It was fun hiking up to the foothills in the springtime so I could get a bird’s eye view of my valley. The valley floor was covered in what looked like white snow, but it rarely snowed in the Santa Clara Valley. The white looking stuff was actually from millions of prune trees in full bloom. I loved to sniff the sweet flowery fragrance of prune blossoms that used to fill the air everywhere in those days. I thought the Santa Clara Valley would stay like this forever. How could a ten year old boy living in the Valley in 1955 possibly understand change? Starting in the 1960s hundreds of prune orchards were pulled out, tree by tree, and replaced with thousands of track houses, new roads, and other buildings until there was hardly a prune tree left standing, except perhaps in someone’s back yard..
Oh well, it’s like my Grandma Henzi used to say, “nothing this good can last forever!” I didn’t understand what she meant. I was just a boy. After observing most of the prune orchards disappear during the 1960s, I realized grandma was a wise lady.
I remember watching Dad drive his hand cranked, noisy 22 Caterpillar tractor, pulling squeaky ring rollers, over the orchard floor to mash down the dirt clods to give the prune pickers a smooth surface to pick the prunes from. The air was thick with a dust that covered the orchard like a tan colored smoke. The smell of fresh worked earth mixed in with stove oil (diesel) fumes from the old tractor, is something you just don’t smell in the Santa Clara Valley nowadays. It was wonderful! In August the prune harvest was beginning. Looking down the flattened ring rolled space between what seemed like endless rows of prune trees tickled the heck out of my little boy’s mind for some reason I still don’t understand. Perhaps it was in anticipation of the exciting time that was to come.
When great grandpa Joe Reif, who planted the original Henzi family prune orchard back in 1889, said in his thick German accent, “Vee pick za Pwoons”, my heart would start pounding in my chest like African drums. What kind of a kid would take joy in something as lowly as picking prunes you might wonder? Gramps made the big decisions because he had the most experience with getting the prune harvest done right. Timing the picking was important. If it was started too early, too many green prunes would be picked. Green prunes don’t have the proper sugar content so when dried they crack and become worthless culls. If started too late, many prunes would become over ripe and rot before they could be picked and processed. Yes, Timing was everything. The prunes had to be just right, not too ripe nor too green before picking could commence. There were usually three pickings during the prune harvest. The pickers would move through the orchard picking the ripe prunes that were shaken off the trees and laying on the orchard floor before the next complete picking was started. Total picking time usually lasted around one month sometimes it ran to nearly two months, depending on the size of the crop that year.
Gramps, Mom, Grandma, Dad and a few hired hands walked down the middle of the long rows of prune trees reaching up into the tops of the trees with long wooden shaker poles that had metal hooks on the ends. They would grasp a tree limb loaded with prunes and shake vigorously until hundreds of purple French prunes rained down causing dull, staccato drumming reverberations as they thumped the earthen orchard floor. The nice thing about French prunes is that usually only the ripe ones will fall with a shaking, if you don’t shake the tree too vigorously. The others remain on the tree to ripen up before the next picking. Ripe purple French prunes, along with many dark green leaves would then cover the ground around each tree. The orchard was now ready for the pickers.
All I could hear were prunes smacking metal buckets as the prune pickers began picking the prunes off the orchard floor. The clamor of activity, of work being done was music to my small boy’s ears. This noise was a welcome interruption of silent, still hot summer air. When the buckets were heaping full of ripe purple French prunes the pickers would dump them into the rectangular wooden prune boxes which held about 40 pounds of fruit when filled.
I rode in the rusty old open cab truck that was usually driven by my Grandma Henzi. As grandma carefully and slowly drove down a row of trees making sure she didn’t run over any prunes in her path. She would blow the Model T Truck’s old Klaxon horn, “a-ooh-ga, a-ooh-ga!” That was a signal for me to get off the truck with my little yellow and red toy beach bucket and pick up any prunes that fallen in her path. Grandma was a sight that burned into my little boy’s mind making a lasting impression. She braided her hair in long pig tails and wore a gambler’s visor that made her face look green from her nose up as the sun filtered through it’s transparent green plastic.
I can still hear grandma saying, “prunes are our bread and butter, we won’t waste a single one!” We didn’t either.
Every two hundred feet or so Mom would unload and stack empty prune boxes along our path to a height of four boxes which stretched out to six boxes long. The pickers would fill these boxes with prunes. The boxes would be picked up later.
