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Al Smith, President of Orchard Supply Hardware, Mayor of Los Gatos, etc.

January 27, 2013

Orchard Supply Hardware has always been my favorite store, especially the original one on San Carlos Street in San Jose. We simply call it Orchard, “Oh yeah, I bought that bag of manure and this framer’s hammer at Orchard.” It opened in 1931 as a farmer’s cooperative hardware and supply depot.

In those days it was run by a committee of farmer’s, but as time went by, members of the committee retired, died or got tired of the hardware business. A Los Gatos local, Al Smith, ended up being the single, last member of the committee and he was re-labeled, he became the president of Orchard Supply Hardware.

Somewhere around 1974 or maybe 75, I was putting together a fine art, coffee table magazine. I called it Redtail and it really almost happened, but starting publications is always risky and it never really got off the ground. Several other people were involved and we were able to get about 300 copies of a little eight page dummy version of Redtail, sympathetic printer who let us use his press. It actually ended up looking pretty professional, even though it was only eight pages. We also developed rate cards, promotional sheets, billing notices and all the other ancillary materials a publication would have. The entire bunch of us had been years in the publishing and printing businesses, though I don’t think any of us were over 25 years of age. At the time, I was working at the Los Gatos Times-Observer (we called it the “TO”) as production manager. For health reasons, I had to leave the TO so I decided to dedicate a few months to our Redtail magazine, to see if we could really make it work.

I put the sample issues, the rate cards and what ever else into a spiffy briefcase and, as they say, I “hit the bricks.” I started cold calling on potential advertisers. I hated doing that, but the others were all nine to five-ers and were stuck at their jobs during business hours. At this stage, we weren’t looking for real ad sales in a non-existent magazine, but support from area businesses who honestly would consider advertising should we ever really come to be. Though we were confident, graphic arts professionals, obviously we were neophyte businessmen.

The one establishment I was looking forward to calling on was Orchard Supply. Usually when I went to a company, big or small, I would nearly always get shunted to some minorling in the marketing department. No one likes to deal with blind call salesmen. I know I didn’t. When I entered Orchard’s corporate offices out near Spartan Stadium on San Jose’s Alma Avenue, I was in a huge foyer with only one cute girl in there, sitting behind a very large and imposing counter. She said “Hi,” with a big smile, took my flier about Redtail and started walking towards a door behind the counter, asking me to please wait a minute. She came back into the foyer and told me that Mr. Smith (Orchard’s president from Los Gatos) would see me in a few minutes. I almost threw up. I was going be talking to the president of my favorite retail establishment? I just wasn’t ready for that. This is the sort of meeting you prepare for, where you primp and prime yourself before hand.

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OSH

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There was a buzz from behind the counter and then a muffled male voice said a few unintelligible words. The cute girl stood and asked me to follow her through the door behind the counter. Beyond the door was a large common area with no furniture but it had several doors in close walls and and an array of several hallways splayed out into various directions of this faceless warehouse on the outside. I realized I was starting to hyperventilate. She led me to one of the doors with a plaque, reading “Al Smith.” She opened it and I entered a large office with a couple of mounted animal heads, a couch and a coffee table at my back but a huge desk with several large leather chairs on my side of the very clean desktop. She told me to have a seat, and as she turned, a door behind the desk opened and Mr. Smith stepped in, drying his hands. He looked me up down, as he sat behind the desk, he said “lots of hair, eh?” I started breathing normally and all I could say as I smiled was “Yep.” This was my kind of guy, straight up front.

He liked the concept of Redtail and he asked me to elaborate on it. I elaborated. He stopped me at some point and told me that Orchard had been bought by some Japanese outfit and he told me he had no control over advertising. The Japanese parent company had hired an ad agency to deal with all the company’s ad dollars. Surely they wouldn’t spend a cent on a non-existent magazine, especially one only concerned with art. The reason he saw me today is because, as he still is called president and gets paid as the president, he really didn’t have much to do any more. He can see the stray cats that wander in off the street, as it were. I excused my self and he told me to stick with it. As we were shaking hands on my departure, I told him how much I liked the old store and how I had been going there since I was a kid. He asked where I was from and I said Almaden. This really got his attention. He asked if I knew this family and that. I knew them all, I’d grown up with them. In the days of the management committee, these families had members who had been on the committee at various times. Then he asked me if I wanted a beer. Sure! We spent the afternoon drinking beers from a discreet little frig behind his desk.

