Homestead Book Club Discussion on “Orange Empire”

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The last of this year’s book club meetings focused on Douglas Cazaux Sackman’s 2005 study of the California citrus industry, Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden.  As I usually do when participants gather together at the Homestead on a Friday morning to discuss the book, I shared museum artifacts and talked about them and the subject generally.

Though introduced by Spanish missionaries at the beginning of the European era of California in the late 18th century, oranges were not commercially grown until William Wolfskill planted his in Los Angeles in 1841.  Wolfskill, a native of Kentucky who lived in central Missouri (where William Workman and his brother David resided) and in Taos, New Mexico (where William spent 15 years), was one of the first people to use the Old Spanish Trail to Los Angeles, arriving in 1830.  The Workman family took the trail to this area eleven years later, the same year the Wolfskill orchard was created.

As the cattle industry remained the solid backbone of the regional economy for another quarter century, Wolfskill’s venture into citrus was not widely copied, but that changed dramatically after floods and drought devastated the area in the first half of the 1860s.  Succeeding years included the expansion of orange growing, particularly in the San Gabriel area below the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountain range, particularly as large cattle ranches and grain farms were increasingly replaced by smaller, but higher yielding plots and parcels for citrus growing.

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A circa 1885 stereographic photograph from the museum’s collection of a man and his dog in the midst of massive trees at the Wolfskill orange orchard, Los Angeles.

By the mid-1880s, the fruit took a firm foothold in the western part of the San Gabriel Valley and elsewhere, including the pioneering work of Eliza Tibbets and the introduction of the navel orange in Riverside, but a confluence of circumstances dramatically expanded the growing of citrus.

First, the completion of a direct transcontinental railroad route by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe line in 1885 meant better transportation facilities existed to aid the export of the fruit, as well as helping to usher in the famed Boom of the 1880s.  Five years later, Edwin T. Earl’s refrigerated boxcar revolutionized the shipment of produce and other items.

Viticulture, a staple of greater Los Angeles’ agricultural sector, though affected by growing competition from Sonoma, Napa and other areas in the north, was dealt a near-death blow by a ravaging disease by the early 1890s.  This outbreak, for example, ruined the long-established vineyards at the Homestead.  Consequently, former vineyards were often converted into citrus groves.

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Also from the Homestead’s holdings is that Sunkist calculator of the cost and selling prices of oranges, likely given to growers as a promotional item.

The dramatic growth in regional promotion, marketing and boosterism also became more established through such entities as the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the Sunkist cooperative of growers, exhibits at the immensely influential World’s Fair at Chicago in 1893, and the proliferation of magazines like Sunset and the Land of Sunshine (later renamed Out West), among others—all of which spread the word as mass communication flourished and expanded more broadly.

A major inhibitor to future growth, however, was the diminishing supply of locally available water.  When the massive Los Angeles Aqueduct project was conceived, planned and executed, however, culminating with the delivery of water from eastern California in 1913, room for significant growth was assured.

Meanwhile, while owners of groves could earn substantial profits with their operations, it is also important to remember that laborers generally worked in substandard and subpar conditions.  Many of these, in the latter part of the 19th century, were Chinese laborers, as reflected in the circa 1890 cabinet card shown here, taken in Santa Ana around the time of the creation of Orange County from the southeastern portion of Los Angeles County.

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The cover of Sunkist’s “The Story of California Oranges and Lemons” with an impossibly idyllic view of the region’s agricultural Eden.

The hatred of the Chinese manifested itself in many ways, including attacks on William Henry Workman, William Workman’s nephew, when he ran for mayor of Los Angeles in 1886, just as the boom was underway, because he hired Chinese laborers on his Boyle Heights ranch, which included vineyards and citrus.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 limited future labor supplies for local farmers, who turned to other sources.

Among these were Mexicans, whose migrations were frequent during the 19th century, but exploded due to the Revolution of 1910.  This led to another frenzied concern by Americans and Europeans and resulted in further segregation of Mexicans, the creation of separate schools, and others that aimed to control where new migrants lived, worked and were educated.

In the donation of snapshots of the Homestead, taken just two years after the revolution, a pair were of a “Mexican village” situated near the Homestead.  The rough structures shown were indicative of many of these settlements, of which a good number were temporary as laborers migrated throughout the region, state and the West to work as farm workers.  More permanent communities were barrios that were generally situated on the fringes of a town and usually next to the railroad.  This was the case in Puente (now La Puente) and one of my former museum colleagues was from a family that resided in the barrio there for many decades.

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A late 1920s edition of “Sunkist Recipes for Every Day.”

Another interesting dimension was the labor structure at the region’s packing houses, including nearby ones at Puente and North Whittier (after 1960, Hacienda) Heights.  These institutions involved new opportunities for the employment of women who sorted, washed and engaged in other tasks with fruit as they were being prepared for shipment.  The Homestead has several photographs of packing house interiors in which women make up a significant proportion of the labor.  In the pre-1930 era, however, almost all packing house workers were American and European.

By the first quarter of the 20th century, orange growing wasn’t just an agricultural pursuit, it was an industry of national renown and the fruit became a symbol for the region.  However, the successful marketing, promotion and boosterism that elevated the orange industry to prominence also helped the region’s population skyrocket.  As suburbia spread, the region’s ranches and farms were gradually sold and subdivided, while growing competition from other parts of the state and world ensued, as well.

The change is such that, in a “2016 California Citrus Acreage Report,” by the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the counties of Los Angeles and Orange aren’t represented individually in the navel oranges category, while in the valencia oranges section, Orange County has a reported 75 acres, all existing from before 2008.  California’s biggest producing county, by far, in both areas, is  Tulare.

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A crate label for the Golden Rod brand of oranges distributed by Puente Mutual Citrus Association.  Many of these labels featured vivid artwork that is highly prized by collectors.

Finally, a word (or two) has to be said about the poor lemon, which, while an important part of the regional citrus industry historically, has received very little attention compared to the orange.  Lemons were common in this area, including in North Whittier (Hacienda) Heights and the nearby community of Lemon, near modern Walnut.

But, being yellow, oddly shaped (instead of the nicely round orange), and, of course, more bitter than its sweeter counterpart, the poor fruit lacks the essential appeal (get it?) of the mighty orange.  Of about 42,000 acres statewide, roughly 40% of that is in Ventura County, with 5,000 acres in Riverside County and just over 300 in Orange County.

As for the Homestead and the Workman and Temple families who lived and farmed here, citrus did not play much of a role.  Instead, in the 19th century, it was the vineyards that dominated fruit raising, though some oranges were raised.  When the Temples owned the Homestead during the 1920s, walnuts were the main crop on the ranch.

The objects discussed at today’s presentation included photographs of local groves, like the ones mentioned above; Sunkist’s promotional pamphlet, “The Story of California Oranges and Lemons” and a recipe book issued by the cooperative; a promotional item by Sunkist showing the cost and selling price of oranges per box; and a 1920s crate label for the Golden Rod brand of oranges packed by the Puente Mutual Citrus Association.

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