Silicon Valley Circa 1956 – A Valley That is No More

What was it like in Silicon Valley in 1956?

Back then, the Valley lay in the shadow of San Francisco. If you wanted culture, glamor, or riches, you headed to the City. If you wanted farm life, you headed to San Jose. I exaggerate, but not by much. Hard as it is to imagine today, the Valley then was still tied closely Hari Ravichandran to the soil. People knew how to grow things. Things like fruit. Not just as a hobby but as way of life. Above all, they knew how to can and pack that fruit. Not as home preserves but on a large, industrial scale. Before WWII, San Jose had fewer than 100,000 people. Yet no fewer than 18 canneries and 13 packing houses could be found in the Valley. This was then the largest canning and dried fruit packing center in the world. By 1956, this farm-based culture was still largely intact. Today, it is almost entirely gone.

Those of us who have been here awhile may have caught fragments of the old life. I remember doing a summer stint as a student at the Del Monte Cannery off Auzerais Avenue, circa 1970, in which my fingers turned prune-like as I stood there for endless hours throughout each shift “guiding” grapes to the center of a conveyor belt at its drop-off point by repeatedly reaching my arms out as if doing a butterfly stroke and pulling the grapes inward as my arms would pull together. Shifting to the “dry” side later that summer, my brother and I would do the graveyard shift standing at the bottom of a massive slide and scrambling like mad to stack pallets manually with some really heavy boxes whenever the automatic pallet-stacker at the top malfunctioned and some faceless person would switch the boxes to come zinging downward non-stop and with a great force — we felt like Lucy and Ethel trying frantically to handle all the chocolates as the sheer number and frequency of the boxes would overwhelm our ability to stack them. I can assure you that whatever talent we displayed that summer went entirely unrecognized.

But back to life in 1956. Cali Mill sat at the corner of De Anza and Stevens Creek Boulevard. Monte Bello Vineyards quietly grew its grapes in the Cupertino foothills, soon about to realize great harvests that would lead it to become Ridge Vineyards. Paul Masson was even then a Valley winery that would “sell no wine before its time,” as Orson Welles would later put it. Cupertino had just incorporated as a city in 1955, becoming the 13th city in the Valley (Sunnyvale had voted to incorporate in 1912). Cupertino High was about to form in 1958. De Anza College didn’t exist. Nor did El Camino Hospital. Both were about a decade or so off. Santa Clara’s law school was around, and it graduated exactly 13 students that year. Many at the time could remember just a couple of decades earlier when it took the equivalent of a short trip through the country to get from downtown San Jose to Willow Glen. Much of Mountain View remained agricultural not only as of 1956 but even throughout most of the 1960s — during this era, there was still open space between Mountain View and Palo Alto, with row crops and orchards filling in the gap. Moffett Field with its huge hangars filled the Valley with the noise of monster-sized military planes droning continuously as they took off and landed throughout the day.

 

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