Working the Land: “California Orange Primer,” 11 February 1907

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For decades, the orange was one of the most popular symbols of greater Los Angeles and California broadly and the first commercial grove in the state was planted by William Wolfskill, a close friend of the Workman and Temple families, on his property south of the pueblo of Los Angeles in 1841.

Over subsequent years, the industry grew steadily, with the area around the Mission San Gabriel being a core growing area initially, though a wider corridor along the foothills of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges developed toward the end of the century as far as Redlands.

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A key element to the growth of the citrus industry was reliable transportation, including railroads, and there was no more powerful entity in this field that the Southern Pacific, founded by the “octopus” of Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington and Leland Stanford as part of their Central Pacific Railroad, which built the western portion of the transcontinental.

While the Southern Pacific sought to avoid Los Angeles as it built a line south from the Bay Area to Yuma, Arizona and points east, legislation passed by Congress forced the powerful company to bring that line through the City of Angels.  This wasn’t done, however, without some major concessions, won through intense negotiations in 1872 involving the SP and Los Angeles luminaries, including F.P.F. Temple.  A vote that October led to approval of a subsidy of substantial cash and the turning over to the SP of the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad, the sole local line.

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In the following couple of years, the SP built two local lines, one to Anaheim from the Florence area south of downtown Los Angeles and one east through the San Gabriel Valley and the Rancho La Puente (the Puente depot opened in spring 1874, allowing William Workman to ship farm products by rail).

Temple and other locals sought to cut into the SP’s monopoly by launching their Los Angeles and Independence Railroad to tap silver mines in eastern California and only partially succeeded by building a short route from Los Angeles to the new resort town of Santa Monica before the company was sold to the SP in the aftermath of the failure of the Temple and Workman bank and a ravaged economy.

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In 1885, however, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe completed a direct transcontinental line to the region, ushering in the famed Boom of the Eighties.  While this undercut the SP’s dominance, the line certainly remained a powerful presence in greater Los Angeles, especially as the citrus industry expanded.  In the 1890s, an improved refrigerated boxcar, developed by Edwin T. Earl, helped transform the industry as oranges could be kept fresh for longer distances and shipping times, even as the national economy was battered by recession and local drought caused problems for local farmers.

A new boom period emerged in the first years of the new century and greater Los Angeles grew dramatically, including in the suburbs, though the citrus industry continued to be a focal point of the regional economy, including in the San Gabriel Valley.  Another national depression broke out in 1907, but on this date that year tonight’s artifact, a “California Orange Primer,” was published by the SP and is an interesting look at the industry.

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The fourth of the “Southern Pacific Primer Series,” the others being about prunes (an obvious part of a regular series of publications, of course), the Big Trees comprising some of California’s stately sequoias, and one for immigrants to the state, the format was a pretty typical one, in which questions about the industry were answered.

For example, the first query was about the origins of the orange and it was replied that “it is probably a native of Southern China, but was introduced into Arabia and Syria from tropical India.”  Its introduction to the New World was “probably by the Spaniards” and there were said to be eighty varieties from two original strains, a sweet one and a bitter one from China.

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To the question of what were the main orange growing areas in the United States, it was answered that large areas of Florida as well as the Mississippi delta were among them, but “the great Orange center of the world to-day is California.”  There was also reference to the the navel orange from Bahia, a state in Brazil, and that it was brought to this area “by a lady traveling through that country in 1869.”  Not mentioned was the foundational role played by Riverside’s Eliza Tibbets in planting two navel orange trees that had an enormous impact on the industry.

There is also material on how the fruit was propagated, the ease of growing it, how consistently the trees bear oranges and about the “thermal belt” from the upper Sacramento Valley down to San Diego.  Asked “where are the great Orange centers of California?,” the publication replied:

At present in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Riverside and San Diego counties.  The two counties first named produced the first Oranges for commercial purposes.  The citrus region of Southern California is almost wholly foothill land,—upland, or what the Spanish called “mesa,” or table land.  The elevation ranges from 300 to 1,800 feet above sea level.  But there are various Orange centers in Central and Northern California, where the successful culture of this fruit has been continuous for a number of years.

