Friday, May 8, 2020

Freight Stops: Sperry Flour Company

The Santa Cruz Union Depot's freight yard was mostly confined to the area south of Laurel Street, but that didn't stop the Sperry Flour Company from erecting its flour refinery at the northwest corner of Laurel and Chestnut Streets in 1907. Flour had been one of the earliest American industries introduced to Santa Cruz County after statehood in 1850. But by the turn of the century, the industry had mostly died in the region.

The Sperry Flour Company corporate office in San José, c. 1905. [History San José – colorized using DeOldify]
The Sperry Flour Company was in many ways a local business long before it had a formal presence in the county. The origins of the company date back to Ransom G. Moody and his flour mill on Coyote Creek near San José in 1854. Moody began operating his mill using water power but relocated to Third Street in 1858 and switched to steam power. Over the next decade, his operations expanded to encompass most of the area between Third and Fourth Streets near Santa Clara Street. Moody retired around 1862 and his sons, Charles, Volney, and David B. Moody took over operations, although Volney soon left to become a banker in Oakland. It was Charles and David who first began shipping flour to Santa Cruz following the collapse of the Centennial Flour Company in the mid-1880s.

The Moody brothers sold the company in 1887 to the Central Milling Company, which had been formed to control most of the flour milling operations on the Central Coast. David Moody became secretary of the new company and it was in this capacity that he made much of his wealth. The Moody mill in San José remained the primary mill of the new company until interest in growing grain along the Central Coast dried up around 1890. Another corporate merger brought Central Milling to the Sperry Flour Company, which was founded in August 1892 to control flour interests statewide. This move halted the death of the industry and it slowly rebounded over the subsequent years, eventually expanding into Oregon, Washington, Nevada, and Utah. David Moody remained secretary of the new firm until around the end of the century.

Laurel Street looking north from Pacific Avenue, with the top of the Sperry Flour building at center-right, 1920s.
[California State Library – colorized using DeOldify]
In the year after the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, the freight yard at the Santa Cruz Union Depot underwent a massive upgrade, with all of its narrow-gauge trackage removed and replaced with standard-gauge track. It was during this changeover that Sperry finally came to Santa Cruz. A. M. Johnston Company had been selling Sperry flour from its store at the Farmers' Union Building at the corner of Soquel and Pacific Avenues since 1895, but this was insufficient for the demand. Sperry took over the building in July 1902 but it was still reliant on constant shipments from San José. So in May 1907, Sperry began erecting a large grain warehouse on Chestnut Avenue just north of Laurel Street.

Sanborn map showing the layout of he Sperry Flour facility on Chestnut Street, 1917.
[University of California, Santa Cruz Digital Collections]
With upgrades still ongoing at the yard, Sperry ordered a spur to be extended along the trackside of its refinery to expedite the shipment of flour to the rest of Santa Cruz County. The finished structure included grinding and rolling mills, a corn cracker, seed cleaners, coal bunkers, a hay barn, and a wagon shed, as well as offices for management. It formally opened in October with the old Farmers' Union building abandoned at the same time. The spur's installation was delayed until November due to public fears that the freight yard would eventually span the length of Chestnut Street to the Mission Hill Tunnel.

The Sperry Flours storefront on Laurel Street, with various products advertised in the window, 1920s.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History – colorized using DeOldify]
Sperry's grain refinery in Santa Cruz proved to be a massive success. Most of the grain and corn was brought in via steamship at the Railroad Wharf, making it one of the last railroad patrons of that decaying structure. It also was one of the earliest patrons of steamship and rail traffic from the Municipal Wharf when that opened in 1914. Additional grain supplies came via either of the railroad routes into Santa Cruz. By the end of the 1910s, the company provided most of the grain products used within Santa Cruz County.

Eugene Van Antwerp in front of Sperry Air Service Loft I, 1930s, and a March 1939 cartoon parodying the service from The Modern Millwheel [Photo from Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History – colorized using DeOldify]
Demand for a retail store prompted the company to open a small outlet beside its factory in 1911. Eugene M. Van Antwerp was manager of the store and travelled regularly up the San Lorenzo Valley to take orders for delivery. To place orders, Van Antwerp founded the Sperry Air Service in 1917, which relied on carrier pigeons to take orders back to staff working at the store. This system allowed Sperry to make next-day deliveries throughout the county. This method of placing orders proved so popular that Sperry facilities throughout the system began adopting it.

Eugene Van Antwerp and others posing with carrier pigeons provided by the Sperry Air Service, 1930s.
[Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History – colorized using DeOldify]
The end for Sperry came slowly. General Mills took over the company in 1929 but the refinery continued operating through most of the 1930s under the new name. However, in May 1939, likely due to financial pressures caused by the Great Depression paired with cheaper delivery costs for finished products via trucks and trains, General Mills shuttered the facility. The buildings were sold to the East Bay Packing Company in November the next year. Almost nothing is known of this company's operations in the county. The facility and its railroad spur were removed at some point prior to 1973.

Geo-Coordinates & Access Rights:
36.9689N, 122.0296W

The site of the Sperry Flour refinery in Santa Cruz is now occupied by the 7-Eleven at the corner of Chestnut and Laurel Streets. No remnant of the factory or the railroad spur remains.

Citations & Credits:

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