As a child in a small town near Beirut, Lebanon, Rose Zamar was growing a selection of vegetables in her garden plot: the ten-year-old tended corn, peas, cucumbers, squash, tomatoes, beans, onions, and grapes, which she sold to the villagers by the side of the road. – It is not surprising, then, that in later life she became famous for her fruit stand, “Olson’s Cherries” along El Camino Real in Sunnyvale.
Born in 1904, Rose grew up the youngest of seven siblings. Her family had a leather factory as well as a silkworm business, and it was Rose’s job to feed mulberry leaves to the silkworms. According to Rose, she had to leave Lebanon as a young woman in 1924* “because I had kissed a young man”. Her first attempt to enter the United States through France was thwarted by her unusual grey-green eyes: the officials assumed she suffered from glaucoma and denied her a visa. Instead, she traveled to Mexico and joined her older brother, Salim Zamar. Since Salim’s wife was not well, Rose helped to raise their seven children and lived with them in Monterrey for seven years before finally entering the U.S. with false papers as an illegal immigrant.
Arriving in Sunnyvale in 1931, Rose lived with her sister Caramie, and brother-in-law, John Sayig, who had a little store on the corner of Taaffe Street and El Camino Real. She started working at the Olson orchard across the road as a fruit packer. Working there, she caught the eye of Ruel Charles Olson, son of the orchard founders Carl Johan and Hannah Olson. “Your father didn’t have a chance”, she would say to her daughter. His parents, however, were not happy and were dead set against a union between the two: even though they themselves were immigrants, they objected to Rose being a Catholic and to her Middle Eastern origin with its very different culture and traditions. Nevertheless, they needed their son to run the family business, and once the two had married in 1933, an old house was found for them on the property. After the birth of their first grandchild, Jeanette, in 1935, the senior Olsons gradually relented and started visiting the young family (inspecting the laundry out on the line and noticing with pleasure it was sparkling white!). In 1937, Charles John was born, followed by Yvonne in 1938. Rose completely won her in-laws over with her commitment to hard work in the family business.
Her tiny frame of barely five feet (4’11”) and 98 pounds did not stop Rose from heavy duties around the orchard and fruit packing operations. She was in charge of the apricot cutting shed and ran the plum picking with local adults and children as cutters and pickers. One thing she had to look out for were the apricot fights the children started, which were, of course, strictly prohibited. During the summer, she would hire help for the work around the house, because she was busy with the fruit seasons of apricots, cherries, and plums for drying into prunes. She persuaded Ruel to let her sell fruit in a stand by the roadside – after all, El Camino Real as a major thoroughfare offered ample opportunity for business.
This was the start of Olson’s Cherry stand, which quickly became well known all over the area. One time, Ansel Adams bartered for fruit in exchange for one of his books; another time, John Steinbeck stopped by. During the season, Rose’s day started at four in the morning, when she would do the washing and ironing and prepared the meals for the day. At six, she was at the growers’ market in San José to purchase produce for expanding her stand, which she opened at eight. Her workdays often lasted well into the night. Apart from their regular trade, the Olsons also sold prunes to the Federal Government to feed the troops during WWII.
The end of the war brought relief for Rose with a general amnesty for illegal immigrants. She studied in civics classes and passed her exam to become a U.S. citizen.
With the children growing up and an old house whose rooms were arranged in an impractical way, plus problems with the septic tank, it was time to move. When Ruel did not heed his wife’s constant pleading “When will you build us a house, Charlie?”, Rose visited an architect in Mountain View, made all the arrangements for erecting a house, and presented Ruel with a fait accompli. All he had to do was choose a spot on the land for their new home and chop down the trees to make room for it.
In the 1960s, this region was the world’s largest center for fruit and vegetable industries, and like many other orchardists, the Olsons not only sold fresh fruit in the stand and to canneries, but also dried fruit from their own dehydrators. The couple combined their skills: Ruel approached growing fruit by scientific methods, while Rose used intuition. In her family vegetable garden, she had no particular order of rows for the produce, but planted instead a natural mix of plants, including flowers, which all produced in abundance. Because “Mrs. Olson can grow anything”, an anthropology student gave her some ancient corn kernels from an Indian burial site to plant. She prepared the soil, added manure, and watered the ground, and the seeds grew into healthy plants – until they were devoured by an escaped rabbit.
Outside of the fruit picking season life was a bit easier, and Rose enjoyed cooking for her family and friends. She cooked all the meals for the family, a variety of Middle Eastern, Mexican, and American dishes, which everyone enjoyed. With a full life of family and work, Rose still found time for a rich social life: she was a member of the Sunnyvale Old Timers Club, the St. Martin’s Altar Society, the Young Ladies Institute, and the St. Jude Club. Rose and Ruel celebrated their 75th and 80th birthdays, respectively, with a big party in 1979, hosted by their daughter Yvonne’s family and including 100 guests!
The encroachment of modern development did not pass by the Olson’s farm: they first had to sell land to the City for the extension of Fair Oaks Avenue from Old San Francisco Road to El Camino Real, despite Ruel’s attempts to prevent it. Next, Mathilda Avenue was continued south through the Olson’s orchard, the City claiming public domain. The new stretch of road separated the farmhouse from the barn and its activities and the orchard on the other side, so the house that Rose had built in 1949 was moved to the other side of Mathilda.
Rose only gave up work in the fruit stand in her early eighties, when she began suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, of which she died in 1988.
Rose’s life serves as an example for so many others in this valley, then and now: arriving as an undocumented laborer and succeeding through hard work and determination to make a good life for herself and her family. Like so many other women in the agriculture of the Valley of Heart’s Delight, she was a cornerstone of the family enterprise. The orchard produced fruit of excellent quality, but Rose put “Olson’s Cherries” on the map throughout the region with her flourishing fruit stand, which is still famous even after it’s gone.
*The details of Rose’s early life are hard to pin down, as various sources – sometimes even the same one, including her daughter Yvonne – give different years for milestones in her life. I have chosen the years that make the most sense/appear in the most sources as the same.
Newspaper articles from the SHS archives and private collection
Ignoffo, Mary Jo, Sunnyvale – From the City of Destiny to the Heart of Silicon Valley, 1994
Jacobson, Yvonne, Passing Farms, Enduring Values, 1984
Jacobson, Yvonne, Memoirs of a Farmer’s Daughter in Silicon Valley, 2012
By Katharina Woodman