Mom rode standing on the running board so she could get off the truck quickly to unload the boxes. After she unloaded all our empty boxes grandma would circle the truck around so Mom could load the filled boxes on the truck. Each box weighed 40 pounds so it must not have been easy work for her, but mom, although of slight build , managed to lift these heavy prune filled boxes up to the bed of the truck, which was higher than her waist. Her nick name was “Sardine” because of her thinness and small size, yet she managed to do a man’s job. I was so proud of her.
When the truck’s flat bed could hold no more filled boxes, grandma drove us back to the dipper platform which looked like a dance floor. Grandma backed the truck up to the dipper platform where Grandpa Walter unloaded the 20 or so filled boxes and moved them to an area behind the dipper.
The dipper inclosure was made of fire bricks and looked rather like a king sized barbeque pit with a tall metal stove pipe on one side. It held a large metal reservoir of hot water and lye mixture which was heated to just below boiling over a stove -oil (kerosene) burner that had an electric blower to increase the heat. Earlier versions of the dipper burned oak wood without benefit of an electric blower for heating the reservoir. There was a large wire mesh basket about 2 ½ feet wide by about 3 feet long and 2 feet deep which was used to lower prunes in and lift them out of the reservoir by a lever and cam arrangement. After a box of prunes was dumped into it, the basket it would be left in the hot water and lye solution for a short time, perhaps a few minutes.
Grandpa Walter was tall, large man. He made an impressive sight dressed in denim overalls, rubber gloves, brown leather pilot’s helmet and goggles to protect himself from splashes of lye water as he operated the dipper. Grandma used to say Grandpa Walter had to have a shot of whiskey in him before he could do his Swiss yodel. Well, he must have had a jug or flask hidden somewhere because he sure did a lot of Yodeling while working the dipper.
After the prunes had been dipped in the hot lye water for the prescribed length of time, which was usually only a few minutes, Grandpa Walter pulled down on the long metal pipe handle which lifted the basket out of the reservoir. He would rotate it dumping the dripping wet prunes out onto a downward slanting chute. The prunes then passed through a home made, shaking and spreading machine Grandpa Walter designed and built. The back and forth movement of the this tray would spread the prunes out evenly along it’s five foot length before they fell neatly onto an empty 3 ½ foot wide by 7 foot long wooden prune tray that had been placed below it. This machine made a loud and rhythmic “swish, swish, thump, bang” that sounded like native drumming as it shook and spread the prunes. It worked by fly wheel, cams and levers powered by an electric motor. Grandpa Walter was a Design Engineer and Pattern Maker by trade so he was adept at making all kinds of devices and contraptions which made the prune work much easier.
Before grandpa built that clever shaker and spreader machine the prunes had to be spread on the trays by a worker with a long handled rake-like spreader or by hand. With grandpa’s machine all the men had to do was lift the trays out, one man on each end, when they were filled with prunes. They then loaded them onto a flat bed horse drawn wagon which they used to carry them to the Dry Yard where the trays were laid out in the hot California sun, one in front of the other, to dry. After grandpa dumped the prunes out of the boxes into the dipper basket he would throw the empty prune boxes off the platform where my Tita (Auntie) Annie would stack them so Mom and grandma could pick them up and load them on the truck to take out to the pickers for refilling.
One very hot day I was ordered to stay at the Dipper instead of going out with Grandma and Mom on the truck. Tita Annie, who was 15 at the time and in charge of me, while Mom worked, said , “ Hey Eddie, how would you like to make a prune box house?” Of course I said, “yes!”
What five year old boy wouldn’t want to make a prune box house? Tita Annie piled the empty boxes on their sides, bottoms facing outward, in a square, about four high with a window and door space. I had my first prune box play house. It was a lot cooler than standing directly in the hot sun so I stayed in it, enjoying the sweet smell of the pine wood boxes mixed with the warm prune sap that had leaked out of the prunes.
I watched Grandpa Walter, through my own prune box house window, dipping prunes on the dipper platform doing his Swiss Yodel in sync with the shaker machine while Dad and Gramps loaded trays filled with freshly dipped prunes onto the wagon. They went on with this routine for what seemed like hours without rest. Just watching them made me tired.
All too soon the boxes my prune box house was made from had to be taken out to the pickers. When a load of empty prune boxes was thrown off the dipper platform, Tita Annie and I would build a brand new prune box house. As I grew older, I associated the Prune Harvest time
with my Prune Box House. I continued to make them for the smaller kids until I was 14 years old.
I watched Dad, who went by Bud in those days, and Gramps walk alongside the prune trays turning the prunes over, with their prune rakes, that had “cooked in the sun on one side”. After about a week or so the hot California Sun had properly dried and shriveled the prunes so that they looked like the ones we buy at the market today. Gramps would grab a prune out of a tray and taste it to make sure they were perfect. “Ya, ya, seher goot, seher goot!”
