By Royal John Medley
A little over 100 years ago, Arizona agriculture blossomed and began distributing its fresh harvest across the nation. Railcar shipments of row crops, most commonly lettuce, headed east in wooden crates chilled by ice. Consumers received delicious produce that was accompanied by eye-catching advertisements reflecting the landscapes, peoples, history, and myths of the Southwest.
Nicknamed “fruit crate art,” the labels attached to the crates combined evocative names and appealing images. The labels were used to instill positive brand connotations with consumers and persuade them that produce wasn't a fungible commodity, i.e., that not all lettuce heads were the same. The result of this marriage of agriculture and art in Arizona has resulted in a legacy of a vintage Americana that remains beloved today.
Lettuce became a viable commercial industry in Arizona because of the synthesis of railroad cars, ice, and wooden crates. These shipping containers, lined with waxed paper, were designed to withstand the significant weight of the lettuce heads, crushed ice broadcast between throughout the boxcar, and the effects of hundreds of gallons of cold water from the melting ice.
Vegetable growers in the Salt River Valley began commercial production of lettuce in February 1914 with one carload shipment to Kansas City by the Walter Hill Company for grower J. S. Heard. Two additional boxcars were shipped the following month. Based upon these sales, enterprising local farmers organized the United Produce Growers Association in August 1914.
The Valley’s expanding lettuce industry was impacted by World War I in 1917, as many growers were drafted into the military. By 1920, lettuce production again grew, with Glendale, Fairgrounds, Phoenix, Mesa, and Toltec the major producing areas that comprised 1,100 acres, an almost ten-fold increase over the years of World War I.
Jack Bros. Lettuce Packing Shed in Somerton, AZ, 1951. Robison Collection.
By 1926, lettuce production surpassed 4,572 boxcars. In 1930, irrigated lettuce acreage in Arizona totaled more than 33,000 acres. By 1946, Arizona lettuce shipments, which were mostly from Maricopa, Pinal, and Yuma counties, increased to 18,500 boxcars along with 5,200 boxcars of carrots. An estimated 1,500,000 to 2,000,000 wooden crates were nailed together for the shipment of lettuce during the 1940 season for Maricopa County alone. In 1962, irrigated lettuce acreage in the Grand Canyon State reached 57,000 acres.
This article originally appeared in the bimonthly Arizona Contractor & Community magazine, July/Aug 2020 issue, Vol. 9, No.4.