Back in the day, prunes were shaken off the trees and then picked up off the clod-strewn ground, put into buckets and then boxes. The fruit was dipped in lye water and spread on trays to be dried, originally lying on the ground in the sunshine and after the 1950s in concrete block dehydrators that circulated dry, 180 degree air through trays (about 6 feet by 4 feet) stacked on rolling bases. The prunes were then dumped into bins that held about a ton, which were eventually picked up by the packing house.
Every day, the day men (two strapping young guys who worked by the hour) would take their shaking poles out to shake down a day’s worth of picking. The wooden poles were about 10 feet long and 2 – 3 inches in diameter with a metal hook at the end. The workers would hook around a limb and give it a good shake, causing the ripe fruit to fall on the ground. The not-yet-mature fruit would hang on, and we would always pick the orchard twice so the fruit would be harvested when it was completely ripe.
Prune picking was not a glamorous enterprise. It was a dirty, sticky, knee-scraping, back-breaking business. We would crawl around putting the prunes into our buckets and then dump them into 55-pound lug boxes. In most cases two buckets made a box, but as a youngster my bucket was smaller: three to a box.
We would pick across the orchard. Mr. and Mrs. Scott would take one row and I would work with them. The girls (the Scott cousins) would take a row and so would Stella Mae. Sometimes my cousin Mike Farrell would pick and he would take a row. The idea was that we’d all work our rows in tandem and move from one side of the ranch to the other.
When I was about 10 years old (1960), I remember Stella Mae and Moses having three children, all little boys under the age of 5. Those kids would play in the field while Stella Mae worked. I remember the littlest one, who was still in diapers, as always being dirty. He would eat a fresh prune, getting sticky sweet juice all over his hands and face. Then he would crawl around in the dirt. What a mess. Of course, the rest of us didn’t look much better. You would always end up kneeling on a prune and then the knees of your jeans would start to collect dirt. Pretty soon there would be an ugly clump on your knee. Now that I think about it, I guess we all pretty much looked like Stella Mae’s son!
We were paid 25 cents a box. I remember the Scotts’ goal was to pick 100 boxes a day. Mine was to pick 10 boxes a day, but I didn’t often make it, especially since my indulgent parents only made me pick until lunchtime.
One important piece of harvest equipment was the orchard truck. Ours was a orange “cut-down” 1937 Dodge van originally used by Galleon Laundry service in San Francisco. Galleon picked up and laundered linens from the restaurants in San Francisco and my great uncle Joe Giorgi was the manager of the mechanics who kept the fleet running. He got the old van for us when it had finished its useful life climbing the hills of SF. I remember learning to drive on that truck. It was so antique that you had to double clutch to get from first (actually something called compound low) to second gear.
In the afternoon, Dad would drive the orchard truck down to where the pickers were working and he and the day men would load full boxes on the flatbed rear. Sometimes I got to ride along and I remember coming back standing behind the boxes piled four high with only about a four-inch space to stand on. I would get to stand there next to Moses, which seemed terribly adult and sophisticated. He was a bit of a charmer and I think he enjoyed my wide-eyed adulation.
The boxes would be delivered to the dipping platform, where the prunes would be dipped in hot lye water. Every day my father put a scoop of lye into the steaming hot water. I always thought this was just to clean the prunes, but I recently learned it was a critical step that softened or broke the skin to allow the prunes to shrivel properly as they dried.
The prunes were spread on trays, which were stacked about seven feet high on rolling bases to go into the tunnel. The dehydrator held six cars at a time, three sets of two. French prunes took about 18 hours to dry, with the cars moving forward in the tunnel every six hours. My Dad would sleep on a cot out in the fruit shed every night, getting up during the night to step into the small man door at the side of the dehydrator to check the dryness of the prunes. Normally, he would pull two cars and add to new ones at midnight and 6 a.m.
The last step in the process was to get the dried prunes off the trays so they could be refilled with the new day’s harvest. My mother and I took over the job of “scraping the trays” when I grew tall enough to reach the top tray, probably about when I started high school. We would take a tray off the car, dump the dried prunes into a bin and then use a metal scrapper to loosen any stuck prunes and dump the tray again. This was a lot easier and more fun than picking prunes. Plus: I got paid by the hour!
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