by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The unparalleled climate and incredibly fertile soil of greater Los Angeles made the region one of the leading agricultural centers of the country, but, by the mid-20th century, the burgeoning development of towns and cities led to the sacrifice of farming for new houses, businesses, schools and other accoutrements of suburban life. Moving through the area today, there are just a few isolated pockets of agriculture and it is hard to appreciate, without some historical accounting, just how productive southern California once was with the produce of its farms, groves and orchards.
Before the explosion of another enormously important part of our regional economy, the film industry, greater Los Angeles was generally identified by the orange. Citrus raising, begun under the Spanish-era mission system, was elevated to supremacy in the agricultural sector by the late-19th century, especially with the late 1885 completion of a direct transcontinental railroad link by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe system and, then, within a decade, the introduction of the refrigerated box car, which made long shipments of the fruit and other products feasible.
Despite the relentless push of suburban development, citrus remained a dominant part of regional farming deep into the twentieth century, including in the Puente Valley, where it and walnut growing were supreme. During the 1920s, there was a large packing house for oranges along the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railway (acquired by the Santa Fe during the decade) line at Hillgrove, a community in North Whittier (now Hacienda) Heights, while the town of Puente (now La Puente) boasted the world’s largest packing house for that product.
At the Homestead, owned by the Temple family from 1917-1932 after earlier ownership by other members of the family and their grandparents, the Workmans, from 1841-1899, much of the 92-acre ranch was devoted to walnuts. Oranges, lemons and avocados were raised extensively in North Whittier Heights and other sections of the valley, which was a rural agricultural region of no small renown until the post-World War II period and the rapid and massive onset of suburban expansion from the west.
The highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection for this post is the September 1927 issue of Citrus Leaves, an industry journal published monthly starting a half-dozen years earlier by Mutual Orange Distributors. This cooperative of forty member organizations and 3,000 growers established in 1906 stated, in the first article of the magazine, that it was soon to open its new headquarters in Redlands (the building is now a dentistry office) as well as announced a restriction in tonnage of fruit distributed to what was then some 9,000 cars annually. It also stated that it was limiting membership for better “direct, personal attention” and the “close and efficient service which a genuine co-operative should render.”
Other interesting material included “Principles of Citrus Orchard Cultivation,” by University of California citriculture specialist Warren Schoonover and which focused on the importance of a good seed bed, proper fertilization of the soil, effective weed management, and the right water absorption level for the soil.
Floyd D. Young, a United States Weather Bureau meteorologist contributed an analysis of the 1926-1927 frost season, which, coming after several dry years, featured “frequent rains [which] kept the surface soil wet during the entire winter,” not unlike the past year, and which included significant flooding in the region, including at the Homestead as San José Creek rose and water nearly reached the Workman House and the nearly completed La Casa Nueva. Young noted, however, that high moisture content limited the worst effects of freezing, such as found three years prior.
E.J. Brickell’s “Group Buying Benefits Citrus Growers” outlined how the practice of cooperative purchasing through Mutual’s Supply Department reduced costs, minimized overhead and saved time for members. Orange County Horticultural Commission member A.A. Brock wrote on “The Status of Citrus Pest Control in Orange County,” noting that about three-quarters of a million dollars was expended annually to address such pests as black, purple and red scales and mealy bugs, while damage done by these and others amounted to around $3 million each year. George P. Gray analyzed the use of hydrocyanic acid gas for dealing with scale insects over the past four decades, saying it remained the best product to date.
Other articles of note concerned the importance of Great Britain as a buyer and consumer of Mutual’s “Pure Gold” brand of oranges, starting with the Washington Navel, introduced regionally by Eliza Tibbets of Riverside in 1873, and, more recently, the Valencia. The opening of the Panama Canal and new auction rooms in Liverpool were cited as key in the growth of the shipment of crates from under 10 million in 1913-1914 to 13.6 million in 1925-1926. Puerto Rico Trade Commissioner L.W. James reported on the affect on California of orange and grapefruit exports from the American island possession in the years 1916-1924 with statistics on quantity of fruit and value shipped, as well as the quality of the fruit.
In the “Editorial Comment” section, there were several short pieces dealing with general issues of crime and specifically stiffer penalties for wrong-doers; the negative effects of citrus growers being subjected to the state’s Worker’s Compensation Act, which dated back in origins to the early Teens and Progressive policies enacted in California—a separate article went further into this question; the matter of proper credit for financing citrus operations; the inequality of the federal government owning so much land in the western states; and “Why Farmers Need Relief,” in which a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of almost 14,000 farmers showed that, on the average, they only realized under 6% of their initial financial investment in 1926 with an general net of not quite $1,000 on outlays of over $16,000.