Discussion of soil quality best suited for raising the fruit and the ideal climate also is included.  Another notable query was “why were Oranges first grown in Southern California.”  The response was that “orange trees were planted in several of the Mission gardens of the South by the Franciscan fathers” where “the climatic fitness” was superior.

Orange Primer table

It was added that “from a grove or two planted by adventurous pioneers, it was inferred that Oranges were a predestined crop.”  Moreover, more abundant rainfall and the raising of deciduous fruits were more pronounced in the north, so, concerning oranges, “for about fifteen years this was left to the special attention of Southern California, and the people of that section developed it so magnificently that that portion of the State became the wonder and admiration of half the world,” though which half would have been interesting to know.

The publication went on to state that, because the Sierra Nevada foothills were further from the ocean and had warmer, drier summers “the fruit not only ripens perfectly, but ripens a little earlier than in the South,” presaging a bright future for citrus growing in the central and northern sections of the state.

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Queried about whether “the business [might] be overdone?,” the SP answered “not while the [human?] race continues to multiply, and wealth to increase” and “the consumption of the Orange steadily increases.”  Moreover, the railroad asked its own question, “California has perhaps 8,000,000 Orange trees, but what are they among the 80,000,000 of our own population?”

To the practical questions of cost, it was noted that good lands for growing oranges could be had from $50-150 an acre and a table stated that ten acres would, therefore, cost $1500, with 750 trees on that tract costing 85 cents each, a couple hundred dollars judged to be plenty for preparing the soil and planting the trees, and care stated to be $15 an acre.

Orange Primer safe business

With water, taxes and the like, the total first year’s cost for the grove would be up to $3,500 “depending on the amount of work that must be hired,” and, of course, who.  By the seventh year, it was noted, the crop “will pay the total cost of the orchard and leave a margin” with the land valued at $6,000.

It was asserted that, at full bearing capacity, such a grove would provide an income of roughly $150 an acre, though the unidentified writer claimed “I have a friend who gathers $400 an acre from a plat of two and one-half acres,” said he knew another person who had an $1,800 per acre yield, and “I lived in the very midst of another grove” whose proprietor told of having a $1,000 an acre valuation with a 16% profit.

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Still, this account continued, “these are exceptional returns.  They belong to the past.”  More likely for the ten-acre grove example was a yearly income of $1,500 to $3,000.  It was added, though, that “the Orange has been a luxury; it is becoming a necessity.”  This was because “the acid of the California Orange is agreeable, and its flavor sprightly; it is tonic and healthful.”

All of this would help increase consumption and, thereby, profit for the grower. provided there was “intelligent cultivation.”  It was reported that “citrus fruit growers in Southern California for 1906 will receive more than $20,000,000 for their crop” and “in many instances, this will mean $1,000 an acre.”

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Among the concluding comments is the  claim that growing oranges “is a safe business” though it “will not bear neglect.”  Done well, however, the business had a bright future, as this remarkable passage offered:

orange culture makes the most fascinating country life in the world, and that the industry will continue to be profitable is fairly certain.  This is an age of great wealth.  It is widely distributed, and we are but in the dawn of the wealth-producing era.  The richest country on the globe will be the United States . .  . It will pay.  It will pay in gold coin.  But it will pay also in comfort—in solid satisfaction.  The business itself is not poetry, but prose, and requires industry, study and expense, but it is prosecuted where the skies are sunny, the breezes balmy, the verdure half tropical, and the whole aspect of nature kindly—that is a land of climatic peace, where living is a joy.

In our area, the dominance of the orange in agriculture continued until the post-World War II era.  The irresistible march of the suburbs meant the gradual and sometimes rapid removal of groves and their replacement with houses, schools, shopping centers and other elements.  Today, there are just a few remnants of the orange empire with scattered groves, but, for our regional history, the importance of the fruit remains undeniable and pamphlets like this are notable artifacts in remembrance.

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