The story of Scott and Brown, almost almonds, and apricot oil

Last time I wrote a little about the apricot industry in the Santa Clara Valley.

Have you ever wondered what the apricot growers did with all the apricot pits? A lot of local growers wondered what to do with them too until 1925, when Sewall Brown and Howard Scott opened the Scott and Brown Apricot Kernel Company in Los Gatos. It was located on Winchester Road near Vasona.   
Scott and Brown dried the pits and cracked them to remove the kernels, which when dried have a flavor similar to that of an almond. They then ground up the kernels to make a paste and sold it to bakeries. The shells were converted into a high grade charcoal.

In later years, probably in the early 1950s, local apricot kernel oil began to be extracted for use in cold creams and other cosmetics.

The oil was, and still is, highly prized. It is high in vitamin E, is excellent for skin softening, and demand for it has greatly increased the value of an apricot crop.

Saturday, February 18, 2012


A way of life for four generations of Santa Clara Valley dwellers

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.

This article was condensed from the new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story, by Tim Stanley.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Land Grants and the Tale of Two Ranchos

Rancho Rinconada de Los Gatos and Rancho Quito, though neighboring ranchos during the Mexican era, were vastly different.

This article describes briefly the Mexican Land Grants after the California mission lands were taken over by the Mexican Government. The article was condensed from the new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story, by Tim Stanley.

After the break-up of the missions, the Mexican government tried to encourage settlement in California by offering land grants. Land had previously been granted to settlers, by both the Spanish and Mexican governments, but not nearly to the degree as after the confiscation of the mission lands. The land grants fell into three categories: building lots, called solares, in the pueblos; small farm plots of about ten acres, called suertes, near the pueblos; and large ranches, or “ranchos,” which were usually at least several thousand acres. There were also common lands, called ejidos, for pastureland and wood.

During Mexican rule, there were forty-one grants given for rancho property in what is now Santa Clara County. These grants were given between 1833 and 1846, and were in addition to three large Spanish land grants that were already in existence. The rancho grants included most of the land in the Santa Clara Valley.

At the time these grants were given, all of California was considered cattle country, and as such, most of the rancho grants were of several thousand acres or more. 

In order to receive a grant of land in California, a person needed to be a Mexican citizen or become one, have a good reputation, and pledge allegiance to Mexico. The rules concerning who was eligible to receive a grant varied somewhat over time and through changes in government, both in Mexico and in Alta California. Generally speaking, to receive a grant, one needed to petition the governor with a description of the parcel desired, file a hand drawn map, or diseño, of the area, and submit a fee. The petition could be for a pueblo lot, a small plot of farm land, or a 30,000 acre rancho. For a rancho, one needed to show the ability to put livestock on the property. The governor, if he wasn’t replaced before he reviewed the petition, would make a decision, and if he approved, would issue a formal grant in writing. There were surprisingly few takers from Mexico, and before the flood of Americans began, a few Europeans and Americans were given grants. The perils of the sea voyage and apprehension about living in a society greatly outnumbered by Indians apparently deterred most Mexicans from coming.

The number of people who filed for rancho grants in the Santa Clara Valley and were rejected is unknown. What we do know is that some of the grants went to heirs of Anza Expedition members, many went to soldiers who were usually of high rank, many went to government officials, at least two went to those who had helped oust previous administrations, two went to Californio women, one went to a British consulate, one went to an American, and three went to mission Indians. In all probability, some simply went to the highest bidder.

The rancho grants after the break-up of the missions issued in the short-lived era of the Californio “Dons.” The Dons, or land barons, were the rancho owners, or rancheros. They were from a relatively few wealthy families, and many owned multiple ranchos. They represented about five to ten percent of the non-Indian Californio population, controlled the government, and tended to intermarry.

It is interesting to make a comparison between Rancho Rinconada de Los Gatos and the neighboring rancho, Rancho Quito.    

Rancho Quito was granted to José Noriega and his father-in law, José Zenon Fernandez, in 1841 by Governor Alvarado. Fernandez became Pueblo San Jose’s first paid school teacher and later held other civic offices in San Jose and at the capitol, Monterey, during the 1830s and 40s. Noriega also held various government positions, and in addition to the Quito grant, received large land grants in what are today Alameda and Contra Costa counties. In 1844, ownership of Rancho Quito went into the hands of Ignacio Alviso, who had been granted Rancho Rincon de los Esteros (located near San Jose Airport) six years earlier. 

Though settling on the land was technically a requirement to secure title to it, it does not appear that Noriega, Fernandez, or any of the Alvisos ever settled on Rancho Quito, though they almost certainly had cattle there. 

In those days, many of the rancheros in the Valley lived in the pueblo at San José. Notable exceptions were the owners of the neighboring rancho, the 6,631 acre Rancho Rinconada de Los Gatos. We know very little about José Maria Hernandez and his brother-in-law Sebastian Fabian Peralta, the grantees of the rancho, other than that they built a homestead and settled on the rancho. Their adobe home was located near today’s Vasona Park.

 This article was condensed from the new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story by Tim Stanley. The book is available on the web at