by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In rural, agricultural portions of Los Angeles County, such as the eastern San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire, much of which was part of a citrus belt at the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, citrus raising was a mainstay of the economy for decades in the late 19th through mid 20th centuries.
Formerly known by the unappetizing name of “Mud Springs,” San Dimas was developed in 1887 along the transcontinental line of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, the opening of which opened the floodgates of development that led to the famous Boom the 1880s.
The raising of oranges and lemons was a major part of the community’s economic structure and the access to a major transportation route was key. This was further enhanced by the invention of the refrigerated boxcar which came into common use by the end of the century.
By 1900, San Dimas had its first packing house and growers worked with local associations and exchanges to get the fruit packed and shipped to markets all over the United States and overseas, as well. In 1908, a packing house was built next to the rail line and just off the west end of the commercial center of town and today’s “Wo/men at Work” post highlights a photo of the interior of the facility about a couple of years later.
Just before the new house was built, a long and interesting article was published in the 17 November 1907 issue of the Los Angeles Times titled “The Lemons of San Dimas.” Author Elthea Embody began the piece by noting that the San Dimas packing house was utilized by “the largest lemon growers’ association in the world.”
Moreover, the town “is beautifully situated at the head of the San Gabriel Valley, where the San Jose hills join the Sierra Madre [San Gabriel] Mountains.” Its location “is amply protected from the hot breath of the desert, as well as from the devastating north wind and the killing frost.” It also helped that, she claimed, there was “an inexhaustible supply of water” for the “naturally fertile land” in the area.
The San Dimas Lemon Association was part of the larger San Antonio Fruit Exchange, which embraced the associations of Indian Hill, Claremont, and Pomona, as well. Among the localities in which the fruit was grown were Azusa, Charter Oak, Claremont, Covina, Glendora, Lordsburg (later renamed La Verne), and North Pomona, in addition to San Dimas. Some 225 growers working 600 acres were members of the organization.
In 1906, Embody reported, over 720,000 boxes of fruit were packed and shipped from the house with a value of nearly $1,400,000. The boxes comprised 300 carloads of lumber and there were 140,000,000 printed tissue wrappers for each piece of fruit.
As for the packing house, it was nearly an acre in floor space, with the main building spanning 100’x110′ with two smaller additions. 160 carloads could be stored there with a capacity for shipping four cars daily. The lemons were said to be very hardy and durable for international shipment. Because orchards were said to be “constantly producing,” the packing house was open every day of the year.
Notably, lemons were picked green and according to size and were packed according to four grades with Harmony comprising the first, Pet the second, Greyhound the third, and Duck the last, or standard. The pioneering work of well-known lemon grower C.C. Teague of Santa Paula in Ventura County was employed when the association formed eight years prior, in 1899, for curing the fruit.
Basically, the fruit was carefully washed and then put into a “sweatroom” heated to about 90 degrees “in order to hurry up the curing process and to change the color quickly.” It generally took a little over a week for the fruit to be cured in the three sweatrooms “to hurry them to a good market.” In weak market periods, the lemons were stored in tents to prevent overexposure to air which made the fruit wilt and turn soft.
Dependent on the season and market conditions, the packing house employed anywhere from 60 to 150 men and women and, as noted in other posts on this subject,
the packing is done exclusively by women who live in the vicinity. Many of them have become so expert in the work that they can pack sixty boxes in the ten working hours of the day; they are paid five cents a box.
From 40-60 men and women worked on grading the fruit, but, typically, men were paid $2 a box, while women made only $1.50. The Stibley washing machine depicted in one of the photos was the invention of a man by that name who lived in Riverside, another important fruit-growing area in the region. The machine was especially efficient at getting fertilizer completely removed from the skin, which took away the obviously unpleasant odor! Five men worked at each of the two machines which cleaned 2,500 boxes per day.
More information was given as to the number of boxes that could fit in the two sizes of boxcars, with some cars using ice or ventilation for keeping the product as fresh as possible during shipment. There were three main types of lemon: Eureka, Villa Franca and Lisbon, with the first a regional product, being derived from seedlings brought to greater Los Angeles in 1872 and then budded to develop its size, easy curing, hardiness, heavy acid, and flavor. San Dimas nursery owner R.M. Teague, no relation to the Santa Paula grower, was credited with much of the growing of trees used in the area.
Embody concluded by noting that, with all the intense work required to effectively and efficiently grow, pack and ship lemons from San Dimas,
one can comprehend why our orchards are the foremost and greatest producers of the best lemons in the world, and why the fruit, whenever placed in competition with that of other sections, always wins.
The foothills communities continued to be part of a prosperous citrus growing region for a few decades, but the succession of the Great Depression, World War II, and, finally, postwar development led to the accelerating conversion of groves into homes, schools, shopping centers and other elements of suburbia.
The photograph shows the cavernous interior of the plant with about a dozen women standing at the center, while roughly three times that many men are scattered throughout the building, including a couple of gents reclining in a bin at the left and others sprawled out at the right. Note the three crates of fruit set out on a table in front of the ladies and a man in a suit who might have been the superintendent.
The San Dimas packing house continued operation until 1964 when it shut down, though at least some of the original plant survives at the northwest corner of Bonita Avenue and Cataract Street, a remnant of a productive past in citrus raising documented by photographs like the one shown here.