Santa Clara Valley Lives: An apricot orchard serves as a sign of the times

Robin Chapman/Special to the Town Crier
The Los Altos Heritage Orchard on San Antonio Road sports a new sign, erected at the end of June after a long, citizen-led effort. The Los Altos History Museum has scheduled a formal dedication ceremony at the end of July.


The Los Altos Heritage Orchard finally has its sign. The tale of how it happened has elements of a quest and a treasure hunt.

Every such adventure needs a map, and there really was a map in this story. Five years ago, a neighbor and I stumbled upon it among the analog archives in the basement of the Los Altos History Museum. By then, we knew the orchard was a Historic Landmark, but on that day, inside a plain, three-ring binder, we found a map of the landmark’s boundaries – along with documents dating back to the 1950s. It was the work of Lee Lynch, former chairwoman of the Historical Commission, who pulled it together shortly before her death in 2007. Like the purloined letter in the Edgar Allan Poe story, there it sat, hiding in plain sight.

The documents made it possible to bring everyone up to speed on the protected status of the orchard and its legal size. Also in the file was a news clipping dated Oct. 4, 2000, featuring historian Don McDonald and headlined: “Purchase agreement with Gilbert Smith was to keep apricot orchard in perpetuity according to Don McDonald.” McDonald, who died in 2017 at the age of 98, was a former code-breaker for the National Security Agency, and in his shrewd way, he arranged to do his interview in the orchard – taking his stand for the trees in the middle of the stand of trees – a coded message to future generations.

There were other turning points. Local businesswoman Catherine Nunes, using a Granicus search, uncovered a heritage orchard maintenance plan, commissioned in 2006 but apparently mislaid for nearly a decade. Orchard maintenance improved. In 2013, former museum executive Laura Bajuk recommended interpretive signage. In 2017, Los Altos native Laurie Pavlina Lincoln called for a central orchard sign in a Town Crier opinion piece. In 2018, I led our first Orchard Walks.

Others spoke out over nearly a decade, including county historian April Halberstadt, residents George and Jo Estill, Frank White, Kristen Fuller and our late neighbors, Margie Rauch and Al “the Barber” Galedridge, who said he often helped prune the orchard in his spare time, especially in the 1960s, when so many of his clients stopped cutting their hair and he had a lot more time to spare.

Thanks also go to the museum, the Historical Commission and city liaison Sean Gallegos, who toiled over the last two years to get a sign designed and approved. There isn’t enough space for all the names, but they know who they are.

Now it is time to celebrate. An official dedication will take place in late July, but in the meantime, we’re planning a group photograph for residents at the new sign. Everyone is invited and the mayor has promised to attend. We’ll meet 6 p.m. Friday at 1 N. San Antonio Road. All you have to do is be there, say “apricot,” and smile.

Robin Chapman is a journalist and the author of “California Apricots: The Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley.”

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