It was a backward look 55 years — to September 1958 — when a new method of cooling lettuce for shipping was being unveiled on a Carbona siding of the Western Pacific Railroad, now part of the Union Pacific.
Wayne Monger of Suisan City, an active member of the Western Pacific Historical Society, was the speaker at the monthly meeting of the local West Side Pioneer Association.
He told of the vacuum-cooling and shipping of lettuce in Carbona in 1958 and illustrated his talk with slides that a Western Pacific photographer had taken.
Well, that W.P. photographer wasn’t the only guy out there shooting pictures on Sept. 28, 1958. A much younger Sam Matthews was also present with his twin-lens reflex camera in hand.
In fact, Monger had contacted me more than a month ago to help him fill in some the blanks of his presentation. He knew the brand name of the firm shipping the lettuce, but not the shipping company’s name.
I immediately replied, “Fudenna Brothers from Fremont.”
I can still remember Jim Fudenna, then a young member of the family that was a major grower, packer and shipper of vegetables from Fremont’s Irvington district, explaining how cartons of lettuce harvested in Tracy fields were placed on pallets and loaded into one of two steel cylinders, known as the ice cylinder, on the W.P. siding. Cool air — 34 degrees — was pumped from that cylinder into the other cylinder, where the pallet-load of lettuce had been placed and from which warm air had been blown out.
The process cooled the lettuce to 34 degrees before it was loaded into refrigerated rail cars for shipment to eastern markets.
Before the first carload of lettuce was cooled and loaded, Norma Johnson of Tracy, the unofficial Carbona lettuce queen, broke a bottle of champagne on the rail car.
I recall snapping a photo of the christening and then sipping some of the bubbly out of plastic cup along with Jack Godwin, the local W.P. agent, and several other railroad officials.
For us in Tracy, the vacuum cooling was an interesting development in itself, but more importantly, it signaled the start of lettuce growing and shipping in this area. Before then in the 1950s, Brentwood was the major lettuce shipping point on the West Side, with Patterson not too far behind.
In 1958, the Fudennas shipped lettuce from 550 acres planted by a group of Tracy growers. They included George Matsuoka, Mits Kagehiro, Ed Nasaki and Alvarez Bros.
Working with the local growers was Fudenna fieldman Joe Arnalfo. Joe, as some old-timers will recall, made Tracy his home and later opened a seed business here.
It was hoped at the time that field-packed iceberg lettuce growing and shipping would continue to be an important part of local agriculture each fall, and possibly in the spring, too.
That hope was based on Tracy shipping lettuce for two months at the end of the Salinas and Santa Clara Valley (yes, farms in San Jose) lettuce seasons and before production in Arizona kicked in.
That lasted for only a handful of years, however, as Salinas started shipping a couple of weeks longer and the Arizona season was started earlier, squeezing out the local window of lettuce-shipping opportunity.
Brentwood continued shipping lettuce for more than a decade, but Tracy’s growing, cooling and shipping of lettuce was short-lived.
The end of shipping went virtually unnoticed, but the beginning that September day in 1958 was a first-class event, champagne and all.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He still owns a Rollei twin-lens reflex camera.