THE SPENO PRUNE ORCHARD DURING THE 1940S

by Monica Damron

December 5, 1998

This paper is about farming in Santa Clara County during the 1940s. Most of the information came from my own years of family gatherings, with stories of how it was and more specifically my recent 2 1/2 hour interview with my father, except where I have noted. Anthony A. Speno, who goes by Tony, loves to talk and tell stories of his 61 year life, I was not disappointed in this interview. The interview took place at his Santa Cruz house on November 29, 1998. My dad lives in a old English Tudor with my mom on an estate called Windy Hills in Santa Cruz, California. They have lived there since 1980. I never thought my dad would leave his birth place, San Jose, but he thought the climate would be better (he hates the heat) and the this old house had lots of character. Mom and Dad are world travelers and have filled there house with many interesting treasures. Dad has also filled the barn with old cars, his hobby for many years.

My dad was a young boy in the 1940s, but his memories of this time seem that he was older than his years. He had lot of responsibilities being the only child to a farmer. He has remembers the hard work and responsibilities that came to soon for a young boy, his mother's failing health and death in 1949. Hard times, and a country at war, but my father is generally a very positive person so the things that were not so good are not his first thoughts. When he married my mother at the early age of 19, he went to work for IBM and moved away from the farm. I asked him recently if he would be interested in buying a small orchard with me in the central valley, thinking he would jump at the chance to live some of his past, to my surprise he immediately said no

My dad's father, Dominic, was the first of 8 children, born in 1906 to Italian Immigrant parents. Great Grandma Speno was only 13, married my Great Grandfather Speno and came to the United States through Ellis Island. There was a cousin in Idaho who had a meat market and invited them to come. Grandpa Speno was the first born of 8 children. In 1926 the Spenos, after a winter of extreme cold, or as the story goes more that 30 days the thermometer never went over 30 degrees, decided to move to San Jose, California Great Grandpa Speno also had a cousin who lived in San Jose, and he told of the rich and warm farm lands. Great Grandpa Speno had made good money on growing strawberries in Idaho and selling them to the fancy hotels in Washington. They moved their family to San Jose; my grandfather, Dominic, was already 20 years old. With the money they had made in Idaho on strawberries they bought a small 10 acre mostly vineyard with some prune trees orchard located at Kooser and Almaden Roads.

A distant relative to Great Grandpa lived on the corner of Auzurais and Bird Ave. (the house is still there) introduced my Grandma Carmelita Damiani to my Grandpa Dominic Speno. They were married soon after in 1934. Dominic Speno went to work for Mr. Lindsay as a ranch foreman, he started share cropping on a plot of land owned by Mr. Henley on a 60/40 basis. They lived in a house owned by Carmelita parents at 409 Illinois ave. Her parents lived across the street in a new house they had built, mostly themselves. My dad now owns these two houses and has been renovating them. Lots of family memories come with old houses. Carmelita lost a child, before my dad Tony was born. She is buried in the old Santa Clara Cemetery. Tony was born March 31, 1937. Grandpa saved enough money and bought his own house 2 doors down from the Damiani house on Auzurais Ave. In 1941 Dominic traded there house for 12 acres of prune orchard and a barn. They moved into the team and lived without running water, and had to use kerosene lanterns. Great Grandma Damiani died and left Carmelita some money, with this money my grandparents were able to buy 12 more acres next door. They had some extra to remodel the barn, but did not have indoor pluming until 1947. Tony would walk to Oak Grove elementary school, and later he graduated in 19~: from James Lick High School, he was the first graduating class.

In the summers Carmelita worked in the cannery with most of her family and neighbors from the old Auzurais neighborhood. During the 1930s and 1940s the county produced as much as ninety per cent of California's output of fruit and vegetables in the canneries. (Jacobson p 208) A old neighbor lady would take care of Tony when he was small and Carmelita went to work. Tony remembers that she was 100 years old. If the baby-sitter was sick, which happens when you are 100 years old, he would go to the child care center at the cannery. He hated the day care center. Carmelita was only given 6 month to live after Tony was born, she had high blood pressure and died 12 years later from kidney failure. Carmelita worked hard in the cannery, and would work until she couldn't anymore. She would get sick for long periods of time. She and Tony would live with her sister in the family house on Auzurais Ave. until she could get around by herself again. Tony told me he remembers once-they were a Montgomery Wards on First Street downtown, she grabbed his arm and said she couldn't see and Tony had to take her back home (to her mother's house). She had became blinded, they say from high blood pressure, it lasted a few days. Tony had lots of loving family, but being 12 years old and loosing your mother is not easy for any boy. The family arranged a marriage right away for Grandpa Speno. He married Carmen and had two children, Anna Marie who was born in 1950 and Dominic born in 1954. Tony and Carmen never had a very loving relationship and she was not mentioned in this interview. Anna Marie now lives in Florence, Italy and Dominic lives in Santa Clara, California.

