Elwood Dryden was born in 1919. The well-known local businessman and former owner of the Sugar Plum Farm Restaurant turns 104 on June 1.
“I remember when the county was only 3,000 people,” Elwood said during an interview at his Ridgemark home in Hollister in mid-May. He looks back at his childhood in San Benito County with fondness, when neighbors helped each other and he “pretty much knew everyone.”
His grandfather, John Dryden, came from England and then from the Midwest to San Jose in 1885. John Dryden stayed there for three years, moving to San Benito County to become foreman of the Brewster Ranch. Within three years, he had bought his own place on Riverside Road and began raising chickens and managing his orchards.
On Elwood’s kitchen table is a small collection of mementos. A book with a bio about his grandfather, photos of him with his parents, another with his 4-H lamb. One photo is of three young men: Kenny Sugioka, Roy Stickler and Elwood. He said that they met at San Benito High School and became friends. Back then many of the rural schools would host dances. So they put together a small band to provide the music for local events, playing popular tunes of the time.
Both Kenny’s and Elwood’s families had orchards and so they had a lot in common. The Dryden family grew mostly apricots and prunes.
Elwood soon started college in Hollister. In those days, the college was right downtown in the same area as the San Benito High School. As he became an adult, the slow-paced life of orchard work and music was disrupted by World War II.
Elwood said this was when his friend Kenny moved away. Japanese American families like the Sugiokas, were being sent to internment camps in other states during the war. It became hard to keep track of him, moving from place to place, but somehow they managed.
His friend Roy Stickler moved to Hollywood and pursued a career in the film industry.
For a while Elwood took jobs in other parts of the state. He has fond memories of working among the redwoods of Northern California and in Yosemite, where he developed a great love for fishing and the outdoor life.
Then he moved to San Jose for a job with Permanente Cement Company and met his wife, Catherine, at a company dance. Eventually, he and Cathy returned to San Benito County to work at the packing house on Riverside Road and sell fruit to stores.
In the 1960s, he started a small fruit stand along Highway 156 between Fairview Road and Pacheco Pass, near Barnheisel Road. “We opened the little fruit stand and we had drinks and that’s about it,” he said. The stand centered around an “Apricot Freeze” made with apricot syrup, ice and milk. Customers could get “all you can drink.”
“Then they wanted food and we added hamburgers,” Elwood said about the customers traveling between “the valley and the coast.”
His son David Dryden said, “They just kept adding to it. I think there were at least three additions and it eventually became a restaurant.”
They called it the Sugar Plum Farm Restaurant and it was known especially for its apricot and boysenberry tarts. “Everyone in town had their favorite dish and we still run into people who say, ‘I miss your chicken or Swiss steak,’” said Kim Dryden, David’s wife. “It was open breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Elwood closed the restaurant in 1998, but it has been memorialized with a miniature model at [Bonfante] Gilroy Gardens. Elwood and Cathy had three children; Barbara, Dave and Diane. Cathy passed away in 2003. Today, Elwood has seven grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren.
Elwood and Kenny Sugioka stayed in touch through letters and phone calls. Kenny settled in North Carolina and became a professor at Duke University’s School of Medicine. Although Kenny has since passed away, they were able to remain friends and even visit one another.
Inevitably, when speaking to a 104-year-old gentleman, one feels compelled to ask, “To what do you credit your long and healthy life?” At first Elwood mentioned that he never smoked and was always very moderate when it came to drinking alcohol. But after a little more thought, he said he loved spending time outdoors, especially fishing. He said he watched very little television. “If it’s junk, I just turn it off,” he said.
Daughter-in-law Kim Dryden, credits his mental alertness to his lifelong interest in news and current events. He has continued to read the Wall Street Journal and has kept up with local and national events. “He doesn’t live in the past and stays up to date,” Kim said.
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