Food for Thought Through the Viewfinder: A Snapshot of Travelers at the Los Angeles Olive Growers Association, Sylmar, 28 August 1922

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The City of Los Angeles neighborhood of Sylmar, the northernmost in the sprawling metropolis, is comprised of some 80,000 residents near the intersection of Interstates 5 and 210 at the northeast corner of the San Gabriel Valley. For some the community may best be known for the significant damage done in the 1971 earthquake, often referred to as the Sylmar quake, while those with a history bent will point to the Cascades, the dramatic outfall of the Los Angeles Aqueduct that was opened in fall 1913.

Still others will observe that for roughly six decades, Sylmar was widely known for its approximately 2,000 acres of olive orchards, including the largest single grove in the world, and its packing plant, which processed the fruit, its oil and other agricultural products. A prior post here featured a 1903 billhead from the Los Angeles Olive Growers Association, established a decade before and which planted the massive grove and constructed the processing facility—the post basically covered some of the history of the enterprise through most of the first decade of the 20th century.

Los Angeles Express, 6 January 1922. Note the Sylmar Olive Oil listing at the lower right.

This post leaps forward about another two decades, to 28 August 1922, when a group of eight travelers in two autos heading from Los Angeles to their homes in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, situated roughly halfway between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, stopped as their first stop for lunch at the facility. The folks are not identified, but the young man at the left and the four others in the center were wearing such similar clothing that it appears as if they might have been boy scouts coming out for a conference or troop gathering of some sort, but there was no indication on the ink inscription about the party.

It already had been a banner year for the enterprise, as the Van Nuys News of 26 January reprinted from the San Fernando Press that “the Los Angeles Olive Growers’ Association’s plant, at Sylmar, is doing a rushing business this month.” it added that “about 400 operators in the picking, packing and shipping departments are working on day and night shifts.” The products being processed “are being shipped daily to Eastern markets as the demand is heavy from Chicago, New York and all eastern cities.”

Los Angeles Times, 28 January 1922.

While this report of success in the endeavor’s operations was notable, it turned out that there had already been a major change made in the ownership of the association, as the Los Angeles Times of 28 January reported that the majority interest in the Association was sold by the heirs of Frederick D. Butterfield, who died in 1918, to Charles C. Moore of San Francisco. Moore (1868-1932) was born in little Alpine, New York at the south end of the Finger Lakes district and northeast of Elmira, though his British father, Lewis, was one of the hordes of Gold Rush ’49ers who poured into California when the precious metal was discovered in enormous quantities.

Moore grew up in the northern part of the state and became the owner of a very successful engineering firm in San Francisco, with branch offices as far away as Honolulu, and known for very large utility projects for electricity, gas, transportation and water companies such as Southern California Edison, the Pacific Electric Railway, Pacific Light and Power, and Los Angeles Gas and Electric. He was also involved in many civic enterprises and was best-known for being president of the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition, a very important and highly successful event in 1915 that marked the completion of the Panama Canal and its effect on trade in California.

Times, 28 January 1922.

While Moore moved to change the name of the firm to the Sylmar Packing Corporation, management remained in the very capable hands of Frank Simonds, who was also the president of the California Olive Association and had operated the Sylmar enterprise for Butterfield for about a baker’s dozen of years. Moore already owned an olive grove “and it was his success with this grove,” observed the Times, “that prompted him to seek a greater share in the development of this very important industry of the entire State of California.”

As the paper noted, the 2,000-acre grove under cultivation by the company included 85% “which are in the finest varieties of olives in full bearing” and including more than 140,000 trees. The article continued that all of the fruit used for oil were tree-ripened and hand-picked and it took hundreds of people, almost certainly itinerant Latino laborers who worked largely unrecognized, to harvest the olives each fall (those who worked in the packing house, however, were almost certainly completely, or nearly so, Anglo). It added

There is no packing concern in California, it is asserted, that employs more skilled operatives, more scientific processes or more highly improved machinery in the handling of its product than this one. In the early days of the organization the foremost experts in olive oil processing in France were brought to Southern California to superintend the work of the Los Angeles Olive Growers’ Association.

Beyond this, the Times pointed out that the endeavor involved “intensive and exhaustive research work carried on for years” that led chemists to conclude that processing the fruit at higher temperatures than was the standard previously was critical to the proper sterilization of the olives, with the larger ones also subjected to longer cooking times.

Hollywood Citizen, 3 March 1922. Sylmar brand olives and oil are at the right under the “Bakery and Delicatessen” section.

Additionally, it was recorded that, while in the Golden State “no propaganda is needed to increase their popularity,” because olives were already in regular use for cooking, it was in the rest of the nation, particularly beyond the Rocky Mountains, where ignorance of the fruit was considered “amazing.” It was pointed out that “standard works of reference” completely omitted the olive as a food article, so an active campaign was then underway to remedy this lack of knowledge.

Led by Flavel Shurtleff (1867-1939), a native of Illinois who came to Los Angeles in the first years of the 20th century and became a retail grocery salesperson and then manager of the Los Angeles Grocery Company, the endeavor sought to convince more Americans that olives were “not only a highly nutritious and assimilable food, but also one of the greatest food delicacies.”

Retail Grocers’ Advocate, 24 February 1922. From Google Books.

The article added that Shurtleff was embarking on a tour and “holding meetings in eastern cities with wholesalers’ and retailers’ associations, boards of health, hotel and club stewards, etc.” to spread the gospel by “convincingly explaining the wonderful merits of the California ripe olive as a staple addition to the great American table.”