Tony remembers that during WWII they couldn't buy soap, meat, coffee or sugar, they had to use war stamps, and were allowed to buy only what was rationed (stamps) to their family. The big exception for their family was gasoline. They were farmers, and needed fuel to produce the fruit and vegetables; they were providing food for the troops. One interesting thing from the war time is that owning a apricot orchard they had to account for every apricots pit. Every pit got sold to the government, the apricot pit was made into a face cream for the fighter pilots serving in the war. Everything for the war. Tony uses the terms "for the troops, or for the war" during this interview a lot, I could hear the patriotism in his voice. The farmers had good times, all of the fruit was sold to the canneries, and at good prices. Santa Clara Valley was a farming community. None of my fathers family served in the army. They served by being farmers, growing fruit and vegetables that supported the troops. All the men in the family did have to register in the army, but all had exempt status.

Grandpa Speno would hire farm workers. There were no local laborers available. If the local men weren't farmers themselves they were off to war. Grandpa employed Mexican Nationals, usually whole families for picking and single men for working in the dehydrator. Tony remembers going to the Farm Bureau with Grandpa and hiring workers. For pruning or spraying my grandfather's brothers would help each other on each others farm. Uncle Ernest would prune Grandpas trees and Grandpa would prune the trees on Uncle Ernest's orchard. "It's too hard to prune your own trees." You know what needs to be cut but you can't stand to cut the branches that could still bear fruit. Tony remembers starting very young around 10 years old~driving spray tractor with all the terrible chemicals. Grandpa was allergic to the sprays so he learned early how to drive the tractors and spray the fields. They would use parathion and malathion, with a 300 gallon tank sprayer. He would be dripping wet with spray. He remembers at the end of the day he would take off all my clothes and wash down with a hose. "DDT worked good on the 'cots, I guess that I am immune." All of these chemicals are now banned and are linked to diseases, but no one new then what effects they would have. In the winter time, Tony and Grandpa would get awakened by the frost alarm. "Usually around 3:00 am the coldest part of the night." Tony remembers lighting the smudge pots as "a pain in the butt." They had thermometers at the lowest point in the orchard. Tony would have to go out and watch them, when it would get down to 34 degrees, you had to start lighting the smug pots. There was a special sequence, of course he would have to run to the farthest pot first. He just remembers running and hoping that the thermometer would not drop any more or he would have to run and light more pots. The next morning he couldn't go to school, he had to refill the smug pots with fuel. They couldn't take the chance, had to be ready if it would freeze again the next night, "couldn't afford to loose the crop." The process of lighting up open pots of oil had obvious drawbacks. If the housewife put out her laundry and failed to take it in the same day, it was blackened. Stores would find their merchandise sooted over. "Smudging" was banned in the l 1950s, when air quality became a political issue, and newer methods were tried. (Jacobson p 206)

Migrant workers who came to the Speno orchard for the harvesting did not have housing. They would come for the season, usually for 6 weeks, and would live in make shift tents. They would sometimes use the broken drying trays and tie them together as shelter and they cooked on a wood fire outside in the orchard. In 1943 the federal government began the Bracero program to replace the men who had gone to war. Mexicans were brought up by train to the Santa Clara depot, where farmers would meet them. This program did not end until 1964. (Jacobson p. l60) Grandpa would hire families with large families. Children were good for picking prunes, because they pick them from the ground. You shake the trees and the prunes fall to the ground and the children could be on there hands and knees all day. Tony remembers specifically the John Ramirez' family who had 10-12 kids; he came for several years. Grandpa would drive to Madeira every year and pick them up. Tony remembers that in 1947 at the end of the 6 week season Mr. Ramirez went downtown and bought a brand new Buick Roadmaster, a real fancy car. Usually two families would be hired for the season. Kids and adults could earn $12.00 per day each. Grown men in the canneries didn't make as much. There were American migrant workers who would come to town during the season. Tony called them white trash. They came mostly from Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Tony had bad experiences with some of these workers. He told me that they had no morals. They were seen having sex between family members out in the open. "Bad news, the worst you ever saw." The Mexicans workers complained to Grandpa Speno, especially the ones with families, they were afraid of the white workers, from what they saw and especially for there children. One day two of the white men with knifes jumped Grandpa, he fought back with a shovel and kicked them all out. He never hired white farm hands to work on the ranch again.

