The Little Orchard That Could

By July 25, 2019July 26th, 2019Blog

Growing up in Los Altos, I heard from my parents many times that the apricot orchard surrounding City Hall was protected. The trees would serve to remind future generations of the millions of fruit trees that once filled this valley and fed untold millions of people around the world.

During the years I worked as a television journalist in Washington, D.C. and around the country, I would come home and see the growth in booming Silicon Valley. The remaining orchards were vanishing into a sea of shopping malls and asphalt. But the little orchard around City Hall was always there to greet me.

When I returned to care for my parents, I could see the orchard faced challenges. Land is scarce in this region and increasingly precious. The memory of J. Gilbert Smith, who once owned the acreage and who donated his home for our first Los Altos History Museum, was fading. And the Los Altos Heritage Orchard had no sign. Though it had been designated a Los Altos Historic Landmark numerous times since Smith’s death in 1966, its landmark plaque had never been installed. How could anybody know what the orchard was doing there without a single marker?

I reconnected with old friends and met new neighbors. Many of them wanted to know the orchard’s story and asked why it didn’t have a sign. In an effort to better understand our valley’s agricultural past, I wrote California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley, published by the History Press in 2013. Neighbors joined in at civic meetings and we found many allies at the Los Altos History Museum. Along the way, I discovered it was architect Frank Lloyd Wright who, in 1954, urged the city to buy Mr. Smith’s orchard for the Civic Center and who—with his vision of “organic architecture”—urged city officials to incorporate the orchard in their design. Los Altos didn’t have the money to hire him but Wright’s suggestion was not forgotten.

About five years ago, a friend and I were meeting with the former executive director of the museum, Laura Bajuk, about the orchard and we noticed she kept referring to a black binder on her desk. What was that, we asked her? It turns out it was a treasure, left behind by the former chair of the Historical Commission, Lee Lynch, who died in 2007. Seeing the challenges ahead, Lynch pulled together every origin document relating to the orchard she could find. What an important legacy she left to all of us.

We spoke to neighbors at the Historical Commission, on city council, and to officials at City Hall. The Los Altos History Museum, under executive director Elisabeth Ward, helped enormously as did artist Jan Davis, who, in 2017, was already in the process of designing agricultural signage for the museum. It was Davis who designed the prototype of the Heritage Orchard’s very first sign.

So, it was a much-anticipated surprise when we saw the Los Altos Heritage Orchard sign bloom along San Antonio Road. The mayor, Lynette Lee Eng, agreed we must have a celebration. After all those years in television, I thought of a photo op. We hoped we might get a few dozen residents to join us. Seventy-nine people showed up! It was—as you might say—a landmark day. Speaking of which, we are hoping to see the orchard’s official Historic Landmark plaque installed very soon.

When that happens, want to come on down and get your picture taken?

Contributed by Robin Chapman. Robin is a Los Altos native and a journalist and the author of California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valleyand Historic Bay Area Visionaries, both published by the History Press.