The Times piece ended with the claim that

Splendid results are attending Mr. Shurtleff’s educational campaign. Ripe olives are growing in favor in hundreds of communities which formerly were apathetic or skeptical with regard to ripe olives being an important food.

The article was largely reprinted in the 24 February edition of the San Francisco-based Retail Grocers’ Advocate trade publication, operated by the California Retail Grocers and Merchants Association, though there were a few additions. For example, Simonds was lauded for seeking “the highest attainable standards in olive processing and packing” so that “the name ‘Sylmar’ stands for quality in olives and olive oil throughout America,” while it was averred that “it is this brand more than any other that has taught the people of the East to eat California ripe olives.”

A circa 1870 stereoscopic photograph, from the Museum’s collection, by William M. Godfrey showing an olive orchard, perhaps at the Mission San Fernando.

Moreover, the Advocate commented that “through the strict observance of careful sanitation and expert care at every stage” of the process of packing olives and rendering oil, “millions of cans of ripe olives have been packed under the ‘Sylmar’ brand and have given highest satisfaction to the dealer and the consumer alike.” The idea of a “brand” is also important because the state olive growers association followed the lead and example of such powerful brands as Sunkist, for the orange, and Blue Diamond, for the walnut, as effective marketing outside California.

With regard to Shurtleff’s extensive campaign to market the fruit and bring greater attention to its use elsewhere in the nation, the piece concluded that “ripe olives are now being established on a firmer footing than ever before, and it is not a rash prediction to make that within the next decade California Ripe Olives will become as widely popular as they are today throughout their native state.”

Burbank Review, 21 April 1922.

This last element referred, somewhat erroneously, to the fact that Franciscan missionaries brought olive trees to California, including the nearby Mission San Fernando, in the late 18th century. It was roughly a century later before the commercialization of the fruit began with the formation of the Los Angeles Olive Growers Association.

In its 11 February edition, the Times reported that the Association’s board of directors passed a resolution regarding the change of name to the Sylmar Packing Corporation at its 14 January meeting after Moore concluded the deal to acquire a majority holding, and that a petition to the courts was made the day prior to the reporting to make the change official.

Long Beach Telegram, 16 July 1922.

Of some note was that the previous day’s edition of the paper included a short article that storm check dams built by the county at the western edge of the San Gabriel Mountains range sent flood waters into an olive grove. This led W.H. Stewart to file a $50,000 suit for damages as he contended that “the waters were diverted into a hitherto dry creek on his land.”

The Burbank Review of 21 April quoted the San Fernando Democrat that, as of the first of the month, “the Los Angeles Olive Growers’ association was taken over by the new management and will be known hereafter as the Sylmar Packing corporation.” The paper continued that “the plant is a busy place throughout the year” and that, in March, four railroad cars of olives were sent to San Francisco, Boston, Chicago and New York City.

A circa 1920s lantern slide from the Homestead’s holdings of a man shoveling cured olives into crates at the Sylmar processing plant.

It added that, beyond the 1,400 acres devoted to the olive, “several hundred acres are planted to other fruits and vegetables,” while 30 acres of Kadota figs were just being set. Finally, it recorded that “during the busy season from 300 to 500 employes [sic] are kept busy in the factory and field” and that, for the season ending the day before, 525 tons of olives and 50,000 gallons of oil were sent out.

A tangential item of interest was that Moore mounted a Republican primary challenge and was pitted against Hiram W. Johnson for the United States Senate seat held by the former California governor and first-term senator. A 16 July article in the Long Beach Telegram included a large headline blaring that “MOORE OPENS HIS CAMPAIGN,” as he aligned himself with President Warren G. Harding and a more conservative bent than Johnson, who made his name as a Progressive when he served six years as chief executive and then followed that with twenty-eight years in the Senate.

Telegram, 16 July 1922.

The paper reported that Moore was “persuaded by Southern Californians to make the fight under the banner of Harding Republicanism” and it may be that his ties to the region were first developed through his 1893 marriage to Lillian Breed, whose father Levi brought the family to Los Angeles about a decade prior, settling in Boyle Heights (where a street is named for him), with Breed soon joining the Angel City’s city council and serving as its president, while also investing heavily in real estate, serving as director of a bank, and being accounted as the “father” of Lincoln (formerly Eastlake) Park.

Moore, however, told an assemblage in the rapidly growing coastal city that “Long Beach will long linger in my memory as the place of my first appearance in active politics,” though he’d never before held any office. The Telegram went deep into “Charley” Moore’s history, including his years of raising livestock in Red Bluff in the northern part of the Golden State and ownership of orange and lemon groves in Riverside County. It added that Moore “is the principal owner of the various Sylmar olive projects.” The article ended with the assignation of the candidate as “A SQUARE SHOOTER.”

The 28 August 1922 snapshot by Pennsylvania-bound travelers stopping for lunch at the Sylmar plant of what was still labeled by the old name.

When the primary was held in August, however, Moore was defeated by the incumbent by thirteen percentage points, with Johnson securing almost 57% of the vote to the challenger’s 43%. The senator then cruised to victory in the November general election against Democrat William J. Pearson, walloping his opponent by nearly forty percentage points—the Roaring Twenties was, in fact, dominated by the Republicans in California and nationally. Moore never ran for office again and died of a cerebral hemorrhage in July 1932.

We have other artifacts related to the Sylmar brand of olives and the massive grove and production facility, so we will return with a future post or two about the subject—be sure to check it out if you have a taste for the topic.

Leave a Reply