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Prune Politics

Watching history repeat itself at a preservation party


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EXCEPT FOR a few little tykes, Biter was the youngest person in the house at Le Petit Trianon for the Preservation Action Council of San Jose's event last Thursday. "The Valley of Heart's Delight: Remembering San Jose's Agricultural Heritage" featured four short films ranging from 1922 to 1957 and food made with local agricultural products.

For those too young to care, Silicon Valley used to be called the Valley of Heart's Delight, and our beloved locale was a mecca for the food-packing and canning industries. By 1896, the San Jose Fruit Packing Company was the largest cannery in the world. In 1895 there were 4,457,761 fruit trees in Santa Clara County. In the first few decades of the 20th century, this valley produced one-third of the world's prunes.

Biter hasn't eaten a prune in about 10 years, so we found these facts to be quite fascinating. The food samples at the event were also quite intriguing. The Santa Clara Valley Cheese Log and the Fruit Cocktail SPAM Buffet Party Loaf featured classic local ingredients. We immediately set up shop at the apricot-brandy table upon our arrival.

Then the film portion of the night began, with The Valley of Heart's Delight, a San Jose Chamber of Commerce short from 1922, written and narrated by Don Brice. It probably hadn't been shown in 50 years. Bubbling with unheralded optimism for the valley's future, the film contains some stellar old footage of cable cars heading to Alum Rock Park, trips through the Santa Cruz Mountains, families swimming in San Jose Municipal Lake (remember that one?) and steamrollers resurfacing El Camino Real in preparation for the growth of the automobile. The narrator gushed forth the now famous quote, "The Valley of Heart's Delight is a place where life is favorable, toil is honorable and recreation is plentiful."

Our accomplice for the event, a woman originally from Finland, said, "Looks like San Jose was more fun back then than it is now."

The Preservation Action Council of San Jose (PAC*SJ) threw the party, and if you join at the $100 level you get a copy of this film. It's a worthy cause. The members of PAC*SJ are the movers and shakers who saved the Jose Theater and the Montgomery Hotel, two of downtown's neatest projects. They also stopped the razing of the Markovits-Fox building on North Fourth Street, formerly the home of Vietnam International Video—once the best place in San Jose to rent Vietnamese pornos.

What's really amazing is that younger people just aren't interested in San Jose history, and it looks like they probably never will be, which is sad. PAC*SJ is doing everything they can to preserve San Jose's architectural heritage and pass down the legends, but nearly everyone at this event was over 40, leaving Biter out in the cold shadows at the apricot-brandy table. Something must be done to convince younger folks to appreciate San Jose history. Many folks, especially the transplants, only know this town for the silicon and the Sharks. Before that, we had prunes, apricots, cherries, pears and the Vendome Hotel. Ignoring this would be a travesty of justice indeed.

Other films at the event included Dole Fruit Cocktail and Mayfair Packing, both firsthand explorations of the canning and packing industries. Joe Melehan from Mayfair Packing and Jim Zetterquist, president of PAC*SJ, hosted the show, which drew a surprising number of older interested parties. They filled about two-thirds of Le Petit Trianon's theater.

In the end, Biter came out enriched with historical perspective. We never knew there used to be a merry-go-round in Alum Rock Park.

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From the June 2-8, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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