While the Pajaro Valley area is a bit outside of the Central Coast’s Traces of the Past project area, I am including the Croatians in the list of the important ethnic groups because a couple of their apple growing innovations fostered worldwide changes to fresh fruit marketing and the industry.  

Croatians settled throughout California, but they had a singular impact on Pajaro Valley near Watsonville, California.

In 1913, Jack London wrote about the Croatians in the book, Valley of the Moon, and his description couldn’t have been any more accurate or prescient. 

“Wait till we strike Pajaro Valley,…I’ll show you what can be done with the soil – and not by cow-college graduates but by uneducated foreigners that the high and mighty American has always sneered at. …

…Do you know what they call Pajaro Valley now? New Dalmatia

…Well, the Dalmatians came along and showed they were smarter. They were miserable immigrants – poorer than Job’s turkey. First, they worked at day’s labor in the fruit harvest. Next they began, in a small way, buying the apples on the trees. The more money they made the bigger became their deals. Pretty soon they were renting the orchards on long leases…Why, those first ragged Slavs in their first little deals with us only made something like two and three thousand percent profits. And now they’re satisfied to make a hundred per cent. It’s a calamity if their profits sink to twenty-five or fifty per cent.

…They have a WAY with apples. It’s almost a gift. They KNOW trees…Each tree is just as much an individual to them…They know each tree, its whole history, everything that ever happened to it, its every idiosyncrasy. They have their fingers on its pulse. They can tell if it’s feeling as well to-day as it felt yesterday. And if it isn’t, they know why and proceed to remedy matters for it. They can look at a tree in bloom and tell how many boxes of apples it will pack, and not only that – they’ll know what the quality and grades of those apples are going to be. Why, they know each individual apple and they pick it tenderly, with love, never hurting it, and pack it and ship it tenderly and with love, and when it arrives at market, it isn’t bruised nor rotten, and it fetches top price.

…These Adriatic Slavs are long-headed in business. Not only can they grow apples, but they can sell apples. No market? What does it matter? Make a market. That’s their way, while our kind let the crops rot knee-deep under the trees…Why, those Dalmatians are showing Pajaro apples on the South African market right now, and coining money out of it hand over fist.”

Once established, many of the Croatian businessmen became leaders in the area’s agricultural development and participated in the lettuce and strawberry industries that were advancing at a similar pace as the apple industry had done decades earlier. 

Croatia is located on the East coast of the Adriatic Sea. Coastal areas, such as Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast are where many of California’s Croatian population originated. This area has been involved with the maritime trade for eons.

Croatia has been ruled by a progression of empires, such as the Romans, Byzantine, Venetian, Ottoman and Austrian Empires, throughout its existence.


700 – 900 A.D.: The Croats were Christianized.

1400s: Islam began to pose a threat. As a consequence, Croatia lost increasing swaths of Croatia to the Ottoman Empire.

In the 1700s: Croatia aligned herself with the Hapsburgs to drive out the Muslims. 

1815: Austrian Empire secured the area against the Ottoman Empire. 

1800s: Under Austrian Rule, the economy declined and living condition grew increasingly worse.

Emigration became more attractive even though no single factor was responsible for mass emigration  Rather, like so many areas of Europe, feudalism was undergoing transformation either through civil discourse or through a series of revolts and repressions. it was a combination of factors that forced thousands to emigrate from Croatia:

  • Unfavorable taxation,
  • Population growth and primogeniture inheritance laws (land passed to first-born sons) decreased estate sizes that could not sustain sequential generations, 
  • Crop failures,
  • Conscription, and 
  • Losses of potential opportunity  

Once Croatians were established in a community, they would sponsor their relatives so that the exodus accelerated. From 18070, into the twentieth century, Croatians arrived in increasing numbers.

During the mid-1800s, early Croatians in California owned restaurants or provisioning businesses. In San Francisco during the Gold Rush, Croatians owned 10% of the restaurants, 25% of the fruit stands and 40% of the coffee houses. Many Croatians made fortunes supplying the Gold Mines. After the Gold Rush, Croatians began leasing farmland to supply their compatriots’ businesses. 

From 1848 – 1868: People were still rushing to California following the Gold Rush.

Post-1868: The country was in incessant motion from Civil War displacement. 

California’s burgeoning population needed to be fed and there was an opportunity for anyone who could produce or distribute food to fill the hunger void. This is where visionary Croatians enter the picture.

At this point, agricultural wisdom was that specialized crops could not remain profitable over several years, because, for the most part, previous experiments with crop specialization had proven disastrous to farmers. Therefore, typically farming operations of the mid-1800s planted a variety of crops to hedge against unbalanced supply and demand. During the decades of rapid expansion in San Francisco, growers in the Santa Clara Valley had succeeded in supplying fruit contrary to prevailing wisdom.

1868: A recession slowed population growth. This combined with chronic overproduction of fruit, including the apple, in the Santa Clara Valley led to low prices which did not cover production costs. Many growers went bankrupt. Canneries were built to utilize excess production and to allow distribution to Eastern markets and stabilize prices.

1870: the first Croatians moved into the Pajaro Valley. Five hundred acres of apples were already planted. The population of Watsonville was about 2000 people and there were 16 saloons with gambling and billiards. It was considered an unruly town.

In 1873: A severe recession/depression extended throughout the country and California went into bankruptcy. 

In 1873: RedScale (an insect) destroyed the whole apple crop. The trees were replaced, but, it would take at least 6 years until a new apple crop would bear fruit. At this point in time, the pest infestation created the needed chink in the market. The early Croatians were not necessarily farmers but were traders, interested in profit, and it was this openness to opportunity that worked to their advantage.

An enterprising Croatian named Marko Rabasa realized he could address supply and pest problems and tap cheap labor if he could buy apples from the Watsonville area. HIs timing was fortuitous.The time was ripe (pardon the pun) for the marriage between imagination, hard work, improvisation, developing infrastructure and horticultural advancement.

The Pajaro Valley apple industry evolved in small, incremental steps and much of this evolution was a result of adapting existing (albeit ancient) knowledge of fruit production to New World opportunities. The Croatians just happened to be the right ethnic group, in the right place, at the right time for the Apple Industry. The result was multiple innovations that changed the Pajaro Valley, the Apple Industry, Fresh Fruit marketing, and vertically integrated farming. 

Several factors advanced the Pajaro Valley Apple industry:

  • Blossom Contracts
  • Streamlined distribution into a vertical production chain
  • Improved transportation 
  • Land leasing (smaller units) and land acquisitions
  • Packing uniformity
  • Expanding to domestic and international markets
  • Community supported labor 
  • Improved pest management
  • Marketing differentiation
  • Product development

Key Persons and Families

Books and References:

Mekis, Donna, and Miller, Kathryn Mekis. Blossoms to Gold. Capitola Book Company. 2009.

London, Jack. The Valley of the Moon (p. 189). Kindle Edition.