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A Peak at the Past Piques Interest in Local History

A Peak at the Past Piques Interest in Local History

The Historic Preservation Society of Santa Clara, which is all about preserving and piquing interest in local history, showed the documentary “Million Dollar Dirt” at its annual free movie night September 16. The 18-minute film was shown in the 1867-era barn on the grounds of the Harris Lass House Museum (, 1889 Market Street.

The 2004 film chronicles the transition of Santa Clara Valley from an agricultural paradise known as the Valley of the Heart’s Delight to today’s Silicon Valley, a world center of technology and innovation.

“A lot of people in the Bay Area now haven’t seen that transition,” says film producer and director Craig von Waaden, who made the film as a class project while a student at De Anza College. He introduced the first two of the four viewings, which began at 6:30 p.m.


“It’s amazing how many people go through life not understanding what came before us,” says Santa Clara resident Jim Murray, attending the 7:30 viewing.

As Silicon Valley grew, so did property values, with farmland hitting $1 million an acre by 2003. “Million Dollar Dirt” includes interviews with local historians and prominent local farmers, some now deceased, who were part of the transition.

“They covered up the finest fruit orchard ground in the state of California. It was the crime of the century to cover it up for a highway,” said Sunnyvale cherry farmer Charles Olson.

Yet however sad the farmers were to see good farm land paved over, their families benefitted more from the sale of their land than the sale of their fruit.

“We sold our property at a high price, and it’s developed and it’s doing well….We never made any money farming this damn ranch, so how can you feel bad about it,” said the late Ray Lester. His farmland in San Jose was purchased by IBM, which later sold 79 acres for $81 million.

Film maker von Waaden is a 4th generation Californian whose great, great grandfather was a farmer. His father, Bill von Waaden, combined hay farming in San Jose with full-time work in electronics.

San Jose resident Rich Hunter, who joined his friend Bill for movie night, came to the Bay Area in 1970 and took advantage of the technology boom. He started a company called Venator Systems, sold it to 3M and retired happy.

“We were the newbies that took advantage of the new culture,” says Hunter.

About 100 people attended movie night, which included free popcorn and cold apple cider served by Harris Lass House Museum volunteers.

“I was drawn to this house because it reminds me of my grandfather’s house,” says volunteer Alma Guillot about the 1865 farmhouse turned museum in 1991. “It’s furnished and has a warm atmosphere. You have the sense that the people who live there are going to be back any day.”

Preview “Million Dollar Dirt” on You Tube at; view the entire film at


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