California Authors


California Apricots-The Lost Orchards...

California Apricots-The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley

By Robin Chapman
American Palate
The History Press, 2013

Book Review by C. MacDonald

Thank you, Robin Chapman, for your well-written, definitive guide that brings me "home" to the wonderful valley that was the World's Largest Apricot Producer.

Thanks for the memories, Robin. When I lived there, Santa Clara Valley was one of the World's top agricultural regions, known for its apricots, prunes, cherries, strawberries and other absolutely delicious fruits. In the 1950s, we'd go on Sunday drives all over the orchard-filled valley, enjoying the wonderfully sweet aromas and rich fruit colors found everywhere. We loved purchasing fresh apricots, prunes, cherries, peaches and walnuts from the local, friendly farmers.

My dad, like Robin's, who served overseas in the military during World War II, also would take us to a little road-stop in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where, for a nickel, you could flip a lever on a huge glass bottle and fill your cup with tasty apricot, prune, apple, orange, peach—you name it, the farmer that owned this had it—fresh juices. You could drink as much as you wanted from as many fruits as you desired. Talk about "Wow!" My sister worked Summers in San Jose's Del Monte Cannery, standing on the line, literally picking out bad fruit or pitting fruit and building lifelong friendships with her co-workers.

I have nothing but fond memories of Santa Clara Valley orchards and even went to school next to the famous Almaden Vineyards. The vineyards are long gone and all the orchards I knew are history. As Robin so aptly states, "Agriculture was both Santa Clara Valley's past and present when my parents came to California." Her father, a former Army Corps of Engineer officer, built a home in an apricot orchard. Col. William Ashley Chapman came to the area to work at Ames Research Center at Naval Air Station, Moffett. Ironically, the technology that supported the Chapman family "became all of the valley's future," wrote the author. How true. I still can't believe the transformation, which makes one appreciate the orchard days even more.

Mission Santa Clara, near where my favorite journalism professor lived, is the spot 18th Century Spaniards brought the apricot seeds (or seedlings) that were planted by Franciscan missionaries and nurtured by Native Americans. These were the first apricots in the region. Years later, when the Gold Rush erupted in the Sierra, Robin mentions how "enterprising fellows" picked fruit in the then neglected Mission gardens and hauled it away to sell to the thousands of hungry Forty-Niners.

The former television reporter turned author chronicles the incredible history of California apricots and how their trees increased from 3 million in 1914 to more than 7 million in 1926. It grew to 160,000 tons of apricots harvested annually. Santa Clara Valley became the largest commercial concentration of apricot trees in the World. They were shipped back east and all over.

Amazingly, the author wrote that every apricot had to be picked by hand. Each tree has to be picked 3-4 times to harvest every apricot at its best and the fruits often are ripe for less than 3 weeks.

Robin's opus is full of fascinating, well-researched facts, such as:
--The first batch of each Summer's apricot jam is always the sweetest. (My dear mom used to make apricot jam from trees in Campbell.)
--Most apricot trees produce for 50 years, then need to be replaced. But in Santa Clara Valley, at 400 to 1200-foot elevation, some trees grow slower and can live 75 years or longer.
--Apricots continue to change color after they are picked, yet won't become sweeter. If they're picked too early, they are tart.
--Each mature tree can produce 200 pounds of fruit.
--Orchard workers came from many ethnic backgrounds, including Italian, Chinese and Japanese.
--Over 20,000 seasonal jobs were created in the valley's canneries. (You can learn more about orchards and canneries by visiting History San Jose in person or online.)

As (what some people call) "progress" came (and eventually Silicon Valley took over), housing tracts and businesses replaced orchards. Apricot farms became more prevalent in the Sacramento region and this century, production has shifted to the San Joaquin Valley. Yet, California remains the #1 Apricot Producer in the United States.

Robin has lovingly "canned" the unsung history of Santa Clara Valley's apricots so present and future generations will understand and appreciate their significance, not only to the area but to the country and World. It's especially significant to those who have moved to the region or were born after the apricot boom. The more high tech we get, the more we need to know our past.

Plaudits to the City of Saratoga, who in 1984, preserved history by creating Central Park Orchard, which includes 13.9 acres of apricots and prunes. Surrounding the library, people can walk and bike around the orchard. The David and Lucille Packard Foundation operates a 67-acre apricot orchard in Los Altos Hills, where David used to come home from a busy day at HP and unwind, working in the orchard. Andrew Mariani turned his apricot and cherry orchard in Morgan Hill into "Andy's Orchard," where he even gives tours and explains the various types of fruit.

This enjoyable, well-written, definitive guide will capture your interest by entertaining and educating you on the value of this tasty treasure, which is chockfull of Anti-Oxidants, Vitamin C, Potassium, Iron and more. I particularly like her "Cooking with Cots" section, where you'll find the secrets to "Grand-Mom Edith Taylor's Apricot Jam," "Clara Caldwell's Apricot Liqueur," "Apricot Yummies," "Apricot Nutbread," "Apricot Cobbler," "Clara Vojvoda's Apricot Bars" and more. (If you can't tell by now, I love eating apricots and want to thank Robin for her years of research and writing that brought me "home" to the wonderful valley that was the World's Largest Apricot Producer.)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robin Chapman, a native of the Santa Clara Valley, earned a masters degree at University of California-Los Angeles before setting out on a career in television news. During her years as a journalist, she worked as a reporter and anchor at KVOA-TV in Tucson, Arizona; KGW-TV in Portland, Oregon; KRON-TV in San Francisco; WJLA-TV in Washington, D.C.; WESH-TV in Orlando, Florida; and as a national correspondent in Washington D.C. for Group W-TV.

During her years in news, as she covered stories from the White House to Operation Desert Storm, she also developed an interest in regional history, publishing articles in newspapers and journals throughout the country. In 2009, she returned to California to be closer to her elderly parents and, following their deaths, decided to resettle in her home state. This is her fourth book of regional history and her first about California.

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