Summer time Uncle Ernest would bring his prunes from his orchard in Campbell over to grandpa's ranch for drying. Grandpa had a big dehydrator. In the Summer Tony would have to pick I ton of prunes before he could do what he wanted for the day. That was the amount the farm worker kids could pick. Tony knew that Uncle Ernest would be coming over with his 3 sons, Ernie, Nick and Ronnie; he wanted to be with his cousins. Tony would get up at 3:00 in the morning and by 10:00 he would have picked his l ton of prunes. Uncle Ernest would usually show up at 10:30 with the truck full of prunes from his ranch. Ernie, Ronnie, Nick and Tony would work the dehydrator. Grandpa would dry prunes for himself, Uncle Ernest and 5 or 6 of their neighbors prunes. Tony remembers that they would charge $12-15.00 per ton., that was good money. Grandpa had his total orchard by this time with 36 acres, 30 acres of prunes and 6 acres of apricots.

In 1944, Santa Clara County with the county commissioner of agriculture, started participating in the Smith-Lever Act, and the Extension Service which would advise farmers on relevant agricultural information, when the War Emergency Food Production Program was established. (Jacobson p 167) My Grandfather was asked to give a lecture at UC Davis on the process of drying prunes. My father did the lecture for him. He was 14 years old and rode the Greyhound bus all alone to UC Davis, he always could talk a lot.

Grandpa also made good money on growing Tomatoes. Grandpa didn't gave up the share cropping at Mr. Henleys place until just after the war broke out. Share cropping tomatoes, in fact this is how he bought the last 12 of his 36 acres orchard. He paid cash mostly from the money he made on the tomatoes. Grandpa and Mr. Sigi Yuchima worked together both with 50 acres and 60/40 split, 40% going back to Mr. Henley. One year 7 the tomatoes were just about ripe, all 100 acres \worth, the canneries didn't want them; they had too many. My grandfather and Mr. Sigi got in the car they started driving up Highway 17 (now called Highway 880) until they saw a smoke stack. In those days a smoke stack meant a cannery. They were right, way up on Decoto Road, which was a town then, the smoke stake was a cannery. Lucky for Grandpa and Mr. Sigi the cannery here did not have too many and had not heard of the over production in Santa Clara Valley. They negotiated (grandpa did all the talking) for 2x the normal price. They had one problem-no truck to make the long haul. Mr. Sigi borrowed a truck from one of the Japanese neighbors and they hauled tomatoes for weeks up Highway 17, and made a fortune that year. Uncle Bennie told the story to Tony that they would may a haul to Decoto road and wouldn't get home until 1:00 in the morning. Having to load and unload the truck by hand and drive to Decoto a one lane road. Grandpa was a good negotiator. Some of the neighbors would hire Grandpa to negotiate land purchases or help them get a good price for their crop.

Tony remembers that we treated the Japanese-Americans really badly. Even those who were born here, some 2nd generation Americans. They took everything from them including their farms and stores. They had to sell them for pennies on the dollar. They rounded them up, whole families and most of the them from Santa Clara County were taken to Prescot Arizona concentration camps.

Grandpa was in business with his Japanese-American neighbors, Tony went to school with many Japanese farmer kids. Mr. Sigi Youchiama had bought the orchard next to Grandpa, it had a house and he and his family lived between their house in Willow Glen and the Ranch. When the war came they took everything from Mr. Sigi, they gave the ranch to Grandpa. "Lousy Jap" Tony remembers people saying. Only by the reference of this racial slur can I hear the echoes referenced of forty years of building resentment to the Japanese. Prior to Japanese-American being interned and guarded by military police."Self-serving politicians and farmers who wanted Japanese-American land had long decried the "yellow peril," and after the attack on Pearl Harbor they whipped up the rage and fears of white Californians. (Boyer p 603)

