by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As noted in an August 2016 post on this blog, the walnut industry was a significant component of the agricultural empire that was much of greater Los Angeles in the 19th and through much of the 20th centuries. The eastern San Gabriel Valley and, specifically, the La Puente Valley became a major center of walnut growing.
William Workman and his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple raised the crop in modest amounts up through the 1870s and Temple’s sons, Francis, who ran and owned the 75-acre Workman Homestead from 1876 to 1888, John, whose 130-acre ranch is now the site of the Whittier Narrows Nature Center in South El Monte, and Walter, who owned the Workman Homestead from 1917 to 1932, all were walnut growers, as well.
A few years prior to Walter’s purchase of the Homestead, a group of La Puente Valley farmers and business figures established the La Puente Valley Walnut Growers’ Association. Local growers were taking advantage of the large investment made by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who, after taking over some 17,000 acres of William Workman’s share of Rancho La Puente after he foreclosed in 1879 on an unpaid loan to the Temple and Workman bank, which failed three years prior, planted heavily in walnuts not long before his death in 1909.
The sale of large swaths of Baldwin’s estate after his passing opened up many opportunities for land development, such as Baldwin Park and North Whittier (now Hacienda) Heights, as well as smaller walnut ranches. In summer 1912, the Association was incorporated by thirteen men and women, including William R. Rowland, the son of Rancho La Puente grantee John Rowland and a former Los Angeles County Sheriff and owner of the Puente Oil Company; Benjamin F. Maxson, one of those who bought walnut-bearing land on the former Baldwin holdings at La Puente; Anna Hurst and her son Charles, whose family’s ranch is a historic site in West Covina, also once owned by Baldwin; Mrs. F.S. Stimson; and Louis Didier, a prominent Puente dairy owner and business figure.
The formation of the group was lauded in the Los Angeles Times as “important in that it places the walnut growers of this [Puente] district in a position where they may handle their crops under home management and supervision economically.” Moreover, it would help the Puente Valley become “one of the progressive and wide awake communities” The packing house was to be built in Puente and officials from the Southern Pacific railroad, whose line, built in the early 1870s along Valley Boulevard, assisted with selecting a spot for the facility.
To date, about 2,000 acres were devoted to walnut raising, with some four times that amount as a conservative estimate projected within four years. It was added that “when the amount of land available for walnut culture, and the average acreage planted to walnuts in La Puente valley each year is considered, the fact is established that the new association will eventually be the largest in the world.” In mid-October, the Covina Argus reported that the 2,000 acres devoted to the English walnut in the area produced a “fair” crop, “which means that the nuts are large, but that the trees are not overloaded,” and the value was pegged at $60,000. It added that the oldest of the trees dated only to 1904 “and are just coming into a good state of bearing.
The following summer, though, a report in the Times noted that the crop was a third higher than the previous year at $80,000 and that it was “sorted, bleached and sacked . . . in the new packing-house just completed near the Southern Pacific tracks here [in Puente.]” The groves were identified as comprising the districts of West Covina and Walnut Center “on what was originally part of the E.J. ‘Lucky’ Baldwin plains, now set to over 4000 acres of walnut trees, averaging seven years old.” Of course, this was not strictly true as the original inhabitants were indigenous, followed by the existence of Rancho La Puente as a Mission San Gabriel holding and then the thirty-five year ownership under Rowland and Workman, but the article clearly meant that the use of that acreage specifically for walnuts began with Baldwin.
Half of the 4,000 acres was comprised of trees fewer than five years of age and thus not considered of bearing quality, but with the remainder the expectation was that, by September, twenty-five ten-ton rail cars would be filled with produce priced as high as fifteen cents per pound and of the highest grade in quality. With respect to the new facility, the paper observed that “a complete set of washing, drying and bleaching machinery is being installed” in the 5,000 square foot structure with some surplus space on the property for expansion of up to 1,250 square feet.
