by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The important of the citrus industry, in particular the raising of oranges, in greater Los Angeles through the 1920s is hard to overstate. Brought to California by the missionaries in the Spanish period and commercially grown beginning in the early 1840s with the large grove of William Wolfskill in what became the industrial district of Los Angeles, the orange became a dominant agricultural product at the end of the 19th century due to the great Boom of the 1880s, improved rail transport and, especially, the development of the refrigerated box car early the following decade.
By the early 20th century, there were major citrus belts along the foothills of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges in the San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire out to Redlands and in the appropriately named Orange County. While not as well known or widely grown, the lemon was also a major article of produce during that period. Grown well and carefully, these fruits could provide an excellent income for the grower.
Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection is the 8 September 1928 issue of California Cultivator, a journal that combined in 1914 with The Rural Californian, formed in 1877, and two years later with the Livestock and Daily Journal, which was launched in 1901. The Cultivator Publishing Company operated out of the Publishers Trade Building at Central Avenue and 3rd Street in Los Angeles, had a staff of seven, and offered the weekly publication at a subscription rate of $1.00 per year.
The Homestead’s collection has dozens of issues and they are an important resource for the agricultural industry in the region and state and this number highlights the fact, as the front page states, that “Orange Growers Have Their Innings.” On the editorial page, the first contribution is “Bright Citrus Prospects” and the journal began with the observation that “needless to say, any orange grower with a crop of fruit such as we have pictured on our cover this week, would, in the year of our Lord, 1928, feel well satisfied with his prospects for a fair sized income.”
It was rumored, the paper went on, “that our citrus growers are again coming into their own” as “the past two years have been very favorable for those growers who had good yields of merchantable fruit.” There was, then, “a new life” for the industry “and the planting of new orchards has once again become the order of the day.” What kept more trees from being planted was a lack of good nursery stock, but “demand will . . . soon being on an increased supply” which meant that “if prices for fruit remain satisfactory, we may look for the customary increase in citrus acreage.”
Yet, their were warnings, especially as other fruits, including grapes, figs, peaches and plums “have all had their innings and are now suffering from the inevitable result of attractive prices.” A similar situation occurred in the late 1900s and early 1910s as there was a bonanza of orange grove planting. The Cultivator was not, though, discouraging growers, observing “there will always be room for more good orchards that will produce large crops of high quality fruit.”
The key, however, was to select good property and getting the best stock possible, especially because there was the long-term approach to a 25-50 year span for orchards, which also would account for lean as well as flush times. That way, the piece concluded, a grower “must take an average of the good and the bad years and then figure our probable production costs to determine whether the difference will justify our planting an orchard.”
The following page has a particularly interesting article, from a historical point of view, called “The Prosperous Citrus Industry,” by Ernest Braunton. He began by stating that “California weather, which is usually dependable, will during the next 60 days control the coming crop of oranges for, as it behaves so will the crop grow.” This is a timely statement especially these days with climate change, greater wildfire risk and other elements posing challenges for farmers and growers of all kinds of crops.
Braunton continued that “if all goes well the crop will equal or surpas that of 1926-27 which totaled 57,163 cars of oranges and pomelos and 13,437 cars of lemons.” That bumper crop meant more profits for growers that in any prior season and “this summer’s prices have averaged a little better than last year’s, though this season’s crop is a little lighter.” With this, he averred that “the present market is satisfactory and the outlook for the remainder of the season good” and this included excellent prospects for lemon growers.
Reports were favorable from several districts, including Redlands and Highland, Rialto-Bloomington-Fontana, Pomona and Orange County. Braunton then noted that “there is an old and honored saying, honored because of its unquestioned truth, that ‘history repeats itself’ and one is impressed with this as he looks back cover what has been written by recognized authorities on the citrus industry in the past.”
Specifically, Braunton quoted extensively from an 1885 work called The Orange, Its Culture in California by William A. Spalding, a veteran Los Angeles journalist who was one of the featured speakers at the Lafayette Day event featured in a post here a few days ago. The Spalding excerpt includes the assertion mentioned above about the importance of raising good quality fruit, especially as there were tendencies in the past in which
“many of our people rushed into orange growing as they would have rushed into a speculation of stocks.” In so doing, “they engaged in the industry blindly and recklessly” by planting inferior stock in unsuitable locations and lacking the knowledge and ability needed to be successful.
