Tales from the Cowell Cooperage

By Frank Perry

The Cooperage stands empty now. The cracks and furrows in its redwood siding deepen with each passing year. Its stone pillars continue to crumble, and one section of the floor has taken an alarming dip. Were it not for emergency cribbing and extra braces, the building would have long ago surrendered to gravity.

Most people think it is an old barn. In fact, this iconic building near the campus entrance was where lime barrels were assembled for packaging lime made in the nearby kilns. The last lime was made here nearly a century ago, and the building is an important reminder of the campus’s roots. As discussed in previous issues of the Lime Kiln Chronicles, UCSC would not exist were it not for the Cowell family and their lime business. The Cooperage is a vital element in the story of one of the region’s most important industries during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries.

Making Barrels

Long before the advent of plastic sacks, pallets, and forklifts, heavy products such as lime were shipped in wooden barrels. Barrels were sturdy enough to support the weight of the contents, and— when tipped on their side—could be rolled. Barrels were essential for shipping the lime to market. Each of the lime making operations around California had a cooperage, but the one at UCSC is the only one still standing.

The word “cooperage” originated from the Latin word cupa, which means to contain. Think of the terms “chicken coop” or to “coop up.” A cooper is a barrel maker, though some also make wooden buckets. There are still people in the trade, but mostly they make barrels for wine.

Barrel making was so common in the late 1800s, that none of the reporters who wrote about the Santa Cruz lime industry bothered to write down how it was done. But by examining how present-day barrels are made and studying some of the surviving lime barrels, one can get a pretty good idea of the process. It took a fair amount of skill, the kind that comes with years of practice, to be an efficient barrel maker. While not air tight, the barrels were fitted together as neatly as possible. Indeed, if you hold one up to the sun, there are few, if any, cracks where light shines through.

Originally, the barrel parts were made entirely by hand. Each stave was cut and shaved until it was just the right shape. The parts for the surviving barrels (made in the early 1900s) were made with the aid of machinery, thus saving time. A stave machine sliced the redwood into 1/2-inch thick strips, 2-6 inches wide and 27 inches long, each with a slight curve conforming to the circumference of the barrel. Each of these was then trimmed to be slightly narrower at the top and bottom. This makes the barrel bulge slightly in the middle, essential so the barrel could pivot when rolled.

The side of each stave was slightly beveled so that the staves would fit tightly together.  The end of each stave at the top of the barrel was also beveled, while the bottom end was left flat (see photos below).

The Cooperage was only for the assembly and storage of the barrels. The staves and heads were cut at a barrel mill even closer to what is now the campus entrance, near the Stonehouse. It was powered by a small steam plant. That building caught fire and burned in 1951 when workers were using cutting torches to remove and salvage some of the machinery.

To make a barrel, modern coopers start with the hoop for one end, and temporarily hold or clamp the staves in place around the inside hoop until the circle is complete. There are some good videos online that show the process (search for “wooden barrel assembly”). At this point, the staves are still straight and collectively flair out in a circle at the bottom (see photo above). A second, slightly larger hoop, is pounded down from the top and this starts to draw in the staves. The partly-formed barrel is turned over and a rope or band is used to pull together the staves so that hoops can be added to the other end.

The hoops for the surviving barrels are steel and were made commercially, but originally wooden hoops were used, each made by hand. These hoops were usually made of hazelnut, a native shrub common in the redwood forest. Hazelnut wands are very flexible, making them ideal for bending into a circle. 

Although the later barrels had metal hoops on the outside, hazelnut hoops were still used around the inside at each end to hold the heads in place. The outer one had to be made so that it could be removed to release the head and access the contents of the barrel.

The metal hoops were held in place with small nails, pounded in from the outside and long enough to be bent over on the inside of the barrel. The wooden inner hoops were nailed from the inside.

When lime production was in full swing, the small crew of coopers kept busy. The three kilns next to the Cooperage could each produce 1,000 to 1,200 barrels per load. An account from 1866 mentions 2,500 barrels of lime being produced in one week. 

One of the ways Cowell saved money on barrels was by giving a rebate of 20 to 30 cents per barrel to customers who returned their empties. One old photo shows a huge pile of empty barrels beside the railroad tracks at Rincon, and there are accounts of empty barrels also being returned by ship. Of course, these used barrels sometimes needed minor repairs.

One of the Oldest Structures

At nearly one and a half centuries, the Cooperage is one of the oldest structures on campus. Only the Cardiff House and the continuous kiln are known with certainty to be older. Photos from 1866 show an earlier Cooperage that was different in shape. A terrible fire in February 1869 destroyed that Cooperage and much equipment at the site. The Cooperage, being so vital to the operations, must have been rebuilt as soon as possible. So, the present building almost certainly was built in 1869. The oldest known photo showing the present Cooperage dates from about 1910.

Close examination of the Cooperage reveals that it was not very well built and needed extra bracing. This suggests that it was built in haste, as might be expected after the 1869 fire. This is unlike some of the barns and other buildings that were carefully designed, in one case with the help of Santa Cruz architect Edward van Cleek.

The building is constructed much like a covered bridge, with several heavy trusses and large diagonal timbers for bracing. It was originally almost twice as long as it is now. Part of it was removed by the University in the 1960s to make room for Coolidge Drive. But the founding chancellor, Dean McHenry, who was very sensitive to the campus’s natural and historic features, made sure that the rest was saved even though there were no immediate plans for reuse.

A Two-story Building

Visitors on tours of the district often ask why the building is up on stone pillars. Basically, it is a two story building, open below and closed above. Other lime cooperages around Santa Cruz County were built the same way. The empty barrels were assembled and stored above. The filled barrels were stored below. 

Filled, each lime barrel weighed 150 pounds. This is based on the size of the surviving barrels, though in the 1800s some were larger. Given the tremendous weight, it would have been foolish to close in the lower story and put in a raised wooden floor. A modern analogy would be an open garage with a concrete floor under an apartment building. In fact, in later years cars and wagons were parked under the Cooperage.

The Cooperage floor is paved with bituminous rock—the historic equivalent of modern day blacktop (see photo on page 8). The loaded barrels could be rolled from the kilns to the area under the Cooperage and set upright until it was time to roll them out the other side and lift them into a wagon. 

Up until the very early 1900s, Cowell owned a wharf at the foot of Bay Street where the lime barrels could be loaded onto ships for delivery to towns up and down the coast. There was also a warehouse near the wharf. Lime undergoes a chemical reaction with water, so it was important that the lime be kept dry until ready to be mixed with water and sand to make mortar or plaster.

The Cooperage sits on one of the most highly-visible pieces of UCSC real estate. Nearly every person who has ever set foot on campus in the past 52 years has passed by this building and the adjacent lime kilns. Like the recently restored Hay Barn, the Cooperage offers many intriguing possibilities for reuse. The Friends look forward to working with campus staff and potential donors to find just the right use that will fit with the University’s mission of teaching, research, and public service while preserving an integral part of the pre-campus history of the land.