When mid-September came and walnuts were being processed at the packing house, the Times reported that “the whole countryside was gathered last night in the new packing-house . . . where a harvest dance was held.” Ranchers and their family members were given tours of the plant, led by Association president S.L. Watts, secretary Robert Neeley, W.S. Sawyer and other directors, while Maxson was the manager for the season.
It was noted that the facility, designed by J.H. Harrington, an experienced packing house architect from Santa Paula east of Ventura, would actually ship out thirty carloads, five more than projected in the summer. More details were provided about the process, including the fact that the grade A nuts went through a cylinder sixteen feet in length rotating twelve times a minute with those that did not go through a one-inch mesh screen being considered that highest grade. It was reiterated that the youth of the trees meant larger and more profitable nuts.
An article in the Argus in late November reported that it was, after all, twenty-five carloads that were filled with a gross value of $100,000 and up to 75% of that accruing to the grower members. Neeley told the paper that, even though this was the first year, everything went “with scarcely a hitch from the very beginning,” though a fraction of the crop was affected from a heatwave, though these could be salvaged as culls, which had damaged shells but perfectly fine meat, and sold at a lowered price of between seven and twelve cents per pound.
One illustration of how much the area had changed since Baldwin introduced large-scale cultivation of walnuts was that “the groves are so dense with foliage at the present time that all the streets and highways have been shut in by a solid wall of walnut groves. It was added that, when trees were young, alfalfa, beans and potatoes could more easily grown in the spaces, generally up to thirty feet, between the trees, but, once the groves were about seven or eight years old, that practice had to be cut back.
Just two years later, the Association reported sixty-nine carloads, comprising almost 1.4 million pounds, of walnuts shipped out with total receipts nearing $200,000, a massive level of growth as more trees came to maturity and acreage (nearly 1,000 more in 1915) dedicated to the nut increased. All but seven, moreover, of the cars were made up of the highest quality nuts. In all, over 3,300 acres were planted to walnuts at that date and it was noted that, being members of the California Walnut Growers’ Association, which also formed in 1912 using the Diamond brand, Puente Valley growers did not have worry about marketing, saving them money.
An advertisement in the Argus in May 1919 stated that the “LA PUENTE ASSOCIATION packs and grades from 5,500 acres in the Puente valley” and that this included “nearly two and one-half million pounds” of nuts. It was added that, as members of the state association and with “the famous trade name of Diamond Brand California Walnuts,” local growers were part of a situation in which “cooperative selling of ranch products in California has been the basis of prosperity that is apparent everywhere in this wonderfully productive state.” While Neeley remained secretary and several directors from the original cohort remained, there were some new members, including Bernardo F. Rowland and A.E. Van Wig.
Tonight’s post highlights twenty-three paychecks issued by the Association to employees on 18 October 1919 and it is notable that virtually all of them were to women. It should be stated that most of the picking of walnuts in the field was likely done by Latino labor, especially as the Mexican revolution at the beginning of the decade led to a mass exodus of Mexicans to the American Southwest.
At the packing houses, however, a substantial amount of the work was done by white women, though there are two Latinas in the group represented here, including Victoria Higuera (whose family worked for the Temples at the Homestead during the 1920s and descendants of which still live in the area now) and Annie Serrano. Men would bring the raw products in from the growers and some might be employed in the plant, but much of the washing and bleaching, sorting, grading and packing were done by females.
In a rural environment like the La Puente Valley, opportunities for women to work outside the home were very rare, so employment at a packing house was, especially for unmarried women, likely very welcome. Payments varied from just $2.00 to over $35.00, though the typical amount was between $16 and $20, and it assumed these were weekly wages. Checks were signed by Neeley, the secretary, and Maxson, the vice-president, of the Association.
