Last time, I told you about water development in the Santa Clara Valley after the coming of the Americans. Today, I’ll tell you about the wheat era in the Valley. This article was condensed from my new local history book, The Last of the Prune Pickers: A Pre-Silicon Valley Story.
Usually when I tell people about the wheat farms I get a surprised look. Many people remember the orchards that once graced the Valley, but few know about the wheat farms that preceded those orchards.
From a few hundred people at the beginning of the American occupation, San Francisco’s population had swollen to 100,000 by 1859, and the lack of an established local agricultural base manifested itself very clearly in food prices all through the 1850s. The need for food in San Francisco and in the gold country was enormous, and Santa Clara Valley farmers played a big role in meeting that need.
Through the settlement of the land claims, in which the Californios’ ranchos were divided up (a story I tell in the book but won’t attempt to tell here), most of the land in the Santa Clara Valley was eventually divided into quarter sections or parcels close to that size. A “section” of land is 640 acres, so these were approximately 160 acre parcels. The great majority of the parcels became wheat farms. For about twenty-five years, from the early 1850s to the late 1870s, most of the land in the Santa Clara Valley was used for growing wheat.
Wheat was not new to the Valley. Mission Santa Clara had grown it profusely and at times even exported significant quantities of it. However, the wheat industry in California after the Americans came was very different than it had been during mission times. Mechanical harvesters had come into use by the late 1840s, and California wheat farmers used machines pulled by teams of draft horses that cut a swath at least ten feet wide.
Harvesting of wheat by hand with a sickle, as was done in most of the world at that time, was virtually not done in California after the coming of the Americans. So for those who think technology is new to the Valley, think again.
The wheat fields were dry farmed, that is to say not irrigated, because the winter rains were usually adequate to bring the crop to maturity. After the rains stopped, the crop would dry out and then be ready for harvesting. As late as 1880, from San Jose to Gilroy there were 30 miles of nearly unbroken wheat fields. At that time, California wheat was superior to almost all other, and California soon became the nation’s leading wheat producer. The Santa Clara Valley was a big part of the wheat boom in those early years, with wheat production topping out at 1.7 million bushels in 1874. By that time, large portions of the Central Valley had been diked and drained, so that valley took over most of the wheat production.
Two of the early mills for grinding flour were built on Los Gatos and Saratoga creeks at the base of the southwestern hills. The Los Gatos mill (Forbes Mill) was a failure from the beginning, as the creek did not contain enough water to operate the mill for much of the year. That “oops” put Mr. Forbes into bankruptcy. The Saratoga flour mill, known as Bank’s Mill, fared much better. Bank’s Mill operated until it was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906.
Very early in the period, other flour mills were built down on the Valley floor, and because there was not nearly enough water power in the area, they were powered by steam. There was one interesting exception: one of the mills was located on top of a powerful artesian well, and was powered by artesian water pressure.
Location, location, location!
The Last of the Prune Pickers is available on line at www.2timothypublishing.com