King Citrus & Queen Valencia

Phil Brigandi (2011)

Once upon a time in Orange County, money grew on trees. Citrus was the crop that made Orange County orange. Citrus—primarily Valencia oranges—once cascaded in green and gold down out of the mountains and along the rich coastal plain in neat, orderly rows, divided by windbreaks of eucalyptus trees. Sixty ago, much of central Orange County was a vast orchard, dotted with little towns like Santa Ana, Tustin, Anaheim, and, of course, Orange. The crop fueled the local economy for decades, creating an Easterner’s image of paradise: a sunny, fertile land, where health grew on trees.

The first small seedling groves were planted here in the early 1870s, at a time when scores of new crops were being tried—most unsuccessfully. In 1875, the first commercial grove of hearty, spring-ripening Valencia oranges was planted by R. H. Gilman on what is now the Cal State Fullerton campus.

In those days, the biggest crop in the area was grapes, grown for wine or raisins. But in the 1880s, local vineyards were ravaged by a mysterious blight, clearing the way for thousands of new citrus plantings.

“Very naturally,” wrote Fullerton grower C. C. Chapman in 1911, “an occupation which is so attractive as citrus culture soon interested many enterprising men.” And among the enterprising men it interested was C. C. Chapman himself, who grew rich growing and packing his Old Mission brand oranges. But for every large operation like Chapman’s, there were dozens of other local ranchers with five-, 10- and 20-acre groves of their own.

And the groves meant work for more than just the growers. There were fumigators, pickers, teamsters, packers and sundry other tradesmen living on the wealth of the groves. For example, the Orange City Directory for 1919 shows perhaps one-third of the local workforce employed in some aspect of the citrus industry.

By 1915, there were over 20,000 acres of orange groves in Orange County. By 1936, when Orange County supplied one-sixth of the nation’s Valencia crop, there were 64,000 acres, and the citrus industry was generating two-thirds of the county’s agricultural income. As late as 1948 there were still 67,263 acres of Valencias—more than five million trees. And that didn’t even include other citrus crops, such as navel oranges, limes, grapefruit and lemons.

But in 1949, nearly 7,000 acres of orange trees disappeared. The post-war migration to Southern California had begun in earnest, and each year more and more trees fell as housing tracts began to blanket Orange County. By 1985, there were less than 4,000 acres of Valencias in the county, primarily on the Irvine Ranch. Twenty years later, less than 100 acres survived.

Beginning in 1881, when the first local packing house opened in Orange, more than 60 packing houses served local growers. In the early years, many of them were owned by individuals, but later the growers formed their own cooperative associations to handle the packing of their produce.

At their peak, in the early 1940s, 45 packing houses were operating in Orange County. There was the Anaheim Orange and Lemon Association, the Garden Grove Citrus Association, the Bradford Brothers in Placentia, Goldenwest Citrus in Tustin, the Olive Hillside Growers, McPherson Heights and dozens of other plants. These packing houses handled millions of pounds of fruit. In 1929, for example, Santiago Orange Growers in Orange handled some 60 million pounds of fruit— 2,000 railroad cars full—making it one of the largest packing houses in the country.

jim dandy label
Jim Dandy Brand label
Courtesy Phil Brigandi

Today, the old packing houses are best known for their colorful and distinctive advertising labels that were pasted on the ends of each wooden crate of fruit until the introduction of the cardboard box in the mid-’50s. Many featured idyllic scenes or lovely maidens, or promoted their place of origin. There were brands like Rooster, and Bird Rocks, and Cleopatra, and Atlas, and Jim Dandy, and any of a hundred others. Each was unique. They had to be, for their main purpose was to make each packing houses’ fruit instantly recognizable to wholesale buyers at Eastern auction markets.

The real marketing, though, was carried on by the old Southern California Fruit Exchange, which after several name changes finally became Sunkist Growers in 1952. Over the years, Sunkist launched vast national marketing campaigns, which promoted Southern California almost as much as they touted its golden fruit.

The Villa Park Orchards Association was the last of Orange County’s packing houses to go. Founded by local growers in 1912, they moved their operation to the old Santiago Orange Growers packing house in Orange in 1978, and operated there until 2006, when they moved to Ventura County.

The key to Villa Park’s success has been expansion. As other packing associations closed, Villa Park Orchards began enlisting the remaining growers. As early as 1959, they absorbed the Escondido Co-Operative Citrus Association, bringing in important San Diego County acreage. In 1962, they added their first grapefruit and tangerine growers in the Coachella Valley, allowing the packing house to remain active between orange packing seasons.

