For local collector, preserving history is all in the labels
You could say Weimar resident Thomas P. “Pat” Jacobsen preserves fruit. But he doesn’t do it in jars; instead he collects and preserves fruit crate labels.
Jacobsen said he started collecting the labels – the colorful art affixed to wooden crates – as decorations in 1979. That set Jacobsen off on a quest that found him canvassing the Pacific Coast for the paper artifacts for the next 25 years. “I’ve built the biggest collection of its kind known,” said the collector, historian, author, musician and stained-glass artist.
His collection, Jacobsen said, includes labels that came from the basements of five of the biggest printers in the West that once operated in San Francisco. Of the 50 lithographic companies that printed the crate labels designed not only to indicate the contents of the boxes but also to attract attention with beautiful illustrations of fruits and vegetables for 120 years, none of them exist today.
Label makers first used the limestone printing method, or lithography, in the 1790s, then in the 1920s switched to offset lithography presses. “I have tens of thousands of labels printed from stone,” Jacobsen said.
The use of crate labels basically ended in 1955, he said. “After the war everybody went to preprinted cardboard boxes.”
Jacobsen’s collection includes many labels from Placer County fruit houses, especially Newcastle, Auburn and Colfax. At one time, there were many orchards at Orchard Springs, where the Bierwagens now farm in Chicago Park, and Jacobsen has a few from Chicago Park and Grass Valley, which he said are extremely rare.
In the 1920s, Jacobsen said, most of the local growers pooled their resources and formed the Colfax Growers Association, the only packing house in town. Fruit was shipped out to the marketplace, in the US from border to border and to other countries as well.
“It was definitely pear country up here,” Jacobsen said, so most of the fruit that was shipped was pears, as well as apples.
“Miners who didn’t make money in the Gold Rush learned that almost everything grew in California soil,” and apples and pears grow well in cold weather, he said. “Many people began to plant local farms and orchards in the foothills … California became a center for pear growing, to the point of over rampant overproduction.” Eventually competition from other states, freezes, repurposing of land, the parasite pear thrip, and other factors caused the industry to diminish.
Jacobsen’s collection provides a window to those days when the fruit industry drove the area’s economy.
A permanent display of Jacobsen’s labels, including some from Colfax, can be seen at the Sierra Market.
A different, temporary display continues to Jan. 1 at Café Luna. Lauren Miller, Café Luna co-owner, said she grew up with fruit crate labels decorating the walls of the kitchen in her Colfax home.
“To me they are really familiar, but there also such a beautiful part of this region’s history,” Miller said. Her customers, she said, have enjoyed seeing the collection and learning about the history of the labels from narratives Jacobsen has posted with the collection.
To see Jacobsen's collection, visit fruitcratelabels.com.