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January 27, 2010 > History: A Little Dry History

History: A Little Dry History

Fully tree ripened, with every opportunity to develop true fruit lusciousness, dried fruits become a symbol of complete flavor and compact good eating qualities. -The Story of Dried Fruits, 1945

Beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Hayward became a leading fruit growing area in California. The good soil and mild climate made it the perfect place to grow cherries, apricots, pears, plums, and a variety of berries. Growing fruits became very profitable with the arrival and construction of railroads making it possible to ship Hayward area products to locations around the state and nation. The abundance of orchards and access to transportation routes made this an ideal place to establish businesses related to packing, canning, and drying fruit.

Hayward's farmers shipped a portion of their fruit fresh but the largest portion of the fruit crop was sent up for canning. At one time, Alameda County had five large canneries, with Hunt Brothers Cannery in Hayward being one of the largest. Canning required the fruit to be cooked and placed in sealed cans or jars. Beginning in 1895 until the cannery closed in 1981, Hunt's canned most of the local fruit.

Fruit that was not sold fresh or canned was dried at several local dryers. In 1883 the price of fruit dropped so low that many growers in the area decided to dry some of their crops rather than try shipping the fresh product out of the area. This was almost ten years before Hunt Brothers came to town so drying was the only other large scale option. Drying fruit is an ancient form for food preservation where the moisture of the fruit is removed. Dried fruit kept the intense flavor of fresh fruit, but the shelf life of dried fruit was much longer than fresh fruit. This process was done by cutting the fruit in half, removing the pit, and laying it in trays in the sun. Depending on the fruit, it took several days for the moisture in the fruit to evaporate. The invention of dehydrating machines in the 1920s sped up this process to a few hours.

The orchardist found that drying was another good way to sell their product. In December 1889 the Haywards Fruit Growers Association sponsored a meeting of fruit growers from Hayward, San Leandro, San Lorenzo, Niles, Sunol, and Danville. They met in Hayward to set standards for drying and shipping methods for their fruit. From that point on, drying was a viable business in the area. In 1901, 40 carloads of dried fruit-mostly apricots, prunes, and pears-were shipped from Hayward to markets in the east. The entire shipment was valued at $79,500. Consumers liked dried fruit because it was another way to eat fruit. It did not spoil as easily as fresh fruit but could be reconstituted by boiling in hot water to closely resemble the fresh product. Dried fruit also had a different taste than canned fruit.

Dryers operated whenever the fruit was ripe enough to harvest (beginning around May), meaning it was not a year round operation. The cannery functioned like this as well, hiring temporary employees during tomato season or apricot season, but the cannery packed more varieties of fruits and vegetables than the dryers did. As one 1920s chamber promotional booklet proclaimed, "Hayward is the heart of one of the richest agricultural centers in the state. The soil is prolific, growing in great abundance fruits and vegetables of all kinds. Her apricots are known the world over as the finest in quality and Hayward has the distinction of being the largest apricot drying center in the world."

Besides apricots, pears and prunes were also a local specialty for dryers. Some of the large drying operations in the area were those of Robert King (a Lewelling relation) in San Lorenzo, Frank J. Cunha in Hayward, Sorensens' on Fairview Avenue, Joseph Correia on Mt. Eden Road, F.J. Rodgers on Foothill, Ramos Brothers on Winton Avenue, Roderick on O'Neil Avenue in Hayward, I.B. Parsons in Castro Valley, and Russell & Kimball in Hayward.

Activity at one local dryer, Russell & Kimball, was described like this in 1903, "Here, during the fruit season, deft fingers of girls and women and boys fly swiftly, and fruit in the wide shallow trays curls under the summer sun. Tons and tons of fruit, principally apricots, prunes and pears, are thus treated, making a product that is sold all over the world. Many families find here a chance to do easy, lucrative work, without being kept under a roof. From gray-haired matrons to tiny toddlers range the workers, all wielding swiftly the shining knives, cutting, pitting, and slicing." While I sincerely hope the author's reference to toddlers working was an exaggeration, I think his point was that people of all ages could find work in the local dryers and that the work was not too strenuous.

Drying operations lasted in the area as long as orchards remained. After World War II, it became more profitable to build houses for the surging population than grow apricots or pears or cherries. Over the years the orchards slowly disappeared as did the dryers. Probably the last holdout was F.J. Rodgers who was still harvesting apricots from his ranch on Foothill Boulevard and drying them in the 1980s. While drying was not a huge industry in the area, nor the primary way that local produce was processed, it is still another part of the agricultural history of this area and provided employment for Hayward's growing population.

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