By Anne Marie Todd, author of Valley of Heart’s Delight: Environment and Sense of Place in the Santa Clara Valley
The winter of 2023 has been especially soggy in the Santa Clara Valley. In January, San José received 5.67 inches of rain. Flooding, mudslides, and downed trees and powerlines have made work commutes impassable, destroyed homes, isolated some communities, and had other effects on life in general. This uncommon rainfall recalls another time when the region looked very different — the historic rains of 1918.
The first week of September 1918 was dry and sunny as is usual for that time of year. The valley was covered in acres of fruit trays: millions of purple prunes lay on eight-foot wooden trays drying in the sun. During the weeks after the prune harvest, no one dared mention rain, as even a light sprinkling could spoil the acres of exposed, drying fruit. All farmers had contingency plans. If it looked like the slightest chance of rain, trays would be stacked on top of each other, 50 feet high, to protect the drying fruit.
On Wednesday afternoon, September 11th, it began to rain almost without warning. Nearly half an inch of rain fell that night. And it continued. On Thursday, 4.3 inches of rain fell, on Friday, 1.4 more inches. By Friday, 6.5 inches of rain had fallen in San José—more than three times the precipitation ever recorded in the entire month of September.
As the storm passed over the valley, all contingency plans became useless. Damage to numerous crops, such as tomatoes, prunes, and peaches as well as drying hay and grain, was so significant that farmers could not even estimate the loss. It seemed that half of the prune crop was ruined. A subsequent heavy fog held moisture in the air, preventing the prunes from drying. Much of the fruit on trays and on the ground had started rotting. Andy Mariani recalls his family stories that: “trays were floating in water, and no effort could save those that had rotted. The whole valley smelled like fermented prunes.”
A large portion of the prune crop was destined for soldiers mobilized for World War I. The Food Service Administration proclaimed it to be the “patriotic duty” of every prune grower to save as much fruit as possible, and came to the valley to tour the losses. The War Work Council dispatched 1,000 soldiers from Camp Fremont, a military base in Palo Alto, to help save the crop. Volunteers from across the country helped soldiers pick prunes from the ground, carry out trays in the morning and back in at night, and turn the prunes on the trays. Despite the community’s valiant efforts, the prune crop was nearly entirely lost. This devastated every family in the valley.
This historic event demonstrates the precarious nature of an agricultural economy susceptible to weather events, particularly for a community devoted to a single crop. That the federal government would deploy soldiers to help save the prunes also reveals the national importance of the agricultural production of the Santa Clara Valley and a history that may be unfamiliar to younger, newer residents of the valley.
For 100 years, the Santa Clara Valley was the premier fruit-producing region in the United States. It was the largest continuous orchard the world had ever seen. In the Springtime, from the surrounding hills, the valley looked like a quilt of flowers because of all the tree blossoms. At the valley’s productive peak in the 1920s, 86% of the land in this valley was agriculture. 24,000 farms had tens of millions of fruit trees and produced 250 million pounds of fruit a year. Prunes, apricots, cherries were top crops. Fruit defined the economy and also the community and identity of the valley. Summertime was simply called “the Season” because from May to September, nearly everyone in the valley supported the fruit industry in some way.
The canneries were the valley’s biggest employers. During the Season, canneries operated around the clock, employing three shifts of workers. During packing season, the smell of cooked fruit permeated the air. It was like driving through someone’s kitchen. Fruit drove the valley’s economy. Everybody knew the price of prunes. School didn’t start until the prunes were picked. Santa Clara Valley was an example of an integrated economy with strong connection to land and community.
What happened to the Santa Clara Valley? It became the tech capital of the world: Silicon Valley. It’s a remarkable story of urbanization, the development of agricultural lands and the transformation of rural regions.