Perhaps of greater interest are several reports from citrus growing regions from San Diego to Tulare, as well as Arizona, including greater Los Angeles counties, including some history as well as statistics. John P. Coy, a San Bernardino County horticultural commissioner contributed a “History of the Citrus Industry in San Bernardino County,” which began with the observation that Anson Van Leuven planted the first orange trees from seedlings brought from Mission San Gabriel, cradle of the citrus industry. Growth of the industry in the county was slow for some years, but Mrs. Tibbets’ planting of the Valencia—Riverside being part of San Bernardino County until its namesake county was established in 1893—was followed by a massive increase during the Boom of the Eighties.
In 1891, there were just over 600,000 trees in a baker’s dozen number of districts, with Riverside accounting for more than 40% of the total and the Mission (San Bernardino) and Redlands districts running a distant second and third at above 81,000 and nearly 78,000 each. Orange stock being prepared for planting totaled nearly 850,000 the following year, but with Redlands accounting for 260,000, more than Riverside, which had not far under 230,000. In 1893, however, that total number skyrocketed to nearly 2.5 million and, within two years of that, there were almost 11 million seedbed stock readied. Lemons were far less popular, with a bit north of 30,000 planted in 1891, more than half in Riverside and other sizable amounts at Moreno [Valley] and Ontario.
For more recent years, it was recorded that, in 1900, there were more than 1.5 million bearing orange trees in the county along with 175,000 lemons. A decade later, those totals were almost 2.3 million and 200,000, while grapefruit accounts for 13,000 trees. In 1920, growth mushroomed to 3.2 million, 400,000, and 127,000, respectively, while a half-dozen years later the totals were 3.35 million, 461,000 and 130,000. For boxes shipped, the 1905-1906 season recorded 3.3 million, 156,000 and 18,000 for the three fruits, while a decade later, the totals were 4.2 million, 406,000 and 52,000. The 1925-1926 season recorded 5.2 million, almost 700,000 and nearly 158,000, respectively.
Riverside County Horticulture Commission member A.E. Bottell’s article noted the primacy of the control of scale and the fact that “clean groves result in increased crops.” He reported that, in 1880, which was thirteen years before the formation of the county, there were 4,300 boxes of citrus shipped on fifteen cars, but a decade later, there were about 415,000 boxes on 1,440 cars. Peak exports came in 1909 when, from some 14,400 acres of groves in the county, a total of 6,081 cars carried north of 2.3 million boxes of fruit.
While acreage grew to nearly 16,500 by 1922, there was a drop of nearly 20% by the onset of 1927, though why was not explained. Despite this, yields were improved to the extent that a new record was set for the 1926-1927 season of 5,675 cars carrying more than 460 boxes each for a total of north of 2.6 million crates. Bottell added that another 150 cars consisted of locally purchased citrus or those handled by truck, which would become a greater means of distribution later.
Orange County commissioner Brock wrote that citrus was the main agricultural product there and he asserted that the region “had made quite an enviable reputation as a producer of high quality valencia [sic] oranges and stands high on the list as a producer of lemons and other citrus fruits.” Much of this was attributed to the growth of citrus in diets, an enormous change in habit from decades past, and he asserted that productivity was about on par with other citrus-growing sections of the Golden State.
Statistics showed that, in 1909, there were more than 5,300 acres of orange and not quite 600 of lemon in Orange County, with production of boxes totaling nearly 1.25 million and almost 75,000, respectively. Nine years later, the totals were 10,500 and 4,200 acres and more than 2.5 million and about 643,000 boxes. For 1926, these were north of 38,000 and 6,600, while there were 42 acres of grapefruit and the shipments totaled over 6.2 million, almost 1.23 million, and 10,000, respectively. The Valencia orange was the preeminent type raised and Brock added that the promotion of the fruit by doctors materially helped with the growth of its use.
After adding that there were many acres planted to lima beans, other vegetables and a variety of crops that could be converted to citrus, Brock noted that there was a need for better use of irrigation, which, properly provided for, could double the current acreage. He observed, however, that some of the most fertile farmland in the county was devoted to avocados and persimmons, as well.
