Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Walnuts: The Mother of Invention

Drying walnuts on the Katella Ranch, near Anaheim, circa 1905.
Oranges get all the press. Even though they drove our economy for over half a century, they were hardly Orange County's only successful crop. The walnut, for instance, was big business here for decades. The walnut also fueled some impressive horticultural and mechanical creativity in these parts. 

It’s said the first walnut trees in Orange County were planted in the orchard at Mission San Juan Capistrano in the late 1770s. In 1858 a few more walnut trees were planted between the vineyards in Anaheim. Usually the English walnut was grafted onto the rootstock of the hearty local native black walnut species.

J. R. Congdon of Santa Ana planted the first English walnuts (18 acres) in Orange County for commercial purposes in 1870 at San Juan Capistrano. His friends and neighbors thought he was,… well,… nuts. But in 1877 he harvested his first crop, which yielded 6,000 pounds of walnuts. It was the beginning of a major local industry.

Throughout the 1870s more farmers across Orange County began to experiment with the growing of walnuts. And in the wake of Pierce’s Disease, in the late 1880s, many dead vineyards in Anaheim and elsewhere were replaced with walnut groves. Among those who moved to the area and jumped on the walnut-growing bandwagon were John and Margaret Rea, whose Katella Ranch was named for their daughters, Kate and Ella.
Fertilizing the Thornburg walnut orchard, Orange County, 1938.
The English walnut (Juglans Regia), and variants thereof, remained the variety of choice in Orange County until the development of the Placentia Perfection walnut. This new hybrid of four species, often called the Placentia walnut or a “budded” walnut, was developed by George Hind of Placentia around 1890. Based on its success, Orange County became one of the biggest walnut producing regions in America.

Other varieties of walnuts were also developed here but generally did not prove as popular. For instance, Henry F. Gardner of Orange developed a variant he called the Klondike walnut which grew “as large as lemons.” But who wants lemon-sized walnuts? (No one.)

In 1898, the first cooperative walnut marketing organization in Orange County was formed: The Santa Ana Valley Walnut Growers Association. Soon, more growers associations and walnut packing houses would spring up throughout the area.  To improve the reliability of price and product quality, fifteen Southern California walnut grower associations banded together in 1912 to form the California Walnut Growers Association.

Ultimately the once-popular Placentia walnut proved susceptible to blight (which struck in the 1910s), and husk fly and navel orange worm, (which struck in the 1920s).

By the mid-1930s, the costs of maintaining a walnut grove in Orange County were about 10 times higher than in Northern California, where heartier varieties thrived. Our local farmers began moving toward more profitable citrus and truck crops. By the late 1950s, only about 800 acres of walnut groves remained in Orange County. The last of our commercial groves, like so much of post-war Southern California agriculture, was pushed out by suburban development in the 1960s.
Migrant walnut pickers camp at Miraflores (near today's Anaheim Stadium).
During its heyday, our thriving walnut industry also led to success for one of Orange County’s early inventors.

Walnuts are harvested by knocking or shaking the nuts off the trees. In an article in the Orange County Historical Society’s 1932 Orange County History Series journal, Santa Ana rancher Harry W. Lewis wrote,
“No machine has been developed that will shake the trees as well as a Mexican with a long pole having a hook on the end. Then grandmother, mother, big sisters and all the children, except the last baby, filled the cans with nuts picked from the nice smooth ground.”
Those gathering the nuts ended up with aching backs and with fingers stained black by the walnut husks.
Shucking walnuts in Santa Ana, 1911. Photo courtesy Orange County Archives.
Once the nuts were gathered, they were spread out and dried in three-foot by six-foot trays, arranged on racks. In later years, the nuts were dried with heaters or dehydrators. Once cured, they were sent to the packing house for bleaching, polishing, sorting, grading and bagging for market.

Parts of this process could be turned into assemblyline-type productions. But the job of actually stooping and picking up the nuts in the groves remained stubbornly labor-intensive. There had to be a better way.
Johan Franke. Photo from Santa Ana Register, Oct. 25, 1918.
Johan Friedrich Franke, a native of Nordhausen, Germany living in Santa Ana, found that better way.

Here’s an excerpt from the 1918 patent application for what Franke called his Boss Walnut Picker:
“With the use of my walnut picker an operator may pick walnuts from the ground among the grass and weeds and leaves and at the same time stand practically erect so as to move freely over the ground.”
The picker consisted of a long pole with a metal cone on the lower end. On the bottom of the cone was a walnut–sized hole with thin metal prongs on four sides. A little applied pressure would allow a walnut to be pushed up past the prongs into the cone above, but the prongs were just sturdy enough to keep the nuts from falling out once collected. It was then a snap to lift the pole and tip the cone full of walnuts into a larger container.
Illustrations from Franke's walnut picker patent, 1918.
Ads for Franke’s walnut picker in the Santa Ana Register asked, “Why break your back?”

Franke had first moved from Germany to Austin, Texas and then moved with his family to Santa Ana in 1887. He’d once been a farmer, but in Santa Ana he worked for 13 years as a glazier for the Griffith Lumber Co. In retirement, he developed a good reputation in Orange County as a piano tuner and he also tinkered with inventions.

Johan Franke manufactured his walnut pickers at his son Rudolph Franke’s nursery, at the northeast corner of Bush St. and 3rd St., beginning in the Summer of 1918. Initially, that was the only place one could buy the pickers. They cost $1.25. But word traveled fast and within a couple months they were being sold at most local hardware stores.
Phil Brigandi with walnut picker at La Habra Historical Museum.
In April 1919 Franke was issued a patent for the picker, and by that summer there was enough demand that he stepped up production considerably. Soon, the manufacture and sale of walnut pickers became his primary source of income. Sadly, he died in a gas heater explosion in Jan. 1922, but his sons continued to make and sell his invention.

Our local walnut industry is now long gone. But occasionally one of Franke's walnut pickers will drift out of an attic or a basement somewhere to puzzle today's non-agricultural Orange Countians. Once identified, they serve as an important reminder not only of pre-urban Orange County, but also of the fact that our agricultural past was hardly limited to citrus.


Joan E. Rambo said...

One time I was talking with an old time resident and he said the dirt roads in Santa Ana were sometimes covered with crushed almond shells. I was surprised as I never saw or heard anyone talking about almond orchards while growing up in Santa Ana. Could he have meant walnut shells? I can remember the walnut orchard along Main Street between Santa Ana and Orange. Was it one of the last to go?

Lee Fredrickson said...

There used to be a walnut packing plant on Culver in Irvine back in the 1970's that friends and I would sneak into and hangout inside. It was on Culver alongside some railroad tracks northeast of the Racquet Club. I remember thinking how bizarre it was to have a walnut plant in the midst of all those orange groves, but now I now.