We parted as friends that afternoon, but as he was older than my father, I wouldn’t exactly call us buddies. Now and then we’d bump into each other in town and we’d chat as time allowed. He was a down to earth guy and I really did like him.

Way back when, one of the Almaden families got wind of a set of old cabins over on the coast, above Davenport. Whoever owned them was going broke and needed fast cash. It was some sort of hunting cooperative that had gone bust. Someone in Almaden Valley organized another cooperative and this co-op bought these cabins in an area called Scott Creek, with each participating family paying a small part of the monthly mortgage payments. In this way, the families had their own “beach house,” just like millionaires.

One time, a school mate’s family was going to their cabin in Scott Creek and invited me along. They packed their bulgy 1953 Plymouth with groceries and several changes of clothes and a couple of deflated beach balls. This was happening just before Halloween so, to me, the idea of going to the beach with its freezing Pacific water didn’t seem real inviting but I was just along for the ride and I kept my eight year old mouth shut.

We drove a little ways up Highway 1 past Davenport and then turned right (inland) on a dirt road. The road was narrow with dense redwood forest on one side and a fallow field guarded by barbed wire on the other. The striking thing about this fence was that, draped from the top of nearly fence post, was the weathered body of a fox. My friend’s father said, as he was driving, that some of these skins might be as much as twenty years old. I’d never seen this before.

Every foot we went up this tiny road, the field on the other side of the barbed wire got narrower, narrower and narrower. We were nearing the end of this little valley. Soon we would be wedged in by mountain forest on both sides. Just before this happened, we turned off this road onto an even more dinky road. This dinky road was nothing but a tunnel in the young redwoods, branches over lapping each other so densely that there almost no light making it to the mossy green ground. Now, this was getting very spooky. The branches were scraping and squeezing the Plymouth and the father turned on the car’s headlights. I never knew it could be so dark in the daytime.

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1953 Plymouth

 A restored 1953 Plymouth

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Finally we broke into a glade of silvery, half glowing light and on its edges we could see the corners of several small, log cabins, heavily covered in moss. The moss was so thick it made the corners of the cabins look rounded, not square, as though they were in some sort of cartoon. I felt like we were in some half lit fairy land, but it was still pretty spooky. We took the food and clothes out of the car as my friend’s Mom lit a fire in the wood stove and pulled back all the heavy curtains on the small windows. Once we got the lights on, this little house was a turning into a very cool, little place.

The next morning we got the cabin as warm as we could in a dense, coast fog. After a big, hearty breakfast, we piled into the car and drove down the narrow roads, crossed the highway and parked on a small bluff above Scott’s Creek Beach. Unlike beaches on Monterey Bay, these ocean beaches were usually just cove beaches, where the sandy crescents were defined by cliffs protruding into the ocean at the crescent’s points. The beach might be several hundred yards from point to point. Scott’s Creek Beach wasn’t a tiny crescent but it sure wasn’t the biggest I’d ever been to. The unusual thing about this beach was that at the north end, the cliff was very high, perhaps several hundred feet, while the southern crescent point was only maybe twenty or thirty feet above the water. Usually, at the crescent points, the cliffs would be more closely matched in the their height. There was a huge difference here.