Harold J. Ryan, a commissioner of the horticultural commission of Los Angeles County, not only contributed statistics, but useful maps, these latter showing that the largest area, by far, for citrus production was the eastern San Gabriel Valley foothill regions of the San Gabriel Mountains from Azusa and Baldwin Park to the county line at Claremont, while North Whittier Heights and sections of Walnut also had sizable groves. Large tracts at Los Nietos, south of Whittier, and Rivera and Downey; San Gabriel, east Pasadena, Arcadia and Sierra Madre; and sections of the San Fernando Valley, including Sylmar, Granada Hills and Chatsworth, also had substantial orchard sections.
In 1926, Ryan pointed out, there were north of 57,000 acres planted to citrus, nearly all of it in bearing condition and that year’s orange crop comprised just over 6 million boxes with a value of above $20.5 million, while lemons totaled 1.8 million boxes and almost $6 million and grapefruit involved 134,000 boxes and about $475,000 in value. There were 30% more Valencia groves than those devoted to the Washington Navel at 23,000 and 16,300 acres, respectively, while just under 12,000 acres were planted to lemons and 517 to grapefruit.
Well above three-quarters of all of this acreage was east of the San Gabriel River, with that foothill section extending almost 15 miles alone comprising just over half of the county’s plantings. Ryan added that “through this area there occurs hardly a ten acre block of level ground not planted to citrus orchards except where towns have shouldered the trees aside.” He further commented that “between Pomona and Puente along the Valley Boulevard and in the North Whittier Heights district,” this latter opened about 15 years prior, “are 3,600 acres, while south of the [Puente] hills lies a 10,000 acre block,” about 18% of the county total, “in the Whittier, Riviera [sic], [and] Downey districts,” while walnuts were found in these several locales, too.
Notably, Ryan reported that “practically all of the 6000 acres lying in the Alhambra, Glendale, Sierra Madre, Monrovia quadrangle is threatened with an early extinction by subdivision” as the relentless march of development headed east. As to new plantings in the preceding five years, almost two-thirds of the 3,225 acres added were in Valencia oranges, with almost 20% in lemons, and 415 acres in Washington Navels with 82 to grapefruit. Losses of citrus land, however, involved nearly 7,200 acres, though, notably, 37% of this was former lemon groves and 32% and 26% were Washington Navel and Valencia lands.
Again, the commissioner reported,
The most noticeable transformation is found in the triangle of country between Glendale, Alhambra and Monrovia. In the process of turning fruit trees to firewood or dooryard ornamentals, retired California ranchers sold over 3700 acres of citrus land for retired Iowa farmers [and, of course, others] to build houses upon . . .
It was also observed that “west of the Rio Hondo River is Montebello that took out for houses and oil 272 acres, but put now new trees in the ground except for shade.” In this vicinity was the Temple oil lease. Of these two areas that showed a notable increase in the panting of citrus, one was North Whittier Heights, with 460 acres added and 191 removed, while those San Fernando Valley locations had a small net increase of 90 acres. Ryan also wrote that “the citrus area north and east at Puente had a net loss of only 184 acres, with more than 950 taken out for building lots and 768 added.
Finally, there is an interesting history of the Citrus Experiment Station under the auspices of the University of California and its director, H.J. Webber, a professor of subtropical horticulture, noted that he was enticed in 1912 to come west from Cornell University in New York. Notably, Webber’s prior visit of about a decade before was not favorable as he compared California’s brown and barren hills to the lushness of his part of the Empire State. His impressions, however, changed when he took over the operation of the station, which evolved into UC Riverside, though there was also a pathological laboratory operated by the University of Southern California at Whittier.
The latter facility lasted just under a decade before being closed in 1915 and its staff transferred to Riverside, where the station began operating two years later near Mt. Rubidoux on 475 acres, of which 300 were cultivable and the remainder hilly and best for livestock range and forestry projects. Webber described the Mission Revival style buildings, of which a photo showed the handsome structures, as part of the “Spanish inheritance of California architecture,” and added that the complex opened on 21 May 1917. As he concluded this first part of a series continued in later issues of Citrus Leaves, Webber observed that, in addition to citrus, the station conducted work on apricots, avocados, cantaloupes, peaches and walnuts relative to alkali soil, fertility of soil, plant nutrition, genetics and other topics.
With its wealth of information, the magazine is very useful for its historical content and articles relating to current issues and problems in the citrus industry. Unfortunately, the Museum’s holdings include just one more edition of Citrus Leaves, from July 1923, but we’ll look to build a post around that in the future.