Remembering the Aeolia Olive Oil Company
Most people who live in Auburn are aware that the area known as Aeolia Heights was once a working orchard and that Aeolia Olive Oil was produced there. But if you drive or walk the streets of this quiet residential neighborhood today, it would be hard to visualize what the area was like during its prime years when the 5,000 olive trees, planted in the 1890s by Frederick Birdsall, were producing tons of ripe olives.
Olives were the main crop, but in its hey-day most of the top of the ridge was a working ranch. There were several acres of pear and plum trees, a vegetable garden, a barn, a hog pen and a chicken house. There was even a small reservoir to provide water for the orchards.
Along the road that would become Aeolia Drive were the working buildings – the warehouse and repair building, the packing shed and olive pickling vats, and, of course, the stone press house that today has been converted into a private residence. There were also two small houses for the two full-time Japanese laborers who worked there until the outset of WWII, when they were interned.
Slowly things changed. The pear and plum orchards went out as a part of the still-working ranch was subdivided, and a few homes were built. One of the earliest and finest was that of Ernest Birdsall, son of Frederick. That house still stands today on a small rise overlooking the American River canyon. Ernest also provided home sites for his three daughters — Maribel, Thirza and Blair and named streets after them.
In addition to managing the olive oil operation, Ernest Birdsall was a state senator from 1909 to 1917. For part of that time he was politically allied with California’s progressive governor, Hiram Johnson, who followed the trust-busting, reformist philosophy popularized by Teddy Roosevelt, and who worked to break the political power of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Aeolia Heights may be a quiet neighborhood today, but it was not always that way. Years ago the autumn silence would have been broken by gangs of olive pickers and the rumble of trucks bringing loads of fruit to the press house, where the olives were sorted, washed and crushed. The juice was put into large settling tanks, and later the oil was skimmed off the top and made ready for bottling. The larger table olives were cured and also prepared for bottling. During those production years, Aeolia was a very busy place.
In the beginning the product was labeled Birdsall’s Pure Olive Oil. In keeping with the florid advertising style of the time, it was touted as “Warranted absolutely pure. Scrupulous Cleanliness in manufacture. Birdsall’s Olive Oil is now prescribed for throat, lung, liver, stomach, kidney, rheumatic and nervous troubles.” It was shipped all over the country.
Ernest managed the orchard and the company until his death in 1935. At that time Wes Haswell, the husband of Ernest’s daughter, Thirza, became the director and manager. It was during his tenure that the name of the company was changed from The Birdsall Olive Oil Company to the Aeolia Olive Oil Company. So named for Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds, for the evening breezes that come down the canyon on summer evenings.
The company continued its production of oil and the shipping of whole olives to all 50 states. But in the 1950s the foreign importation of olive oils caused the local market to struggle for survival, and the company’s oil production segment ceased operation. The marketing of cured olives continued as a popular gift item during the fall and winter holidays until the 1970s, when the operation finally shut down.
The company is gone, but hundreds of the trees still stand. Homes and groomed front yards now sit in place of the sheds and out buildings and a subdivision of upscale homes has been built on the slanting north side of the point. There, the Haswell family has placed a commemorative plaque. Little else of the operation remains save the old, two-story, stone processing plant, converted now, most fittingly, to the home of one of the Haswell grandchildren.
Al Albertazzi has lived in Auburn since 1964. He writes an occasional column on local history.