This article was originally written by Stephanie Hoops of VC Star. Find the original article here.
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A rural postal worker, Rudolph Hass died a poor man, but the mark he left on the world endures. The Hass name is known to avocado lovers far and wide, and his descendants are often taken aback when they run into his legacy in conversations, restaurants, produce aisles, and sometimes unexpected places.
A few years ago while visiting Disneyland, his grandson, Eric Hass, jolted to attention when he spotted a large sign promoting Hass avocados that featured a black-and-white photo of his grandparents Rudolph and Elizabeth.
“We’re anonymously famous,” he said.
“Grandma always said that she felt that it was a blessing from God that everybody worldwide knows their last name,” said granddaughter Roxanne Milner.
Grandson Ed Hass told his children: “You might never be famous in your life, but your name will go down in history.”
Avocados, led by the Hass variety, took off as a juggernaut commodity in the United States during the 1970s and are one of California’s most important industries. In the far reaches of the country, they are losing their image as an unusual food reserved for Super Bowl Sunday guacamole. The transformation is due in large part to marketing efforts that came about after Congress determined that Hass avocados are an important and valuable food source. A federal law enacted in 2000 spawned the creation of a special promotional program to boost domestic consumption.
Sales now top $1 billion annually in the U.S. alone, according to the Hass Avocado Board.
Ventura County stands at the epicenter of the American avocado industry, having recently overtaken San Diego County as the region with the most acreage, and Hass is the primary variety, according to Ben Faber, a farm adviser with the UC Cooperative Extension.
Though Rudolph and Elizabeth never lived in Ventura County, several of their descendants do, including their last living child, 78-year-old Charlie Hass. In candid interviews, Charlie and his relatives spoke about their curious celebrity, and the fortune the family never received from the avocado that bears their name.
THE BIRTH OF THE HASS AVOCADO
Rudolph Gustav Hass planted The Mother Hass tree, as it was known, in the spring of 1926. He had plentiful vacant land in La Habra Heights and was one of a few hobbyists growing avocado trees at the time.
Speaking from the Camarillo senior community where he resides, Charlie recalled seeing his father save money to periodically buy 50-cent bags of avocado seeds. Charlie’s mother, Elizabeth, who died in 1997 at age 98, wrote that her husband planted the seeds in sawdust-filled apple boxes. When the seedlings grew to be pencil thick, they were transplanted to soil until they were ready for grafting — a horticultural technique where the desirable tissue from two separate plants is bred together.
One stubborn baby tree, grown from a Guatemalan seed of unknown parentage, wouldn’t accept a graft. Elizabeth wrote: “Rudie said it was God’s doing.”
Rudolph dubbed the ornery tree the Hass variety.
Charlie said his parents were aware that the Hass tree’s avocados were special. The fruit had an atypical look. The most popular variety at the time, the Fuerte, was smooth and green. But the Hass was winning blue ribbons at the state fair, and the Hass children loved them.
In 1935, Rudolph patented his Hass avocado. In the patent he described Hass avocados as a “new and improved variety” having excellent shipping qualities with leathery skin, purple color and rich, cream-colored flesh “of butter consistency with no fibre and with excellent nutty flavor.”
IT IS HASS, NOT HAAS
During a visit with Charlie in Camarillo, family members point out straightaway that the Hass name is often misspelled Haas and mispronounced hoss.
“It’s Hass like pass,” said Camarillo accountant Jeff Hass, Rudolph’s grandson. “Or as my wife says: Think of your posterior and put an ‘h’ in front of it.”
At the grocery store, whenever Jeff’s wife, Nancy, spots the Hass name misspelled on avocado displays she alerts the produce manager.
“I always say, you better fix that,” she said, making the gathered family members laugh.
Moving on, Jeff said he and his cousins were in their teens when they realized their grandfather’s avocados were a big deal, and they wondered why they weren’t rich.
According to Charlie, there was nothing his parents could have done.
THE PATENT EXPIRED
Charlie explained to his inquisitive family members that his dad’s patent expired in 1952 — the same year he died — and it was not renewed because it couldn’t be.
“To renew a patent or to get another patent you need to show an improvement in the product and there was no improvement so there was really no way that mom could do that,” he said.
