MRS. FREDA EHMANN
MRS. FREDA EHMANN.--Few, if any, among all the women in California who have contributed in some way to the industrial development of the state, can look back upon their life work with more satisfaction than Mrs. Fred Ehmann, the mother of the ripe olive industry on the Coast, who came west in the early nineties, having lost much of her property in the panic of 1893, and began experimenting with the pickling of olives as the means by which she might hope to secure a competency for her old age. Today, almost an octogenarian, she is the honored and more than nominal head of an incorporated company having an extensive packing-house at Oroville, with a capacity of over two hundred seventy-five thousand gallons of olives a year, and larger holdings of land, upon which much of the company’s output is grown under her supervision, and according to her theories and experience. She is frequently the recipient of acknowledgement from her agricultural associates and competitors as the most successful pioneer in one of the really important fields of Californian activity.
Born near Kassel, Germany, Miss Freda Loeber, as she was known in her girlhood, came to America and lived for a while in Chicago, after which she removed to St. Louis. There she married Dr. Ernest Cornelius Ehmann, a native of Baden, Germany, and a graduate of medical universities of that country. Soon after his graduation he took an active part in the Revolution of ’48 as a surgeon, serving under Gen. Franz Sigel. When the Revolution was put down by Prussian bayonets, Dr. Ehmann found himself forced to leave his native country and cast his lot in a country of freedom and democracy, and so selected the United States for his future home. He established himself in the practice of medicine at Quincy, Ill., and there they went to live. There also, in 1892, Dr. Ehmann died and was mourned by a large circle of friends.
A son, E. W. Ehmann, was living in California at this time, and in response to his pleadings, Mrs. Ehmann sold her Quincy home and, with her daughter Emma, followed the trail to the Golden Gate. Fascinated by the possibilities for investment she seemed to see about her, she placed practically all of her nest-egg at the disposal of her son to meet his obligations on a tract of eighteen hundred acres, which he had bought in partnership with an associate; and when the financial crash, which affected millions, caused the partner’s failure it involved the eighteen hundred acres and the Ehmanns. More than one lawyer advised the young colonist to go into bankruptcy, but his mother contended that this was not Dr. Ehmann’s idea of honor, and together they shouldered the unwelcome debts which as much cheerfulness and fortitude as was possible. Mrs. Ehmann received from her son twenty acres of land which he owned at Marysville, and which had been planted with olives five years before; but on which for a couple of years there had been little or no crop. It was not until the third year that an unusually fine crop led her to consult the late Professor Hilgard, Dean of the Department of Agriculture in the State University, who gave her a recipe for pickling; and, returning to her daughter’s house in Oakland, she turned the back porch into a pickling plant, got some wine-casks, cut them in two, and went to work. Uncertain of the result, she dared not assume the expense of piping water to the vats, so that through all the process of leaching and pickling she carried the gallons of water herself. Passing restless nights, she went to work at five o’clock in the morning, and all through the day and until late in the evening she watched the slow and mysterious changes of the fruit. When at last she took a jar to the University she felt she had failed completely, because the olives showed every shade of green and brown and purplish black; and her surprise can hardly be imagined when the professor, having examined them, exclaimed, “They are the best ripe olives I have ever seen, and you are certainly an adept at pickling!”
The next chapter in this romantic story is easily told. Wrapping up another jar of her olives, Mrs. Ehmann hastened to the leading grocer in Oakland, asked to see his best brand of ripe olives, and finding that they, too, were mottled in the various colors, she displayed her own product and sought an order. The grocer tasted the olives, pronounced them better than any he had had, and without ado bought the entire pickling of about two hundred fifty gallons. This more than paid for the experimenting and the freight on the balance of the crop, which Mrs. Ehmann at once had sent to her from Marysville, and for days and nights she continued her tests, trying to preserve the natural color of the olives, retain the highest percentage of oil and the delicacy of flavor, and insure a keeping quality, which at that period seemed to be one of the great problems with ripe-olive packers. At the end of the season she hurried to New York, visited the largest olive-importing concern in the country, and almost contracted for her entire output for the coming season; but the Spanish associates of the manager vetoed his order and he was able to purchase but a couple of casks. The Hotel Bellevue, in Philadelphia, however, gave her a large order, and this opened the way to other commissions, and Mrs. Ehmann returned home with contracts for nearly fifteen thousand gallons of ripe olives and no idea where the olives were coming from. Heretofore the biggest commission that she had been called upon to execute was to manage a Christmas dinner; but the conviction that she could pickle ripe olives better than anyone else gave her courage and she went ahead.
