Friday, July 30, 2021

Companies: Watsonville Fruit Packing Company

The arrival of the Santa Cruz Railroad to Watsonville in 1876 did not immediately lead to an expansion of the agricultural industry in the Pajaro Valley. Most fruit grown on the Santa Cruz County side of the Pajaro River was still delivered to Pajaro for drying and shipping. By 1887, however, the situation had improved. More people were flocking to the region and the purchase of the railroad by Southern Pacific, which promptly standard-gauged its new line, meant that trains could run without transfer from Watsonville to San Francisco and elsewhere in California.

Advertising postcard for Luke G. Sresovich & Company at the Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco, showcasing the Chinese Building, 1894. [WorthPoint]
The Watsonville Fruit Packing Company was incorporated in June 1887 to capitalize off the growing agricultural industry of the Watsonville area. The initial capital stock for the firm was $10,000. Early the next month, John Kennaugh sold the company 1.619 acres of land between Beach Road and the railroad tracks for $450—below market value. The directors also purchased for $1,100 a twelve-section Fleming Dryer, which George A. Fleming personally helped assemble. Because of the size and style of dryer, it was installed on the property first with the building erected around it. Initial estimates predicted a capacity of 7,000 to 9,000 lbs. of fruit could be processed daily. The building itself was composed of brick and wood with a corrugated iron roof. A mid-sized warehouse was erected near the railroad tracks, likely along a short spur.

In 1887, there was no cannery in the Pajaro Valley and refrigerated boxcars were still in their infancy, so all the fruit grown for export in the region was evaporated (dried) for shipment. Popular local fruits included German and French prunes, plums, peaches, apples, apricots, and nectarines. The Watsonville Transcript hoped that the success of the Watsonville Fruit Packing Company would lead to the opening of a cannery within a few years. With such a facility, a wider range of products could be shipped from the Pajaro Valley.

Sanborn fire insurance map showing the layout of the Watsonville Fruit Packing Company, 1888. [Library of Congress]
The Watsonville Fruit Dryer opened on August 2 with an optimistic goal of producing eight to ten tons of dried fruit per day. Their first production run was five tons of apricots, which was lower than intended because the company only had twenty staff initially. Ultimately, they ended up with between thirty and forty-five workers at any given time receiving an average pay of $7.00 per week.

The first season’s run was an indisputable success. The company paid top rates to farmers for their crops, with crates of apples selling for 25¢ to 30¢, resulting in $250 to $500 per acre profits for apple growers. By mid-November, the dryer had produced 40 tones of dried apricots, 25 tons of peaches, 30 of prunes, and 195 of apples. The success was so great that the company paid dividends of 25% to its investors in October. People in Santa Cruz began clamoring for their own dryer since so many fruits were discarded at the end of the season due to too high demand from farmers.

At the Industrial Exhibition of the Mechanics’ Institute of San Francisco in October, an elegant arrangement of a range of local products were displayed including contributions by the Martinellis, Struves, Tuttles, Charles Gallerly, and F. Ceschi, among others. The Pajaro Valley exhibit won a Special Silver Medal award and the Pajaro Valley finally entered the ranks of internationally-known agricultural production zones.

With the first year under its belt, the company planned for expansion in 1888. Its goal was to triple the refinery’s capacity to twenty-five to thirty tons of fruit per day and employ 100 staff to manage the enlarged facility. The dryer’s second season began in mid-July with a large stock of apricots. Unlike the first year, the Watsonville Fruit Packing Company appears to have expanded to working directly with local farmers to dry their fruit rather than buying the fruit outright. At least one local firm, Besse & Still, did this to create novelty fruit boxes for the Eastern market in September. Little else is known about the company in its second season, however. Two Sanborn Fire Insurance maps imply the dryer was permanently closed from February 1888, but other evidence suggests this is incorrect. Nonetheless, competition began heating up with other fruit growers, who saw the financial potential of establishing their own dryers.

Business card for L. G. Sresovich & Company of San Francisco, ca 1895.
June 1889 saw the dryer leased for the season to L. G. Sresovich & Company, a San Francisco-based fruit dealer. Lucas G. Sresovich was born in Dalmatia (modern Croatia) on August 18, 1848 and immigrated to the United States around 1866. Upon his arrival in California, he enrolled in a program at Santa Clara College to become a bookkeeper, a course in which he excelled. He expressed an early interest in the local fruit industry and quickly put his bookkeeping skills to use when he founded L. G. Sresovich Company in 1870.

The earliest advertisement for the company’s wholesale domestic and imported fruits business appeared in the Daily Alta California on June 17, 1872, at which time it appeared to be new. The company based its operations in San Francisco but eventually owned properties across the Central Coast of California. Sresovich achieved renown for its Pioneer brand of desiccated coconut. However, the firm also dried or canned bananas, citrus, dates, onions, and other fruits from around the Pacific Ocean. Their largest market was Hawai’i, where advertisements from the firm appeared regularly in newspapers for nearly thirty years. The company won many awards of the decades for its different fruit varieties and was well respected in California.

Pioneer brand desiccated Cocoanut, sold by L. G. Sresovich & Co., from Los Angeles Herald advertisement, April l25, 1890.
Luke Sresovich first visited Santa Cruz County in 1876 to buy apples that he could pack and ship. Through this and future exchanges, Sresovich became one of the first Slavs involved in the local agricultural scene. Initially, the company shipped fruit out of Pajaro, likely to avoid transfer charges from narrow- to standard-gauge trains. It boxed fruits in rented buildings in Watsonville before shipping them to San José and San Francisco.

