The old cannery walls on Third Street at Railroad Square, Friday, May 24, 2013. (Crista Jeremiason / The Press Democrat)

LeBARON: If those Railroad Square cannery walls could talk

Shall we play "Jeopardy?" The answer is: Nothing. The question is: What's happening to the historic cannery site on the tracks across from Railroad Square?

If you're up on the latest news from city hall you know that the big plans for the old buildings have fallen apart, victims of the loss of both redevelopment funds and city council enthusiasm.

So now we are left with a historic site that is nothing more than walls.

Ahh, but if these walls could talk, what tales they would tell. (Sorry about the clich?, but it's just too tempting.)

Now standing like specters on West Third Street, they are ghosts of a food industry that dominated both the landscape and the economy for half a century.

I've written about California Packing Company's Plant No. 5 in the dim and distant past, about the several hundred people who worked there, many of them recent immigrants at their first American job.

With the fate of the landmark structures in true jeopardy, not the game variety, it seems important to tell it again.

There is a distinct Italian accent to this story. The workforce for the three-block long cannery was drawn from the neighborhood, an area where the earliest immigrants had established themselves at the turn of the 20th century with boarding hotels and shops along and west of Wilson Street.

The scope of the cannery and its importance to the economy was enormous, In the April-to-October season, workers processed a wide variety of crops, coming by truck and train - pears from Lake and Mendocino counties, apples, berries and cherries from Sebastopol, peaches and plums from Geyserville and Cloverdale. There were also vegetables. Cal Pack, as the company was known, leased fields in Valley Ford and Ignacio to grow spinach and peas.

There were even tomatoes from the Sacramento Valley, although Cal Pack's predecessor at the Santa Rosa site, Hunt Brothers Cannery, had long since established itself as the premier tomato processor in the Sacramento area, on its way to becoming a national brand (think Hunt's tomato sauce, think ketchup).

The workers were mostly women, although there were often whole families employed. Daughters worked beside mothers, peeling and sorting fruit; sons were with fathers in the box-making area or keeping the machinery running.

Berries were the most fragile, and that short season often meant 16-hour days to get the fresh fruit washed and sorted and canned. (Train cars filled with berries or cherries were often "hijacked" by teenage boys who would jump aboard at a country crossing and ride to town, eating all they could before the trip was over.)

THERE WERE a few Irish, some Portuguese but mainly they were Italians, many of them "just off the boat," as they would tell it. Ask your third-generation Italian friends in Santa Rosa for a brief family history and it's a safe bet the cannery will be somewhere in the mix.

Not only did the work sustain families economically, but there was romance, and marriages and lasting friendships that came off that food processing assembly line.

DESPAIRING OF the potential loss of an important part of the town's history, I paid a visit last week to my friend Rita Carniglia Hall. Rita knows a lot about Santa Rosa's Westside neighborhood and the three-block cannery in its midst.

Born in 1925, she grew up in the plant superintendent's house on Sixth Street. Her father, Charles Carniglia, had succeeded his "Uncle Jack," John Oliva, as superintendent in 1920. Those standing walls are what are left of the building that was her father's office.

Rita has fond memories of the "cannery years," particularly of a remarkably progressive social service known as the "Kindergarten Cannery."

It was free child care 60 years before its time, with a nurse on duty and meals and snacks and, what Rita remembers most from her childhood, the playground with the double glider swings and slides and teeter-totters and more toys that most of those kids had ever dreamed of.

In later years, the creek was her playground, along with all the other neighborhood kids. The fact that it was also the cannery's dump of choice for the peels and cores and even the "dents," which was the word for the cans that didn't pass muster, didn't trouble the boys who swam there, often coming up with a peach or tomato peel on their heads.

The major part of the cannery closed in 1932 when Cal Pack consolidated at its San Leandro plant. The West Third office building became a Nulaid egg packing plant. A smaller canning operation stayed in business a few years, producing mostly canned peaches, pears and fruit cocktail along with some dried fruit.

Rita says that a visit to the Sixth Street Playhouse, which was the receiving building, still produces memories of the trucks backed up to the big doors under those brick arches that now frame a window and door in the theater lobby.

Any discussion of those cannery years is incomplete without a broader view of the Westside as a whole. It was, as Rita and many others of her generation can tell you, a town unto itself.

I remember Danny Bonfigli, Lena's son, telling me that he saw the courthouse for the first time when he was 7 years old. He and his neighbors had no reason to go uptown.

As Rita recalls, the grocers along Wilson Street "carried" their customers with charge accounts through the off-season months. There were shoe shops and barbers and clothing stores and, of course, restaurants and saloons. There was no call to go farther east than St. Rose Church.

Central to this town-within-a-town, central, in fact, to the much larger agricultural community, was Plant No. 5, the Santa Rosa cannery.

You can only imagine how Rita feels when she looks at those ghostly walls.

SAVING THESE historic structures is not impossible. It's been done. Years ago, San Francisco "saved" the Ghirardelli Chocolate factory as well as a larger Cal Pack-Del Monte plant, reputed to be the "world's largest fruit cannery."

I know someone who lives in an early 20th century Mother's Cookies bakery in Oakland. It is a full block of red brick building that has been divided into 22 studios and apartments. It works. Apparently Santa Rosa's sturdy old telephone building will be saved.

This city has plenty of "save" opportunities to consider. The Carrillo Adobe is crumbling away in an overgrown orchard. The Hoag house is languishing on the outskirts of town, hoping to be called to some historic service. The Fountaingrove Round Barn is ... well, just sitting there. And now we've given up on the cannery.

Surely, we can do better than this.

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