This family I was with, was famous for their hiking. We buttoned up our coats and walked down to the wet sand at the breakers. We kept to the wet sand and walked til we got to the high cliff on the north end where we simply turned round and walked back. We kids were restless and picked up the stray rocks and sticks we found in the sand and threw them at the gulls. A few old men on folding stools or old lawn chairs were motionlessly surf fishing, a score of yards between them. As we approached the parked car, Scott Creek was now traversing the beach some hundred feet from the course it took when we had arrived. Us young guys found this astounding and we got all noisy and excited. The father explained that as the creek’s water flowed under the highway’s bridge, the water would change depth, speed and pressure. As it flowed across the beach it would erode the sand channel that went to the ocean and so the channel would slide one way or the other to the ever changing contours the water was cutting in the sand. He made us stop and calm down. He told us to just watch and look for the little edges of the sand falling into the water as it flowed to the sea. We fixed our eyes to the edge of the channel and gazed in. Finally we saw a little finger of sand crack off the edge and get swept downstream. We got all excited again, pointing to the spot where the sand fell. Now we didn’t want to leave the beach. We were dancing all over the place on the creek’s edge. Now that we knew what to look for, we were finding falling sand fingers all over the place. All at once there was a big splash behind us and the water channel jerked too close to us, our shoes were coved with the creek water. We looked over our shoulders and what we saw in the water wasn’t a sand finger but more of a sand torso. A big hunk of sand had been undercut and plopped into the creek’s flow and moved it several feet to one side. The father told us this how the creek slithers across the beach so fast. “Ahhh . . .,” we said in unison, now we understood. But, we had to go. As we walked up to the car, the father told us that Scott Creek wasn’t a huge beach but it was famous for its meandering creek that kept the beach forever changing, as we just saw. As we listened, we looked back in awe, with wide eyes, “Wow!”

One time when I encountered Al Smith at Mountain Charley’s Restaurant at lunch time, he told me about his latest endeavor. He lived in the same old farm house he was raised in, down between Lark Avenue and Pollard, the same house in the same old orchard (there is a freeway there, now). Because he had more money than he knew what to do with, he did something he wanted to do since he was a kid. He bought a caboose. Not a toy caboose but a real and full sized train caboose. He made it into his office, as he was now retired from Orchard. I listened and thought about it, and it struck me, “Al, a caboose is huge, did you take it apart and truck it in?” He told me that he had a spur built from the railroad track that ran next to Winchester Avenue and this spur terminated right next to his house. They pushed the caboose up to the house and once settled, they dismantled and removed the spur. He told me this cause he knew I’d love it. And I did. I was giggling like a kid, and he wrote something on the back of a business card, “call me before you come by to make sure I’m there, but come anytime.” He walked away while I was still giggling. This was unbelievable.

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caboose 1

(Los Gatos Times-Observer, probably around 1974 — from the “Taste of Los Gatos” collection)

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I called him and we came up with a time that was good for the both of us. Just as with all orchard houses, his driveway was long and straight, to a cluster of wind break trees, the house and the barn in the middle. His caboose made even the barn look small, the railroad ties and track probably added a couple of feet to its height. All I could do was stare and laugh, he really did it! Finally I shook off my awe and walked up the wooden stairs he had built and yelled in the door. He waved at me to come in, from the same big desk I saw at Orchard. Now the couch was placed in front of the desk instead of across the room. The leather chairs were there but at a secondary desk. This place was bigger than I figured. It was decorated with all sorts of Orchard Supply memorabilia, new and old. This place was perfect, I just beamed as I went from item to item, just way too cool. Oh, yeah, the little, discreet frig was there, except now there was a full sized one right next to it, surely full of all sorts of great goodies. Once more awed, Al laughed at me, handing me a beer. Then he took me on an hour long tour. It was great.

We sat down on opposite ends of the couch and started recounting our old days as kids, his in the 1930s and 40s, mine in the 50s and 60s. A phone rang to interrupt our conversation. Al got up and answered it and then told me he had to take this one privately. He pressed the hold button and went through a door to an ante chamber in the other end of the caboose. I stood up again and and re-examined the stuff on the walls, but I came upon one odd piece that didn’t really fit. It was a framed and matted photograph, the photo actually being quite small but the matte was quite large, as if to emphasize the picture. At first I thought the picture was some abstract art sort of thing but really fixing on it, I realized it was like a spy plane photo, or maybe even a spy satellite picture. What would Al be doing with one of those? And I stared at it long and hard. On the right of the picture, it was the ocean, pretty obviously, it was blue-ish green with a white string between a blue/green and the other colors. The white string was the surf. This string went from the top of the small picture to its bottom. There was a gray ribbon cutting the image just off center, from top to bottom, a road. There was a yellow crescent, a fat crescent that was almost a half circle, between the white string and the gray ribbon, its two points barely sticking into the blue/green but cutting the white string.

