Ever wonder why our heritage orchard and the J. Gilbert Smith house are on San Antonio Road? Author Robin Chapman answered this question and many more about the entrepreneurial spirit, during her guided tour that kicked off a month of Saturday walks in the orchard during April.
Deftly mingling personal experiences with fun facts and stories from her book, California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley, Robin captured the attention of over 40 people who joined her in a walk through time, as well as through the orchard. She touched on how it all started with the missionaries importing bare root apricot trees packed in barrels to survive the long ocean journey by ship, in a quest to discover which fruits would thrive in the Mediterranean climate of these lands new to them.
Robin stimulated us to think about the stepwise growth of markets and the technology needed to serve them. Orchards would not have expanded from the mission gardens without the market provided by the Gold Rush and the enterprising young men who seized other opportunities to grow their fortunes. Providing food to Union soldiers during the Civil War spurred the new canning industry and the adaptation of ancient technology to dry fruit. Expansion of the railroads after the Civil War provided a bold technological advance that transported more trees into the region and exported more crops. Orchards expanded further to fill emerging markets, first in the early twentieth century for exports to Germany and later for Allied soldiers in World War I and World War II.
Once the technical advances were mastered, what were the social innovations that followed? Robin guided us through the multiple challenges faced by 25,000 growers and 30-40 canneries in the valley at the turn of the 20thcentury. Many of the growers started as immigrants who bought a little land, worked hard and expanded. For me, a fun fact was learning that the origin of Sunsweet was a cooperative that started in San Jose as the California Prune and Apricot Growers Association in 1917.
Since attending this orchard walk with Robin, my eyes are opened to search for the many ways that the innovative spirit of our region has roots in events that unfolded long before Silicon Valley. San Antonio road linked the orchards to El Camino, the main trade route connecting north and south bay communities beginning with the mission days. I page back through her book to rediscover insights about what brought people and remolded our cultures. As Robin says, our remnant orchard is a tangible piece of paradise reminding us of the ideal conditions that make our valley so attractive for growth.
Contributed by Jane M. Packard