The only ones who did well in such circumstances were unscrupulous nursery owners who took advantage of gullible would-be growers to inflate prices and clear a handsome profit. This period appears to dovetail with the first boom in greater Los Angeles, which took place during the late 1860s and the first half of the subsequent decade. Then came a reckoning, in many areas of the economy (including the poorly managed Temple and Workman bank, which became the first major business failure in the small city in early 1876.)
The following winter of 1876-77 was a drought-stricken one “followed by the wave of hard times which swept across the country” with the depression that began in 1873. Those who took on too much debt to plant their oranges were obviously among the first to feel the squeeze (!) and “thus the furor of orange planting received a check.” Interestingly, Spalding recorded that “most of the orange groves already planted were too valuable to be abandoned . . . so somebody stepped in to carry them forward” and the industry “went steadily and surely forward.”
Another shock to the industry came with a deep freeze that hit in the winter of 1879-80 and “gave a rude awakening to some people who planted in low, cold places,” though limes and lemons were more affected than oranges. This season showed clearly which areas in the region were desirable for citrus raising and which were not. Three years later, the season of 1882-83 was, Spalding recorded, “the most depressing for the orange industry that we have ever known.”
Much of this was because “the trees set unusually full,” which sounds on the surface like a good thing, but “this alone had a tendency to dwarf the fruit and detract from its good qualities.” On top of this, “there were late frosts so severe that some of the fruit was nipped” and the result was sour fruit no one wanted. Not only did prices decline, but “some producers and dealers who shipped inferior oranges . . . found that they had trouble for their pains and a freight bill [with the railroad] to settle besides.” Spalding wrote that this latest setback caused “some superficial people” to ask if it was worth the effort and “haven’t we been deluded all this time in thinking it a remunerative industry?”
Yet, to return to the essential point, it was “those who got started right; who planted on high, warm, mellow soils; took good care of their trees; and following orange growing as an industry, not a speculation, are the ones who suffered no loss through the time of depression.” These growers, in turn, “are now firmly grounded in the belief that orange growing pays.” For that last season of 1883-84 before Spalding’s report was written and published, while growers in poor locales were only selling fruit at a dollar a box and while trees in many cases were so small and could find no buyers, he “talked with an orange grower of Pasadena” who sold fruit at up to $4 a box and said “if I had 100,000 boxes I could sell every one of them at these prices.” This well-positioned orchardist answered the rhetorical question of “will orange growing pay?” by responding “well, I rather think it will. It is today the best enterprise a man can engage in.”
The issue offered a great deal more about regional and state agriculture, including material on the California State Fair; pineapple growing in Hawaii; heating orchards of deciduous fruit in the central valleys of the state; columns answering readers’ questions about farming and legal matters; a household department, including “The Cultivator Patterns” for dressmakers; a children’s section that included instructions for building a bird shelter and a short story; turkey raising; milking machines; and more.
The “Agricultural News Notes of the Pacific Coast” page, divided into four regions, had, for its Southern California column briefs like the Colorado River only had a third of its normal flow; the first carload of grapes were shipped from the Wineville district where Jurupa Valley is near Riverside; that cool and wet weather ruined thousands of acres of watermelons in Riverside County; that the lowest bid for a massive agricultural building at Pomona for the Los Angeles County Fair was $17,000, some $43,000 lower than the estimate; and that the University of Southern California was given $265,000 from the will of Seeley W. Mudd (who also gave $1 million to the Claremont Colleges where Harvey Mudd College was established by his son) for a hall of philosophy (though what this had to do with agriculture was not explained!)
Lastly, it is always interesting to see advertisements in magazines and newspapers and, while many are industry-specific, there are also a few general ones, such as for the Montgomery Ward catalog and the Hash 400 luxury sedan automobile. With a large selection of California Cultivator issues in the collection, we’ll be sure to feature more issues in future “Working the Land” posts.