Asked for his opinion, Westlake Village patent attorney Michael Harris explained that under federal law, inventors are entitled to limited monopoly rights on their inventions. At the time that Rudolph patented his Hass avocado, the law imposed a 17-year term limit.
“You get limited rights for a limited time and then it expires,” Harris said. “There was nothing they could have done.”
But Harris said a question remains as to whether the family might have trademarked the Hass name and then showed they were continuing to use it. That said, it’s difficult to trademark a surname and to know whether Rudolph’s progeny would have been wealthy as a result.
“To be rich you have to be a good businessperson and I don’t know how good they were,” Harris said.
Charlie’s children joke that maybe they all could have been driving Rolls-Royces. But Jeff said it’s nice just having an impressive name.
“You get this look when you say: ‘Yeah, we’re part of the Hass empire,’ ” he said. “We might get a free meal every once in awhile but that’s it.”
Jeff said his grandmother believed the Hass avocado was God’s gift for everyone to enjoy, and making money from it was not the point.
“She was very religious,” he said.
THE BROKAW FAMILY CONNECTION
At the time he filed for the patent, Rudolph made a deal to have the avocado trees grown and promoted by Whittier nursery owner H.H. Brokaw and they’d split the profits.
H.H. Brokaw’s Whittier nursery no longer exists, but the Brokaw family still grows and sells Hass avocado trees today from a new business — the Brokaw Ranch Co. in Santa Paula and its nursery, headquartered in Ventura.
The existing Brokaw company is unrelated to H.H. Brokaw’s shuttered nursery, however. Rob Brokaw, the Ventura nursery managing partner and H.H. Brokaw’s great-nephew, said his dad was a teacher in Oxnard who saved money in coffee cans on his porch to start the Brokaw Ranch Co.
Still, Jeff Hass said he likes to tease Rob Brokaw, telling him that in the final analysis the Hass family got the famous name and the Brokaw family got the money.
Brokaw laughs about that.
“Our joke is a little different,” he said. “Our joke is they all spent so much time and energy in putting their faith and resources behind this new variety. They were right, but the world didn’t realize until the patent had expired.”
NOT ABOUT MONEY
Getting serious, Brokaw said money was never the motivation.
“The real legacy is enriching,” he said. “A variety sprang up in Mr. Hass’ yard that my family was fortunate enough to have some participation in.”
In his office closet, Brokaw has a varnished cross section of the Mother Hass Tree that was given to him after it died in 2002. He also has a cross section of one of its branches sealed in glass. “The Mother Hass Tree (1926-2002),” is printed on it. So is this: “Though her fruit has spread around the world, her roots will always be in California.”
Brokaw recalled Thanksgiving visits to see “Uncle Harry,” who had in his backyard one of the very first Hass trees propagated from the mother tree.
“At Thanksgiving it was part of the ritual to go take a look at that tree when I was a kid,” he said. “I remember my grandfather, father and great uncle saying ‘it looks good.’ They weren’t banking on it but they were rooting for it because the Hass is a great avocado.”
As Brokaw searches his memory for more Hass avocado history, he admits he can only recount what he recalls his father telling him before he died a few years ago.
“He was the one who answered these questions,” he said.
Charlie Hass is the last person with firsthand information, Brokaw said.
“That generation is about shot and it’s the last chance to get it from someone,” he said.
Charlie remembers avocados being a big part of the family diet, and how proud his parents were about the Hass variety. Charlie was born in 1935, the same year the patent was issued. Rudolph slept a lot and died when Charlie was still a teenager.
Charlie is a retired accountant. He once created a royalties report for his mother that showed the Hass family earned less than $4,000 from the Hass avocado trees.
“For every tree that was sold my dad got a dollar,” he said. “That amounted to less than $4,000 over the life of the patent. It’s amazing how many people, when they find out I’m associated with it, assume I made a lot of money from it.”
The family is proud of the heritage, but it’s not all-consuming, according to Rudolph’s granddaughter Karen Hass-Railla, who lives in Thousand Oaks.
“It was more for my grandma,” she said. “Whenever we went over there she had Hass avocados for the salads. She was really proud of that achievement that her husband had done. So in turn, all of us were proud too, but it really didn’t affect our lives. God blessed this family with a fun little story and if that’s as far as he wants to give it, then that’s OK.”