By 1884, Sresovich was the largest fruit buyer in Santa Cruz County with apples the primary product purchased. In August, the firm purchased land on Main Street in Watsonville for an apple packing house. It also began leasing and buying orchards in Watsonville, Pajaro, Corralitos, and Green Valley. For the 1885 harvest season, it employed thirty boys to pack 20,000 boxes of apples for shipment. By 1887, it was considering moving its primary drier to Watsonville, but financial problems led to the collapse of his business in late 1887. The company quickly regained its footing and resumed leasing orchards.

Sresovich first attempted to dry fruit locally through its lease of the Watsonville Fruit Packing Company’s plant in June 1889. Curiously, the company did not use the facility much and instead dried most of its apricots and prunes in the sun. In 1890, the firm decided to build a new packing plant in Capitola.

1889 proved to be the last year for Watsonville Fruit Packing Company. A new board of directors was elected in April composed of J. S. Menasco, A. Lewis, Otto D. Stoesser, M. A. Hudson, William McGrath, H. K. Goodwin, and John A. Burton—likely all members of the original board. A month later, on May 13, the directors filed for disincorporation, with a hearing before the Superior Court set for June 20. Why the business wanted to close after only three years is unknown, but several new fruit dryers had opened in Watsonville and Pajaro since 1887. The directors likely wanted to get out while the going was still good and they could maximize their profits. Approval was granted on June 30 and the directors cashed out their shares at $26.70 each, a rich payout assuming the shares initially sold for $1.00 each, as was standard at the time.

The Watsonville Fruit Packaging Company’s property, including the evaporation plant, was sold to the Pajaro Valley Railroad Company, a subsidiary of Claus Spreckels’ Western Beet Sugar Company. Spreckels purchased the property because of its location—it sat immediately beside the path of his new railroad and would provide a perfect spot for the company’s passenger depot and freight house. The Pajaronian suggested the plant was being used for something other than drying in 1890 but would be moved and returned to its original function in the near future. It is unclear what it was being used for but it likely never reopened. The only part of the plant that was used was its small warehouse beside the railroad tracks, which was moved to become the depot and freight house for the railroad. The drier was removed at some point after May 1892.

Sanborn fire insurance map showing the layout of the Watsonville Fruit Packing Company's dryer shortly after it was taken over by the Pajaro Valley Railroad Company, 1892. [Library of Congress]
The Sresovich Company, meanwhile, completed its new packing house in Capitola in 1892 and situated near the railroad depot. It employed around fifteen boys. Its first shipment was pears sent to Chicago, and the Sentinel noted that it was the first fruit ever shipped to the East from Soquel. On average, Sresovich exported two carloads of fruit a week from the Capitola house during packing season. The facility was upgraded into a full dryer by October 1892. By November, the house had shipped out 20,000 boxes of apples, and the newspaper advised growers that Sresovich would buy apples any time of the year. A second packing house was eventually built beside the first to deal with the excess boxes.

For the next few years, operations continued like clockwork, with Sresovich’s fruit buyers leasing orchards or buying fruit stocks and then hauling them to Capitola for packing. Around 1894, the company leased space in M. N. Lettunich & Company’s packing house beside Watsonville Depot. In total, 24,000 boxes of apples shipped out that year. However, competition with other local fruit buyers and growers had become fierce and somebody in the county had it in for L. G. Sresovich Company.

In October and November 1897, all of Sresovich’s fruit packing houses in Santa Cruz County were burned down by arsonists. Over 55,000 boxes of apples ready for shipment were destroyed between the three structures. Undaunted, the company pledged to rebuild, but financial realities got in the way. By March 1898, Sresovich was facing increasing financial problems from years of heavy borrowing during a recession, when fruits were not making as much money as his costs.

A partial recovery may have come through the purchase of the fruit-buying company of his longtime rival, Marko Rabasa, in 1898. By the second half of the year, Sresovich resumed purchasing fruits for export. Business continued for the next five years as if nothing had happened. At some point, the company must have rebuilt its Capitola packing house and dryer because it was set alight again on August 2, 1900. Five days later, the adjacent barn was also destroyed by arson. A new packing house must also have been built in Watsonville since once was operating in 1901 and shipping out 35,000 boxes of apples in 1903. Meanwhile, yet another fire burned down a packing house in San Francisco in November 1901, amounting to $15,000 in damage.

Portrait of Luke Sresovich from his obituary in the San Francisco Call, May 13, 1908.
Despite suggestions that Sresovich was doing better financially, a poor fruit market followed by several condemned shipments in early 1904 revealed that the company remained in substantial debt. In April of that year, Luke Sresovich also suffered a personal tragedy with the sudden death of his wife, Mary Caroline, in a streetcar accident in San Francisco. Bereft and with few options, Sresovich allowed the company to fall into insolvency on April 3, 1905. As before, he soon attempted to revive his fruit empire with a shipment of apples from Capitola to Los Angeles, and he continued the next year by buying a large quantity of cherries in Santa Cruz.

Still, Sresovich was haunted by the memory of his wife. Her estate in Capitola was listed for sale in January 1907, but much of the property burned down in a suspicious fire in May. Suffering increasing bouts of depression from the loss of his wife, Sresovich likely committed suicide during a hunting trip at Brentwood in Contra Costa County on May 10, 1908. Since 1905, his company had operated within Santa Cruz County under the name of his son, L. Geo. Sresovich Jr., but his son sold the company to the Santa Cruz Produce Company in June 1907.

Citations & Credits:
  • Circa Historic Property Development. “Historic Context Statement for the City of Watsonville.” Final report. Watsonville, CA: Circa Historic Property Develop-ment, 2007.
  • Ninkovich, Thomas, ed. The Slav Community of Watsonville, California, as reported in old newspapers. Watsonville, CA: Reunion Research, 2014.
  • O’Connell, Daniel. The Inner Man: Good Things to Eat and Where to Get Them. San Francisco, CA: Bancroft Company, 1891.
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