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Elmer Wood

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Our School’s Beginnings



Elmer Wood, son of John and Lela (Diehl) Wood, was born on December 24, 1894 on a farm in Warsaw, Indiana.  He came to California in 1913, after the death of his father, to live with his grandfather in San Marino.  After completing his high school education, Elmer entered the University of Southern California in 1914 to study engineering.  The following year he entered Davis Agricultural College (now the University of California at Davis) to study for a 2-year degree in agriculture.  He spent one summer working for a company called American Vineyards.  One of their vineyards was behind the later location of the well-known Blueberry Hill Café just north of Livingston on Highway 99 (now the site of the Winton Parkway Travel Center).

He enlisted in the Army in 1917 and began service as a private.  He fought in several of the major battles in World War One.  He was a second lieutenant by the time he returned to Fort Lewis, Washington in June of 1919 and was discharged from the Army.

He then came to Atwater and began to work as the second manager in the second year of the life of the Atwater Fruit Exchange.  This business had been in the same location (on Packers Street just east of the Atwater Cannery) until it closed about 2003.  That fall he returned to Washington to marry Miss Dorothy Hertges.  They lived on a 20-acre farm located on Mitchell Road (later renamed to Fruitland Avenue).  The south half of this property is now the Elmer Wood School.  A son Jim was born in 1925.

Elmer resigned from the Atwater Fruit Exchange in 1928 and started Wood Fruit Company.  Mr. Vogt and Mr. Williams were his partners for two years.  Then Elmer bought them out and was the sole owner of Wood Fruit Company until his sons incorporated the company in 1973.  Elmer built his packinghouse across the highway from the Atwater Fruit Exchange on the corner of High Street and   Highway 99.

Dorothy Wood died in 1933.  In 1939 Elmer married the principal of Arundel School, Miss Betty Smith.  Betty came to the area from Porterville.  She was a graduate of San Francisco State College.  She was active in athletics while in college and was a member of the outstanding basketball team of Atwater.  They had two sons—Roger born in 1940 and Donald born in 1945.  Betty died of breast cancer on May 19, 1952.

Elmer married for the third and final time in September 1953.  His bride was Mrs. Marjane (Locher) Thomas who was a teacher at Lowell High School in San Francisco.  She was a graduate of UC Berkeley in 1935 with a B. S. in Chemistry (a very unusual major for a woman in those days!).  She did home teaching and substitute teaching for the Merced Union High School District for many years.

The Wood Fruit Company grew over the years to about 400 acres of peaches, grapes, sweet potatoes and a dairy that was located across the canal at the end of Mitchell Street in Atwater.  Elmer’s son, Jim, joined him in farming in 1945.  When the freeway by-pass was completed in 1954, the City of Atwater and the Southern Pacific Railroad moved the packing sheds that were located near High Street to a new railroad industrial park located on the east side of Applegate Road and south of the railroad tracks.  In 1970 the company office and packinghouse were moved to the corner of Bellevue Road and Vine Avenue.  The development of the frozen food plant at that location began several years later.  Elmer did not live to see very much of the development of the frozen food business. 

Elmer was very active in business and community organizations.  He served on the Merced Irrigation District Board from the 30’s to 1965.  New Exchequer Dam was conceived and constructed during his tenure.  He helped organize the Merced Production Credit Association in the 30’s and served on the Board until the early 60’s.  He served on the Board of Trustees of the Atwater Elementary School District from 1933 to 1954.  The Mitchell K-6 and Senior Elementary campuses on Grove Street and the Bellevue Elementary School were built during his term on the Board.  He was a past president of the Atwater Chamber of Commerce and the Merced Rotary Club.  He also had statewide service as President of the Irrigation Districts Association of California and as a governor appointee to the State Correctional Industries Commission.

Elmer Wood’s greatest personal honor was having the elementary school built on his original farm named after him.  He died on May 20, 1975 at the age of 80.  His sons, Jim and Roger and his grandchildren, Ken Wood and Dorothy Johnston, kept Wood Fruit Company and its successor J. R. Wood, Inc. operating and growing until the great grandchildren decided to sell the corporation to Dole in 2004.