Saturday, April 13, 2024

A brief history of citrus in Orange County, California

Citrus shipping crates featured colorful brand labels, each represented specific packers, fruit sizes, and levels of quality.

There was no citrus industry here when the name “Orange County” was first suggested, but we eventually more than lived up to our name. Orange County’s Valencia oranges reached a peak of 77,000 acres in production in 1948. We also grew lemons, grapefruit and other citrus here. But for much of our history, the sunny orange defined us, promoted us, and drove our economy. 

The gardens at Mission San Juan Capistrano were probably home to Orange County’s first orange tree, beginning in the late 1700s. But oranges didn’t make an impact here until 1870, when Anaheim Justice of the Peace William Hardin planted the seeds from two barrels of rotten Tahitian oranges and began to sell the resulting trees.

Charles C. Chapman: Father of the Valencia.

Our first Australian navel orange trees were imported and planted near Orange by Patterson Bowers in 1873. But it was the arrival of the Valencia orange – a native of the Azores – that proved the most important for Orange County’s future. 

The first Valencia grove in Orange County was planted in 1875 by Richard H. Gilman on the site of today’s California State University Fullerton. Soon, Sheldon Littlefield – who later served as one of our first County Supervisors – planted another grove east of Fullerton. In 1895, Littlefield’s grove was purchased by Charles C. Chapman, whose marketing and agricultural acumen, along with the natural sweetness and juiciness of the fruit, brought the Valencia to prominence.

The arrival of the railroads was critical to the growth of the citrus industry.

Various influences bolstered the growth of our citrus industry. For instance, wine grape growers, whose vines had been devastated by Pierce’s Disease, were looking for a new crop to grow just as oranges were coming to the fore. And the arrival of the railroads in the 1880s created a national market for locally grown fruit.

Citrus packing houses began to open across Orange County, often tied to cooperative associations of growers like the Anaheim Orange & Lemon Association or the Yorba Linda Citrus Association. Each local association was an important institution, providing not just agricultural infrastructure, marketing, political clout, and a bit of financial stability for growers, but also a sense of community.

An orange packing house in Fullerton, early 1900s.

The most important of these organizations was the regional Southern California Fruit Exchange – eventually known as Sunkist. They provided their members with scientific advice, astonishingly effective national advertising, and modern packing plants. They persuaded Americans that Valencias were the best type of oranges, and that oranges were healthy and good for everyday eating – not just an exotic oddity. Beginning with a 1916 ad in the Saturday Evening Post, Sunkist also convinced Americans that the previously overlooked juice of oranges was the perfect drink to accompany breakfast.

Idealized scenes of a sunny, happy, prosperous, healthy Southern California accompanied Sunkist’s vast marketing campaigns, and contributed greatly to migration from other parts of the country. California promoted the orange while the orange promoted California.

Chinese orange pickers, Santa Ana, circa 1895.

For more than half a century, citrus provided a good life for many, and provided a living – directly or indirectly – to most Orange Countians. Locals either worked with citrus or did business with those who did. The industry, and particularly the Valencia orange, transformed and defined much of the landscape and permeated many aspects of daily life. When the trees bloomed, their sweet fresh scent hung over the county. And when frost threatened the trees, orchard heaters or “smudge pots” darkened the skies and left a layer of black soot on everything.

Changes in the citrus market were always front-page news, and the annual Orange County Valencia Orange Show in Anaheim (1920-1931) was one of the biggest events on the calendar. Healthy citrus sales even helped buffer us from the effects of the Great Depression. On the other hand, a well-timed labor action, like the 1936 citrus strike, could cause serious community-wide panic.

Packing house crew, Santa Ana-Tustin Mutual Citrus Assoc., circa 1940.

In the early years, Japanese and Chinese laborers did much of the local citrus work. But from the mid-1910s on, most of the laborers were from Mexico or of Mexican descent. Many Hispanic neighborhoods, camps and colonias sprang up near packing houses and among the groves, bringing with them cultural traditions that were new to many Orange Countians. 

The years following WWII saw Orange County’s landscape and economy shift rapidly from agriculture to suburbia. The population expanded at a shocking rate, from only 175,000 in 1946, to 703,925 in 1960, to 1,420,386 by 1970.  Accordingly, demand skyrocketed for more housing developments, roads, schools, shopping centers, etc. Orange trees gave way to concrete and stucco. But new development was only one of several reasons for the long slow death or Orange County’s citrus industry. 

The annual California Valencia Orange Show (1921-1931) was a huge regional event. This postcard depicts the show's grounds in Anaheim in 1926.

By that time, the tristeza virus or “quick decline” was already attacking Valencia trees throughout Southern California. Spread by aphids, the disease killed as many as 243,920 of Orange County’s trees in a single year. A new grafting combination was discovered that was immune to the disease, but it required the expensive tearing-out of the old groves, replanting, grafting, and patiently waiting for new trees to reach maturity. For five to eight years there would be no crop to harvest.

Adding insult to injury, local land began to be taxed on its “highest and best use.” In other words, farmland was suddenly taxed as though it were residential or commercial property. After paying their taxes, the already besieged citrus growers made almost no profit, making buy-out offers from developers tempting or even necessary.

Standpipe, smudge pot and sickly trees make way for housing, 1967.

Today, only a few small, (often sickly) specimen orange groves remain, as reminders of our past. The last of Orange County’s 45 packing houses, the Villa Park Orchards Association, moved to Ventura County in 2006. In places, one can still see the old lines of eucalyptus – which once provided citrus groves with shelter from the wind – now standing along the edges of roads or housing tracts. 

But the orange left its mark on Orange County. The industry gave us the framework on which many of our still-vibrant communities were built. Some of our streets bear the names of growers, fruit varieties and packing houses. And the long-term investment and attention groves require gave us a tendency toward cautiousness, patience and thrift, and an aversion to fixing things that aren’t broken. 

Mature orange groves, Placentia area, June1961.

But perhaps most of all, citrus gave Orange County its image and identity as a healthy, happy, sunny spot where success grew on trees.

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