By the 1890s, San Leandro farmers were clamoring for business leaders to finance and build a cannery. With every crop, but especially with the stone fruits and produce that grew on many San Leandro fields, there was a short window of time between ripe and rotten. If the farmer could not sell his crop in that time, all the costs and hard work of growing the produce went to waste.
But when a cannery bought the produce, the farmer profited immediately (assuming he got a fair price; not guaranteed, of course). Once canned, the peaches, apricots, cherries, asparagus and other produce could then be sold months or even years later. Farmers could grow larger quantities when they no longer had to sell all their produce for immediate consumption. By preserving produce, canneries helped make agriculture economically feasible.
San Leandro farmers got their wish when the King-Morse Cannery began operation in 1899. It was located where the San Leandro BART station is today. For almost three-quarters of a century, peaches, pears, tomatoes, apricots, and other fruits and vegetables were canned and shipped out from this plant.
The California Fruit Canners Association took over the King-Morse (and many other small canneries) in the early 20th century, and then was one of four companies that merged to form California Packing Company.
Calpak’s Plant No. 1, by the way, was rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, and would become the world’s largest fruit and vegetable cannery. It is now the shopping site at Fisherman’s Wharf known as The Cannery. San Leandro’s cannery was Plant No. 8.
In 1967, the California Packing Company changed its name to its most well-known label, Del Monte.
With a canning capacity of 50,000 cases a year, the cannery relied on two rail lines to bring in produce from surrounding areas and to ship out the canned goods. A dried fruit division and an agricultural research division, housed in separate buildings, were also part of the Del Monte operations in San Leandro.
Employment – As a Part-Time Supplement or Full Time
Along with making agriculture financially feasible, the San Leandro cannery provided jobs. The number of cannery workers swelled from 70 permanent employees to as many as 1,000 as crops came in. Farmer’s wives could supplement income by working at the cannery in the summer. Caterpillar workers, laid off during slow periods, also found seasonal employment. You don't have to talk to many long-time San Leandrans before you find someone who worked in the cannery.
The cannery had housing (it looks like not much more than a shack) for seasonal workers who came from out of the area. It was one of the few industries at that time employing women. Way ahead of its time, the cannery provided day care for children, although until child labor laws took effect, it also employed children.
J. E. “Jimmie” O’Brien worked during school vacation in 1900 as a roller peach-grader at the San Leandro cannery, then part of the newly-formed California Fruit Canners Association. He was paid five cents an hour for a ten-hour day and a six-day week.
When he reached adulthood, O’Brien was hired at the California Packing Company cannery. In March of 1953, “Jimmie” O’Brien retired after a 45-year career with Calpak/Del Monte. His 31 years of service as a superintendent at the same plant—the San Leandro cannery—was an all-time record when he retired.
San Leandro’s cannery was one of many in the Bay Area. As housing developments replaced farms and land values rose after World War II, Bay Area canneries were no longer economically viable. The Del Monte plant in San Leandro was closed in 1973.
Did you or someone you know work at San Leandro’s cannery? The San Leandro Historical Society would like to scan old photos of the Del Monte Cannery and the people who worked there. Contact us here: http://www.sanleandrohistory.org/contact
Our next San Leandro Historical Society meeting is Thursday January 10, from 6:00 to 8:00 at the San Leandro Main Library, 300 Estudillo Avenue. Join us!