On the other side of the ribbon, opposite the crescent, were a bunch of fine lines, alternating between two similar shades of dull brown, a furrowed field just plowed. I could almost see the foxes hanging. I stared harder for some sort of confirmation. Above the yellow crescent, the remaining area was deep green, but looking hard, there was a dark shading of the yellow sand (I now assumed), sort of wedge shaped, below the green. Hells Bells, this was the shadow of the cliff in late afternoon!

Just as I figured this, Al returned. I slowly turned my head round to face him. He was staring at me, I stared back.

“Scott Creek!” is all I said. He looked about the room to see if someone had snuck in, to tell me the tale. He knurled his brow,

“How could you know?”

“I used to stay in the cabins,” there was a frozen pause.

“So did I,” he said blankly.

We looked into each other eyes, wondering how, through all the crossed wires of so many years, so many changes and so much progress, how did we get so connected. Almost no one would have hung that picture. And even if someone did, what were the odds anyone would have been able to discern it. Ha, we beat the odds, incredible odds, really incredible odds. But, we beat the odds and got to know each other and we finally broke into endless peals of laughter, and a new case of beer.

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Scott Creek Beach

A modern, google verion of Al Smith’s picture

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post script:

Al Smith died in 1993.  He didn’t just use his money to buy toys and cabooses for himself.  Here is a excerpt from the Swanton Pacific Ranch web site, a satellite campus of California Polytechnic State University or simply, Cal Poly:

“The Ranch (3,200 acres) was donated to the College in 1993 by the late Al Smith. A Cal Poly graduate and founder of Orchard Supply Hardware, Al had specific goals, “…that Swanton Pacific Ranch be maintained as a working ranch and used exclusively for agriculture, recreational, educational purposes”.”    Click here to find out more.

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4 Comments
  1. Suitcase Simpson permalink

    Boy, does this bring back memories. At one time, Al Smith taught at Campbell High School. When I began teaching in the Campbell Union High School District in 1971, there was already a tradition in place that every spring, Al would host an all-day BBQ and beerfest for the male teachers in the district (couldn’t get by with that today) on the ranch he had purchased near Swanton on Highway 1 near Davenport. He had put in a mid-scale railroad on the property (which at one time had been a Boy Scout camp). I met Al at my very first such event in 1972, and renewed that acquaintance every spring thereafter for many years. These events eventually ceased, but I remember them, and Al Smith, very well.

  2. A friend sent me the following comment to my email:

    I just finished reading your blog about Al Smith. When I started teaching in 1960 at Campbell High School, Al was a counselor and was my supervisor teacher. At that time he still owned Orchard Supply and used to hire a lot of the Campbell High teachers to work during summer vacation. At the end of each school year Al hosted an end of the year party at Swanton at the old boy scout camp. We played V-ball, horseshoes, drank a lot of beer and had a big barbeque. As I remember Al had some old records of train whistles and sounds that he would play as loud as he could in the forest. Those were special times. Al used to take two or three of Campbell’s best athletes camping by horseback during summer vacation. Craig Morton an NFL all star was among those who went.
    Your blog brought back memories of a great man. Were you at his funeral?
    See you at coffee one of these days.
    Patrick D.

  3. Al Smith was a friend of mine. I drank real beer to no alcohol beer with him as his cancer progressed. From the time we met until the last time I saw him, we would spent time talking about what should happen with his railroad. The indulgence, the “no hobby should cost over $100,000” (which is what I understood was the final negotiated price for the narrow guage expo equipment alone). Then look at what he did to restore, preserve and create a presence of… well just go look for yourself. When you do, look for the small marker noting his own. This was another of the things we talked about as he was deciding the fate of hisrailroad and his alma mater Cal Poly.

  4. Every April, we continue to celebrate Al Smith’s birthday at Swanton Pacific Railroad for an event called, “Al Smith Day.” There are steam train rides, bbq lunch, live music, ranch activities and more. This is a by-reservation-only event. There’s another event typically in September or October. You can find out more information about Swanton Pacific Railroad on the sprr dot calpoly dot edu website or Facebook. The railroad is run by volunteers and funded by donations and Al’s endowment. The ranch is now owned by the Cal Poly Corporation and operated by the Cal Poly College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences.

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