by Paul R. Spitzzeri
To the outside world, greater Los Angeles was, for many years, identified with the orange. Thanks to aggressive marketing and promotion from the likes of the Sunkist cooperative of growers, the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and others, the fruit was so well-known that it was obvious what a new county should be named when it was carved out of Los Angeles County in 1889. That, of course, was Orange County, where it is now hard to find oranges outside of a supermarket.
The orange actually was brought to California by the Spanish and planted at some of the missions, including San Gabriel in the first years of the 1800s. In 1841, Kentucky native William Wolfskill, who migrated a decade before to Los Angeles from New Mexico over the Old Spanish Trail, planted the first commercial grove in California. The Wolfskill orchard, in what is now a gritty industrial area of downtown on the west side of the Los Angeles River, was famed in its time, but gave way to the inevitable march of development by the end of the 19th century.
Eliza Tibbets of Riverside introduced the Bahia (found in Brazil from a Portuguese origin), better known here as the Washington, navel orange to the region in the first part of the 1870s. The variety has a thicker skin, fewer seeds, and is less juicy than other types, so it proved ideal for eating. Its long growing season and availability from November to April also contributed to their popularity. From two trees, grafting of hundreds of thousands of new trees took place within a decade or so and orange industry in the region exploded.
While Riverside was one of the great orange-raising centers of southern California, there were other “orange belts,” including the northern San Gabriel Valley from Pasadena, eastward, the Inland Empire from Pomona east, and most of Orange County. Orange growing was a high cash crop and a well-organized and tended orchard could prove very profitable.
Tourism also took advantage of the proliferation of groves in greater Los Angeles, so that, by the eatly 20th century, organized excursions by streetcar and bus included such offerings as an Orange Belt Excursion out to Redlands and Riverside from Los Angeles. Commercially printed and published postcards, photographs and other material highlighting the orange were made available in huge numbers.
Even as the region’s economy diversified by the 1920s, with the film industry, manufacturing, aviation and other aspects becoming of greater importance, agriculture, headed by the orange, lemon and walnut, still was a dominant force. By the World War II years, however, that was starting to change.
The main reason was the creeping suburbanization that began first in the early 1870s, expanded in the late 1880s and then took off during the first few decades of the 1900s. Then came the postwar boom that pushed bedroom communities farther into the periphery of Los Angeles, including the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley and Orange County.
As tract homes, schools, shopping centers, arterial roadways and freeways filled the landscape, the region’s farms, groves and orchards gave way, though disease sometimes did its damage aside from rapid development. Orange groves are still to be found here and there–such as on parts of the Irvine Company’s holdings in Orange County–and farmers’ markets might offer locally grown fruit, but most commercial store product comes from elsewhere.
The image highlighted here from the Homestead’s collection was taken by Los Angeles photographer James B. Blanchard and shows on an orange grove in Santa Ana, likely sometime in the late 1880s or early 1890s.
There are eight men pictured, including a wagon driver waiting to haul oranges packed in crates, a gent in a sharp suit and derby hat who may be the grove’s owner, a tall, lean young man in a vest and striped trousers who could be a foreman, and five laborers, all of whom appear to be Chinese.
The population of Chinese residents in greater Los Angeles first grew in the late 1860s and early 1870s with the building of the first local railroads and migration from San Francisco and the gold fields. Despite facing enormous levels of racism and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, limiting migration, the Chinese persisted in the region. Other museum-held photos show Chinese laborers in orange and lemon groves in Pasadena and Ontario, as well.
A crate in the foreground is stamped with the name of “Cook and Langley”, which was a packing firm operating in the region during the 1890s. Joseph E. Cook, a New York city native, moved to San Francisco as a child and then studied for some time in the east before returning to California in 1870. He became a mercantile broker in San Francisco the following year and remained in that city for fifteen years. On the threshold of Los Angeles’ fabled boom of the late 1880s, he moved to the city. In 1887, he formed the firm of Cook & Langley, later known as the J.E. Cook Mercantile Company, which specialized in fruit packing and warehousing and expanded into other products, with clients including Quaker Oats, Ghirardelli chocolate, Hawaiian Pineapple Products Company, Proctor & Gamble and others. It seems the firm hired the Chinese laborers shown in the photo.
Cook’s partner for several years was Thomas E. Langley, but there was a separation in the late 1890s and Langley, who had resided in Riverside, went into the raisin business in Fresno. A clue as to why Cook went on his own is that, in 1895, Langley’s wife filed suit against him on a charge of abandonment, claiming infidelity on his part. The matters appeared to have been settled, but in January 1901, an arrest warrant was issued for Langley on the grounds of desertion. By then, Cook was well on his way to expanding his newly renamed business to greater heights of success.
This remarkable photo is an illustration of both the supreme importance of orange growing in regional agriculture and the use of Chinese labor in farms, orchards and groves at the end of the 19th century. Check back for future posts showing more agriculture labor at work.