When the war ended, Mr. Sigi came down the driveway in a old car. He had this old car packed full with all his belongings and his kid. There was an old mattress tied on the top. It was summer time in the evening. Tony and his family were sitting at the table eating dinner. Tony answered the knock at the door, and when he saw Mr. Sigi of course he invited him in. Mr. Sigi insistent that he stay on the porch and asked that Tony go get his father. He called his father, Tony said he will never forget this moment. When his father came to the door, Mr. Sigi backed away, he raised his hands in the air and said, "don't blame me Mr. Speno, don't blame me I didn't have anything to do with the war!" He was very scared and not knowing what was waiting for him when he returned. He asked my grandfather for a small favor, some food and gas. He told him that they were almost out of gas and hadn't eaten for three days. Of course my Grandfather invited them into the house and my grandmother fed everyone. He asked my Grandpa for a job, "I need money to buy food to feed my family." Grandpa told him he doesn't need a job, you need to work your orchard. Mr. Sigi didn't understand. He said they took it away from him. My grandfather said I just gave it back to you.When the government gave Mr. Sigi's orchard and house to grandpa, he had boarded up the windows and didn't allow anyone to go into it. Grandpa went and helped Mr. Sigi un-board the windows. All the furnishings were there, just as he left it. He signed over the deed, and gave it back to him. Throughout the time of the relocation camps, loyal Americans in Santa Clara County held property for their Japanese friends, returning it after the war. There are also a few stories of those who would not return it. But the valley's friendly reputation was communicated to the resuming refugees, and more Japanese settled here after the war than were here before.(Jacobson p. l57) Tony remembers that when his mother died in 1949, Mr. Sigi came to the funeral and later called Tony and assured him if he ever needed anything that Mr. Sigi would always be there for him. Even though Tony hasn't seen Mr. Sigi for many years, he remembers him as a short guy who loves his cigars. He has heard that he is a very wealthy old man who sold many acres of land in Santa Clara Valley. Grandpa also farmed Mr. Hosono's land while he was in the concentration camp.

Grandpa also gave this property back when he Mr. Hosono returned from the camp. Tony seems to remember that Grandpa did paid a very small amount for this land when Mr. Hosono was leaving for camp, but is proud to say that Grandpa gave it back to Mr. Hosono when he resumed. Tony only has good memories of the Japanese-Americans, even though we were at war and there was a lot of anit-Japanese propaganda. A lot of his school mates were Japanese-Americans. When the war ended a lot of the Japanese-Americans from the area share cropped on Driscoll Farms. When the land could not be used for strawberries, he planted a cherry orchard. Driscoll bought land in Watsonville, the Japanese-Americans moved and continued share cropping with him. Driscoll built small one room homes for the Japanese-American share croppers and they each had 2 1/2 acres.

During war times it seems that San Jose had a movie theater on every corner. There were eight that Tony could recall. There were also vaudeville shows with full dance bands, dancers, musicians, knife thrillers, bull whips, and ropers, quite a special treat for a farmer. Grandpa was a movie nut." I saw every movie that come to town. Tuesday for sure, they gave away dishes." He would go to Mark Hot Dogs on 4th street Sunday, then to the Crystal Palace Creamery where they would get Ice Cream after the movies. War times for the farmers was a prosperous time.

In 1947 Uncle Bennie who was 48 years old, and worked in the cannery in San Jose, was drafted into the army and sent to Wyoming. Because of his skills in the cannery he worked sorting rations for the troops. The war ended within 6 months and he was sent home. The only time he left the state of California. Tony remembers his grandmother crying because she was not a American citizen and had to register with the government. She had seen what had happened to the Japanese and was very scared this would happen to her too. They never came, and he doesn't know of anyone taken away to camps other than the Japanese-Americans, there was just too many immigrants to put into camps.

After the war was good times for the farmers too. The housing boom with the men coming home from war and starting families. The first track house in the area was in Sunnyvale. Soon after came a housing track on Monterey Highway, close to Grandpa's orchard. In 1955 IBM bought a orchard across the highway from the Speno orchard and built huge facto~y. They built here because of the proximity to the colleges, Stanford, San Jose State, University of Santa Clara. In 1956 Tony married my mom Marian Hemple, 17 year girl from Fremont. She had graduated one year early and got permission to marry before her 18th birthday. I was the first of their three children, and still live in San Jose.

 

Bibliography

Interview

Speno, Tony (Santa Cruz, California, 28 November 1998)

Books

Boyer, Clark, Hawley, Kett, Salisbury, Sitkoff & Woloch The Enduring Vision - A Historv of the American People, Concise Third Edition, Volume 2: (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998)

Jacobson, Yvonne, Passina Farms: Endurino: Values (Los Altos, William Kaufmann, Inc 1984)