A Palace in the Citrus Empire: A Duarte-Monrovia Fruit Exchange Packing House, 1917

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

From Pasadena to Highland east of San Bernardino and along the foothills of the steep, rocky, granitic San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges, one of the several major “citrus belts” in greater Los Angeles was a major part of the agricultural powerhouse in the regional economy.


Today’s highlighted artifact is what appears to be a snapshot photograph printed, as was popular at the time but not since, on postcard paper of one of the two Duarte-Monrovia Fruit Exchange packing houses.  One of the houses stood along the rail line of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in “West Duarte,” renamed Monrovia, near Buena Vista Avenue.  The other was located to the northeast along the Southern Pacific rail line on Highland Avenue in Duarte.


The association looks to have been established about 1888 encompassing growers in both towns, which were founded along the railroad lines that moved west to east through the northern San Gabriel Valley.  It was a member of the Southern California Fruit Exchange, which, by the new century, had a dozen member organizations from Santa Barbara to San Diego and from Los Angeles to San Bernardino.  Later, it was part of the California Fruit Growers Exchange, comprising 24 associations and marketed under the ubiquitous and famed Sunkist brand.

SC Fruit Exchange ad LA_Times_Jan_1__1900_
Los Angeles Times, 1 January 1900.

As with many citrus associations, the Duarte-Monrovia organization thrived in the first decades of the 20th century and weathered the rough years of the Great Depression followed by the Second World War.  In the postwar period, however, as suburbia relentlessly marched eastward from Los Angeles through the San Gabriel Valley and land values rose, groves and orchards were replaced by tract homes, shopping centers, schools and other modern standards of progress.

Orange Growing Problems LA_Herald_Jun_4__1905_
Part of a report by a grower in the Duarte-Monrovia Fruit Exchange indicating that orange growing wasn’t always the cash cow it was marketed to be.  From the 4 June 1905 edition of the Los Angeles Herald.

In 1948, the Duarte-Monrovia Fruit Exchange dissolved and the remaining crop from the local growers who still commercially raised fruit were sent to Covina, though that packing house would soon close down.  The sixty or so years of the citrus empire were over and its “palaces,” in the form of its many packing houses gave way to modern structures.

End of season LA Times_Sep_9__1910_
Early September marked the end of the orange season as indicated in this article from the Los Angeles Times, 9 September 1910, with mention of the results from the Duarte-Monrovia exchange.

The image shown here is a bit unusual in that most views of packing house interiors featured employees working at sorting, washing, grading and packing fruit.  Here, however, the view is of house devoid of people and, instead, shows bins, conveyor belts, crates and other expected elements.

Close of year SA Register_Sep_7__1920_.jpg
Another season-end report with lists of officers and directors of the exchange from the 7 September 1920 issue of the Santa Ana Register.

Interestingly, there is a banner or sign at the back right and, because it is in the dark and the exposure is a bit blurry, it is a little hard to read.  Under magnification, however, much of the sign can be read, including “Oranges for Health” and “Grown in California,” obviously indicating the message was part of the very aggressive and successful marketing of the fruit.

Sunkist exchange ad Covina_Argus_Dec_20__1929_
The exchange was one of about two dozen with the California Fruit Growers Exchange, which marketed its fruit under the Sunkist brand.  From the Covina Argus, 20 December 1929.

There is a message, dated 12 September 1917, on the reverse from a pair of Monrovia residents to a recipient in Shafter, a San Joaquin Valley oil town just northwest of Bakersfield, and there is a postmark from the next day out of the Monrovia post office.  There is no mention of the packing house, though there may have been some personal involvement by the senders, one or both of whom could have worked at the facility.

Assn ends LA_Times_Mar_4__1948_
The exchange shut down in 1948 and it leased the remaining packing house to a firm that made water heaters, stoves and other appliances and was also a pioneer in solar heating.  Note that the founding date was said to be 1888.

In any case, this nice image is one of a number of citrus-related photos and other artifacts from the Homestead’s collection that help document this crucial part of our local economy and image over several decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.



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