“I came back home,” Says Mrs. Ehmann, “and asked my son where he could get the crop of another orchard besides our own. He knew of a good producing orchard at Oroville, with a pickling plant and a crew of twenty-seven Chinamen. We contracted for the crop, leased the plant, and I took charge of the place, and before the season was over we had reorders for more than I could supply. The success that crowned my strenuous efforts created a competitor in the ripe-olive industry in Southern California, and competitors began to thank me for creating an unheard of demand, since they profited by the demand I could not supply. All I could do was to look about for more olives, to think of plans for building a plan of my own, and to help my son a little with his debts.”
The experience and infinite care of a conscientious housewife were the foundation of the success where men had failed in spite of business training, scientific knowledge, and chemical correctness. All olive-picklers use the same formula, but there is a wide difference in the results, and the processing of ripe olives is largely a question of individuality. For many years Mrs. Ehmann has been developing a method entirely her own, which begins with the selection of the proper variety of trees and a very definite plan for cultivation, and ends with the sorting of the olives by hand before they are packed in air-tight tins or bottles. Even now, when her output goes over a couple of hundred thousand gallons a year, Mrs. Ehmann gives the same watchful care to her work as she bestowed on the first few hundred gallons in the wine casks on her daughter’s back porch. All through the season, from November until May, she goes all day from vat to vat in the great pickling room, cold, and dark and damp as it is, dipping and testing, testing and dipping, and splashing about in overshoes on a wet floor in a temperature that makes visitors shiver. Nor does she scarcely stop for Thanksgiving or Christmas holidays, keeping up the incessant round until the season is successfully over.
In 1898, the Ehmann Olive Company was incorporated with a capital of a hundred thousand dollars, and the factory built in the early years was enlarged from time to time. When it became necessary a new factory was erected from plans suggested by Mrs. Ehmann, who for several years conducted the pickling plant while her son attended to purchasing of commodities necessary to the preparation of the fruit and also to marketing the finished product. The company has large holdings of land in Happy Valley, Shasta County, where about one thousand acres out of the two thousand are planted to olives. Not long ago they purchased the Fogg Grove of forty acres at Thermalito, considered the finest olive grove in California.
While Mrs. Ehmann was helping her son to discharge the debts she had counseled him to assume, a well-to-do neighbor who had tired of a hundred-acre ranch, offered it to her for fifteen thousand dollars, on time payments, or twelve thousand dollars in cash, but she was unable to avail herself of the opportunity under either condition. Three years later she paid forty thousand dollars for the same orchard, half of which price was in cash, and since then she has refused fifty thousand dollars for the property. “It takes nerve to plant trees that required from five to seven years to come into bearing,” adds Mrs. Ehmann, “and therefore the business will never be overdone, but once the olive trees have come into bearing there is the assurance of an income for a life time, for I have pickled olives from trees planted by the Mission Fathers one hundred twenty-five years ago, and they were as fine as olives from trees twelve years old. I believe that if other women would plant a few threes such as I did, they would have the same pleasure and the same success in watching them grow into a great olive orchard.”
Mrs. Ehmann, now about seventy-eight years of age, dwells in a lovely residence at Oroville during the winters, when she is in close association with her daughter, Mrs. Emma H. Bolles, and her son E. W. Ehmann; while in the summer time she resides in her residence on Staten Avenue, Oakland. The family attend the Congregational Church, and Mrs. Ehmann, who is a stanch Republican, is an active member of the Monday Club of Oroville, and is very loyal to the land of the Stars and Stripes. To Oroville the family has presented the Ehmann Playground, in charge of the Y. M. C. A.—a quarter of a block, where children under twelve years of age can play unmolested and safely protected, to their heart’s content.
Transcribed by Joyce & David Rugeroni.
Source: "History of Butte County, Cal.," by George C. Mansfield, Pages 792-796, Historic Record Co, Los Angeles, CA, 1918.
© 2008 Joyce & David Rugeroni.