Working the Land: Lemons in Greater Los Angeles

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted here in an early October post, the orange was the main symbol of greater Los Angeles agriculture for decades to many outsiders.  The region’s citrus industry, though, was not limited to that fruit.  There was also the lemon, but its sour flavor probably contributed largely to its status as secondary to the orange in popularity.

Lemon growing, however, was widespread, starting with its appearance at Mission San Gabriel as early as about 1805.  William Wolfskill, credited with being California’s first commercial orange grower on his large spread southeast of the pueblo of Los Angeles when he established his grove in 1841, also had a significant portion of his property devoted to lemons.

Wolfskill’s contemporary, Jonathan Temple, half-brother to F.P.F. Temple, who was William Workman’s son-in-law, had lemon trees at his Rancho Los Cerritos in the 1840s.  Thomas A. Garey, a leading horticulturist and a founder of Pomona (the Roman goddess of fruit), promoted “Garey’s Eureka,” which appears to have actually come from Wolfskill’s orchard, but the variety became a sensation in other parts of the world.

In 1893, the first lemon growers association formed in Upland.  San Fernando had a thriving lemon growing association just a stone’s throw away from the mission.  And, out here in the eastern San Gabriel Valley, a small community sprung up alongside the Southern Pacific Railroad line called “Lemon,” though it is now part of the City of Walnut.

Closer to the Homestead, the communities of Hillgrove and North Whittier Heights (now known collectively as Hacienda Heights) included lemon groves, as well as orange and avocado orchards, and the fruit was packed at a packing house just a short distance from the museum.

SV Loading Lemons Onto Rail Car Lamanda Park Pasadena 2008.59.1.
This 1920s stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead collection, shows a worker securing crates of Sunkist lemons from the California Fruit Growers Exchange, for shipment, perhaps from the La Verne area.

As with the orange, the lemon was marketed heavily by the cooperative called the California Fruit Growers Exchange, best known for its Sunkist brand.  The exchange formed in 1893, just around the time that the refrigerated box car was developed by Edwin T. Earl and revolutionized shipping of perishable goods.  A few years later, there was a lemon growers’ advisory board within the exchange.

Not only that, but growers in the region and state pushed hard for two major issues.  The first was tariff protection so that shipping lemons throughout the country was economically easier.  The other was for research facilities that would help improve the industry through pest control, breeding and other issues.  The University of California, which did not yet have a southern branch (U.C.L.A. came later), responded by creating a Citrus Experiment Station, similar to programs the university had at its agricultural branch in Davis in the north.

In 1907, the first station was opened in Riverside, but it was not well staffed or funded until a major freeze that destroyed much fruit led to the relocation and expansion of the station to an area southeast of town at the end of 1914.  This became the campus of the University of California, Riverside and the station is still engaged in vital work that supports the state’s citrus industry, which, despite much reduction in acreage, is still second in the nation after Florida’s.

In the post-World War II era, greater Los Angeles had a huge population influx that meant valuable and fertile agricultural land gave way to housing tracts, shopping centers and malls, streets, and schools.

Still, as late as the 1960s, California produced more lemons than Italy, the second largest producing nation in the world after the U.S.  Most of southern California’s lemons were raised in the Santa Clara River valley and nearby areas of Ventura County and other outlying areas.  There were pockets of lemon orchards in the foothill areas of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties and in areas of Riverside and San Diego counties. When I moved to Chino Hills in 1997, a working lemon grove was still in operation in Carbon Canyon on a portion of Chino Hills State Park in Brea, though it was soon removed.

The photograph shown here from the Homestead’s collection is a stereoscopic image from the 1920s and features a man securing crates of Sunkist lemons ready for shipment, presumably by railroad, from somewhere in the greater Los Angeles region, perhaps the La Verne area, to an unknown destination.



4 thoughts

  1. do you have any more information on who owned/operated the lemon grove where chino hills state park discovery center is now located?
    I am trying to do some research but am coming up empty handed at every corner except this article.

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