Villa Park also helped open important new markets around the Pacific Rim, and their fruit can be found in markets and street stalls in Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Korea.

Harold Brewer (1891-1990) was active was active with Villa Park Orchards for decades. He became a member in the early 1920s, when he established his orchard up on the Cerro Villa Tract; joined the Board of Directors in 1930, and served as president of the Association from 1959 to 1970.

A nephew of pioneer Valencia grower R. H. Gilman, Brewer came to Villa Park in 1923. “As far as the area was concerned,” Brewer recalled in 1985, “almost all of it was in citrus. A widow down here on Center Street had about 20 acres in walnuts, and outside of that, this whole area was in either oranges or lemons.

“You’d drive along the streets and about all you’d see was a citrus grove and maybe a house on the corner or maybe long driveways leading back into a home. There were windbreaks to protect the orchards from the Santa Ana winds—the ‘Devil Winds’ they called them. You could drive to town and meet maybe one or two horse-and-buggies, or automobiles. Villa Park had no ‘town,’ except there was a little store at Villa Park Road and Wanda.”

Brewer recalled the growth of the cooperative packing houses: “In the early days, packing and shipping was all [done by] independents. “They would come and either buy your fruit for so much a box – estimating it on the trees—or they would pick it and pack it and pay you so much, with them keeping a commission. And it got to be—if you want it politely—so many robbers. So the growers had to seek a way to defend themselves. That’s what started the co-ops back years before Villa Park Orchards was started….

“Just like any other business,” he said, “a group can do business cheaper than a single individual. The picking was cooperatively done. The hauling was done by the packing houses—they were still hauling with teams of horses when I came over here. All of these [things]—and the packing— were much cheaper than having somebody in the business to make a profit to do it. That profit was divided back to the growers.”

But first the growers needed trees old enough to bear a crop. After all, it takes an orange tree about seven years to reach fruit-bearing maturity, a span of time that conjured up a lot of make-do business, as would-be growers sought to make a living any way they could.

When Brewer bought his grove in 1923, the trees were only a year old. For the next half-dozen years, he raised tomatoes and corn, often picking and selling them himself. He also did orchard work for other ranchers, while still tending his own young trees. When they finally came into full bearing, he began a pattern that continued for more than 40 years:

“The blooming was in the spring—April, May—and you did your irrigation and cultivation. Valencias were a crop that had ripe fruit and blossoms for the next year’s crop at the same time, so that in this season you would have the picking of the crop that was formed the season before. Along in the fall, then, you would either fumigate or spray—fumigating for red scale [a parasite] and spiders, or spraying with oil sprays.

“Then by the middle of fall your crop was all picked and you mostly irrigated, cultivated it up and sowed a cover crop, either clover or mustard or something to grow in the winter to make a mulch for the spring to work into the soil to help build it up.

“Then during the winter, if you were in an area like I had in my lower acres here when it got cold, you had to watch the thermometer and maybe once in a while light up some smudge pots. In later years, the smudge pots went out and wind machines went in.

“Then in the spring, you disked up [the soil] with a tractor and worked in this cover crop you’d grown through the winter.”

The picking was done by a variety of workers. Local Mexican-Americans made up much of the work force, but, as Brewer noted, “there weren’t enough to do the job.” During World War II, even German POWs were sometimes used. And the Bracero program (1943-64) allowed migrant workers to come north to add to the local labor force.

Once the fruit was packed in field boxes, it went to the packing house, where it went through a process that remained virtually unchanged for more than a half century. As Brewer explained:

“It went down into the basement of the packing house. They had rooms in there where it was stored for anywhere from a week to two weeks. If it was a season of greenish fruit, ethylene gas was released into these rooms to ripen the fruit.

“Then, when the fruit was to be packed, it was raised on an elevator upstairs and dumped into a washing container. [Then] it was elevated out onto a belt and it was air-dried. In later years, it ran through a machine that put on the waxing and polishing.

“And then it was dumped out onto tables in front of the graders, who put number one fruit and number two fruit onto different belts… Then it went down to the packer’s bins.” There the fruit was sorted according to size, wrapped in tissue paper and boxed. “In later years,” Brewer concluded, “the fruit went out to the pre-cooler and was stored in the cooling rooms before it was loaded into the freight cars to be sent east.”