Food & Wine

Forgotten fruit: Los Altos History Museum unearths the tale of tomatoes

What do you get when you cross Los Altos in 1917 with World War I and a great weather cycle?

According to the Los Altos History Museum, the answer is a lot of tomatoes – 4,800 tons to be exact.

Old photo sparks curiosity

It’s tomato season, and Karen Purtich, a volunteer at the Los Altos History Museum, noticed a photograph in the museum’s “Early Los Altos and Los Altos Hills” (Arcadia Publishing, 2010), co-authored by Don McDonald, that sparked her curiosity.

The picture was of a Los Altos fruit stand at the 1917 Santa Clara County Fair. The town plan had been filed a decade prior, in 1907, and Los Altos was still in the process of selling land and advertising itself as a flourishing community.

“The Santa Clara County Fair was an opportunity for people to show off,” said Laura Bajuk, the museum’s executive director. “You wanted to show how productive your community is.”

The photograph depicts a town abundant with fruit, including 1,500 tons of green and 200 tons of dried apricots that year – not a surprise to most local residents, given the ongoing association of Los Altos with apricots. However, the number of tomatoes produced, 4,800 tons, flabbergasted members of the museum.

“Just the amount of tomatoes was either an error in statement, an added zero or something else, because you just couldn’t see that many tomatoes growing here,” said McDonald, longtime museum volunteer and city historian.

According to McDonald, the number created much in-house debate. However, they reached a general consensus that the number implied a much larger Los Altos than the city we see today.

“Most of the land for tomatoes had to be flat,” he said. “The whole area between El Camino Real and the Bay was just perfect for tomatoes. I don’t know why, but that’s what it was.”

However, the perfect microclimate wasn’t the only reason Los Altos produced tomatoes so prolifically in the early 20th century. The forgotten tale of the tomatoes is in fact a complex story involving World War I, young Los Altos orchards and racial prejudice.

The forgotten fruit

In 1917, World War I was in full throttle. Although the U.S. had yet to enter the conflict, industry was heavily affected.

“A world at war means that fruit supplies were disrupted terribly,” Bajuk said. “The areas that aren’t at war can produce food and make money. So (Los Altos was) profiting from the war.”

Los Altos was fortunate enough to boast the agricultural resources needed to meet the increased demand for fruit. Coincidentally, farmers experienced an ideal weather cycle that year.

“We found that 1917 was a fabulous year to be a farmer,” Bajuk said. “You just couldn’t screw up. … You could practically throw your seeds on the ground and there’d be trees the next day.”

However, the orchards were still young. According to Bajuk, it took several years for an orchard to be profitable enough to make up for the cost of labor.

“Only when they’re abundant do they make sense,” she added.

When the orchard trees weren’t growing, Bajuk said, farmers planted “intercrops” that grew between other crops.

“While your trees are tiny, there’s lots of sun and so tomatoes make a good intercrop,” she noted.

Whether the abundance of tomatoes was a result of being grown as an intercrop, as part of a larger area than the Los Altos today or some combination of the two, tomatoes were indisputably an essential crop in the local agricultural economy.

“In the early ’20s, there were articles in the local paper and they talk about the impact of frost on crops.” Bajuk said. “The tomato crops are specifically mentioned.”

So why did the era of tomatoes vanish in the community’s memory while apricots are still a source of pride and fame?

“Those crops were farmed by Japanese farmers,” Bajuk said. “In earlier times, you tended to stay with your own folks. So it might be that this underrepresented population isn’t as remembered as they should be for the contribution they made by growing tomatoes.”

However, in the end, at least according to Bajuk, it’s all about appearance.

“When you get right down to it, tomatoes just aren’t as sexy as the fabulous lemon apricot,” she said. “And same with the prune. It’s harder to get excited about prunes. We remember the glamour and the drama, and that’s human nature. The hidden story of the tomato tends to go by the wayside.”

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