Dad and gramps picked up the trays with the dried prunes, loaded them onto the horse drawn flatbed wagon and took them to the barn.
I wasn’t supposed to go into the barn during the prune harvest time, under penalty of getting a good licking, but one day I snuck in to see what in the heck was going on in there.
I watched Dad and Gramps and a couple hired hands lift the trays of dried prunes off the wagon and take them into the barn. Everyone was so busy nobody noticed me. I was smart enough to stay out of their way.
The prune trays were dumped inside the big room of the barn on the cement floor. This pile of prunes would grow and grow until it reached the rafters of the barn, which gramps once told me, in his thick German accent, were 40 feet up. To me, it was a mountain of prunes. He also told me, as he squinted while twisting his handle bar mustache, “shtay off dat pwoon pile Eddie or you vill get it goot!” Of course no 5 year old boy could stay off a huge mountain of prunes. That would have been impossible. After hours, I would see my cousins Ron and Maris and my brothers Den and Wally sneak into the barn to climb on it, I had to do it too. But that’s another story.
The varnished brown wooden hopper was about 20 feet long and stood about waist high to a grown man. It had metal hooks under it to attache the large 50 pound capacity burlap sacks under it with their mouths fully opened. The men shoveled prunes into the wide funnel like hopper, filling the sacks. Those large scoop shovels sure held a lot of prunes—about ten pounds per shovel full. It took strong men to do this work all day long. The wonderful sweet intoxicating smell of dried prunes filled my young nostrils making me dizzy. I can still smell them today in my mind’s nose. When the sacks were filled, the hired hands would take them off the hopper hooks and drag them to a flat bed scale to weigh them. Gramps would either add a few more dried prunes or take some out of each sack with his feed scoop until the scale balanced at 50 pounds. Dad and Al, a hired hand, would then take large curved needles and twine and sew the tops of the sacks sealing them. They left two ears on the ends of the sacks to use as handles to grab them and move them around. Most of these prune filled burlap sacks had the silk screened black and yellow Sunsweet company logo on them. I loved to climb into the loft of the barn that had a huge pile of flat, empty burlap sacks. I loved the smell that burlap. I was a creature held captive by my nose so I couldn’t stay off those sacks even though I knew I would get a good spanking for it. Which I did.
A couple of the men would then load the prune filled sacks onto the old light green 1928 Chevy truck to be driven to the Gilroy Sunsweet Packing House. I remember asking Gramps if people really ate these prunes. He said, “Ja, Ja Eddie, older people really appreciate them.” He said our sugar prunes (also called Standard Prunes) were so sweet that most of them were made into prune juice but the Co-op would sell our French prunes as dried prunes just the way they left our barn.
In later years this old fashioned “Dipper” hot lye, water and sunshine method of drying prunes, that had been used since the 1800s in California, was replaced with long concrete block dehydrators using large electric fans with airplane propellers to blow the hot gas heated air over the prunes to dry them.
The new system sped up the drying time considerably, and reduced the amount of man hours and physical work required, but it lacked the romance of the old “Dipper” and sunshine method. By the middle 1950s during the end time of the Prune Era of the Santa Clara Valley most of the old dippers had been replaced with gas dehydrators. By the 1960s the few prune growers remaining in the valley took their fresh picked prunes to the Co-op Packing houses where gas dehydrators were used. In August and September south valley filled with the sweet wonderful aroma of cooking (dehydrating) prunes.
By the middle 1960s most of the big orchards had been pulled out, the dehydrators abandoned and the prune industry all but forgotten. The old prune dippers which had been used so successfully in California since the 1800s, which I had grown up with and witnessed in operation, became relics of the past, as mysterious to the new valley dwellers, who never witnessed their use, as the pyramids of ancient Egypt.
The fun filled days of my Prune Box House had sadly ended as all good things do. The fragrance of prune blossoms in spring and the sweet aroma of cooking (dehydrating) prunes in summertime was replaced with asphalt streets, row after row of houses, congested automobile traffic, noise of trucks and too many cars, awful smells I won’t mention, as well as that acrid stuff known as silicon—which replaced Santa Clara Valley’s old title of “Garden Valley” with the new one we know today as “The Silicon Valley”!


Edward Henzi

Clear Creek, United States

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Artist's Description

This is a story, seen through a boy’s eyes, about how prunes were harvested in the Santa Clara Valley of California in the days before the Valley’s orchards were replaced with silicon producing factories.

Artwork Comments

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