A year after these checks were issued, the Association was nearing completion of its new $200,000 packing house, reported by the Pomona Bulletin to be “three times as large as any other structure of its kind in the world, and equipped throughout with the most modern machinery to facilitate swift and economical handling of an enormous output.” The dimensions were 180′ x 300′ with the second largest in existence being the plant at Whittier which was 90′ x 180′. A “false loft” held the drying and sizing areas, a 160-horsepower load of electricity was used to power the machinery, and there was a 150,000 gallon reservoir for fire protection. Fern L. Bishop was the designer of the plant, which also included a 120′ x 200′ concrete basement for the storage of up to 600,000 pounds of culled nuts.
The paper wrote that “it’s a gigantic institution any way one looks at it. The building is practically as long as any city block, and more than half as wide, with [railroad] spur track room to load half a trainload of freight cars simultaneously.” Mammoth as the plant was, “there is in reserve enough land to build an addition as large as the present structure, and indeed it will not be many years until this addition is needed.” As an example of how well the local growers could do, the Hursts were offered $220,000 for their 55-acre spread, or $4,000 an acre, but they rejected the bid for their prosperous grove.
As to output, the initial shipment of 40,000 pounds eight years before was dwarfed by the expectation that the 1920 total would be some 7 million pounds with a value of about $2 million. In a ten-hour workday, the capacity was up to some 300,000 pounds and during the peak of the season, it was expected that the packing house would be in operation around the clock, in which case three quarters of a million pounds could be processed. There was room for over 1.3 million pounds under normal conditions, but, in an emergency, it was asserted that more than three times that amount could safely be stored there. This dramatic increase in production led to the sale of the old house to the Puente Valley Orange Growers’ Association as the new plant was undertaken, though the output for 1920 was expected to be about the same as the prior year.
Notably, there was a significant expansion in citrus planting and growing in the La Puente Valley, as well. A $100,000 packing house, torn down perhaps fifteen or so years ago, was completed at North Whittier Heights along the Union Pacific (formerly the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake) line and the Times reported that “the citrus industry threatens to soon exceed the walnut industry as the main product” in the Puente region. In fact, just one area of North Whittier Heights, composed of 2,600 acres “is now coming into heavy bearing” and there were rejected offers of $6,000 per acre for some of these parcels.
The peak of production at the Association’s packing house was in 1927, about the time that Walter P. Temple’s walnut trees at the Homestead, planted just before the plant was completed, were coming into maturity and would have produced their largest and most valuable crop. The prior record of two years before was 3700 tons, but it was estimated that from 4400 to 4700 tons would be processed that year. At that date, some 7,000 acres were planted to walnuts with prices set at fifty cents a sack for nuts in budded groves and sixty cents for in seedling groves for those who were picking in the field—again, these were probably mostly Latino laborers still coming to the region in large numbers from Mexico.
Two years later, however, came the Great Depression and conditions changed as the economic fallout lasted through the 1930s (Temple lost the Homestead, for example, in 1932 as a massive wave of bank failures throughout America worsened the situation.) During the Second World War, a moth infestation had a major effect on the productivity of groves, which were also affected by chronic wartime labor shortages. Then, in the postwar period, as suburbia resumed its relentless march further east from Los Angeles, growers increasingly sold out to developers and the acreage devoted to walnut cultivation, already greatly reduced over the prior years, continued to shrink dramatically. Walnut growing principally moved to the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys to the north as California still produces almost all of the nuts in the nation.
In February 1953, the Times reported that the Association’s packing house was sold to John Stahl of Beverly Hills. To show just how much the situation had changed from that peak of about a quarter century before, the 1950 crop was derived from just 425 acres left in the valley and that paltry amount was sent to the San Fernando growers’ association, while subsequent yields were transported to Chino. Consequently, the building was leased to the Cal-Textile Company, which, however, was ordered by the federal government, because of Korean War needs, to move to North Carolina. This precipitated the sale to Stahl.
These paychecks are rare surviving artifacts from the La Puente Valley Growers’ Association, which, for about forty years, was a significant driver of the agricultural economy that was the backbone for the area. They also represent scarce objects referring to the employment of women in the Association’s packing house, this being one of the few avenues of work outside the home available to them.