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[whitespace] Preserving the valley's rich agricultural traditions

Sunnyvale--Talk of this valley's orchard past usually conjures up faded but still-pungent memories of acres of trees deep in bloom--an era when time was marked by the changing seasons, rather than fiscal quarters. Although most of the area's farmland has given way to office complexes and housing developments, one group is dedicated to retaining a small corner of the valley's agricultural past: Sunnyvale's Orchard Heritage Park and Interpretive Exhibit (OHPIE).

The organization's preservation efforts will save 10 acres of an operating Sunnyvale orchard. The land, next to the Sunnyvale Community Center, will serve as a park and permanent exhibit, displaying panels of text and photographs on the area's orchard past and its original farming families.

Organizers expect to break ground on the $400,000 project next spring or summer.

This Saturday, May 22, OHPIE is hosting the Orchard Heritage Blossom Faire and Barbecue. The event will run from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Community Center and will serve as a fundraiser for the exhibit and a commemoration of orchard families.

"I don't think anyone realizes how long it takes to build the infrastructure," Joe Gutierrez, OHPIE Alliance Chair, says.

Gutierrez says the idea to secure the land and develop a permanent exhibit emerged from the Sunnyvale Historical Society in 1990.

"Back then, [orchardist] Charlie Olson had 10 to 12 acres on the west side of Mathilda that was still orchard. When part of that was sold and subsequently developed, the Heritage Commission put their heads together, and I was volunteered to see what could be done."

Ensuing brainstorming resulted in the formation of a committee dedicated to find a way to preserve the orchard.

"I went to Charlie and said 'What can we do?' " Gutierrez remembers. "And he looked at me kind of befuddled and told me very nicely that there was no chance [of acquiring land] because it just wasn't economically feasible. We're talking like one acre of land being a $1 million gift."

After a few more discussions, Gutierrez says it came to his attention that the city of Sunnyvale owned 10 acres of land next to the community center. He asked the councilmembers if they would consider turning the land into a park.

"They supported our concerns and agreed not to develop the land and keep it as a heritage landmark," he says.

"Having done that, we asked to put up graphics of some sort because it's not obvious why those little trees are a heritage," Gutierrez explains. "And me being an architect, I don't think in terms of graphics but buildings."

Thus the idea of creating a barn-like structure to house the exhibit was born. Gutierrez and his team moved onto what has been the most formidable task of the project: raising the money to turn sketches into reality.

The original committee picked up enough members to become a task force; the task force evolved into an alliance.

"We feel that alliance is more appropriate because there are more people and groups involved who are really aligned with us in spirit and concern," Gutierrez says.

Among those who have contributed both financially and personally are more than 100 valley families that make up the orchard "honor roll." These families provided memorabilia and personal anecdotes on growing up in the "Valley of the Heart's Delight."

One of those is Gene Neri, whose family has been orcharding in Sunnyvale since 1925.

"I think this is very important because there are so many new people in the city who aren't aware of the traditions that brought life into this city," Neri says of the planned exhibit.

"I myself am in my upper years, and even the ones of us who are actually here and have experienced [that life] aren't going to be here forever. It will act as a reminder of what things were like here way back when."

Ann Hines has been accumulating the names and stories for OHPIE, and says that "recognizing orchard families is acknowledging their lasting contribution to who we are today--that their entrepreneurial spirit is part of our evolving history as an exceptional place in history."

"[Orchard preservation] is important to preserve pieces of a community that carry its past forward into the present and future," Hines says. "It provides a sense of roots, continuity, sense that what we do matters, can have enduring value, and reminds of from whence we came. Because if you don't know where you came from, you don't know where you're going."

So far, OHPIE has received more than $150,000 in contributions, and expects to receive closer to $200,000 by the end of this year. When construction is under way, the exhibit will be developed in two phases: the first includes creating of the structure that will house the exhibit; and the second includes landscaping and building an amphitheater.

"We've really been very blessed by the generosity of our friends," Gutierrez says.
Kelly Wilkinson

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