Or maybe I should say citrus was California? But no, despite the Southern California citrus industry going the way of the subsequent aerospace industry, I still think citrus is California. I was inspired to write about California citrus by an article that recently ran in the Sunday Los Angeles Times’ L.A. Then and Now column: “Southern California’s Great Citrus Had It’s Crate Advertising.” The article is about the colorful labels slapped onto the wooden crates the fruit was packed in, and how they were considered cutting-edge marketing at the time. Big, bold, multi-color images of the fruit and the growers logos let the consumer know that the oranges, lemons and grapefruit of that specific grower were special, above average.
As the article goes on to explain, after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 California’s citrus industry exploded. Between 1880 and 1893 citrus acreage grew from a few thousand acres to more than 40,000 with 90% of it in Southern California. That’s a lot of oranges. Growers wanted to stand out from the crowd so catchy brand names, and colorful labels were born. By the late 1950s when pre-printed cardboard boxes replaced the crates 8,000 designs had been created. That’s a lot of labels. I guess I’m a total geek after all because I love stuff like this! I was also thrilled to learn through the article about the Citrus Label Society located here in Southern California.
My mother remembers coming to the Los Angeles-area when she was a child in the 1940s and seeing orange groves as far as the eye could see. Much of what is now city, or housing tracts, used to be orange groves. The industry existed all over Southern California down to San Diego, out to Riverside County and north to Santa Barbara. One can imagine the air full of the scent of citrus. It must have been magical. What remains of local citrus growing is primarily in the Santa Paula, Ojai and Santa Barbara areas. The California citrus industry ultimately migrated north to the San Joaquin Valley and now ranks second to Florida in overall citrus sales. But remnants of the old days are still around.
A good friend’s mother lives in Loma Linda, a city in the Inland Empire that is located in San Bernardino County, east of Los Angeles by about sixty-five miles. The area was once nothing but orange groves; there are still pockets here and there of leftover groves. On a visit to Loma Linda to see my friend who lives in London, I noticed tables with bags of oranges on them in front of peoples’ homes. On the tables there would also be a locked box with a slit for money. A handwritten sign would list the cost of the fruit. All on the honor system. So wonderful and old-fashioned. I saw this again on a recent trip to Ojai (see above photo). To me this sort of throwback to bygone days is magical. The trust people still have that no one will drive off with the whole kit and caboodle is heartwarming.
Citrus does have a place in the Thompson family history. In 1940 at the tale end of the Dust Bowl, my destitute grandmother grabbed her five children, joined a widower neighbor and his two children, and high-tailed it out of Oklahoma City. Where was my grandfather, you may ask? He was holed up in San Francisco with his most recent girlfriend, one he’d met on one of his cross-country truck driving gigs. My feisty, salt-of-the-earth grandmother wasn’t going to let him leave her high and dry with five young children so she went after him. The group of nine piled onto a flat bed truck, sleeping alongside the road as they drove out to California.
Arriving in California flat broke, the ubiquitous orange groves beckoned. The story goes that my grandmother split off from the widower neighbor, and she and the children (they are pictured at right, my dad is the one all the way to the right) made enough money picking oranges to continue on to San Francisco where she found my profligate grandfather. And that’s how that side of the family ended up in California. I can happily blame my wandering grandfather with a token of appreciation to those long ago orange groves.
Citrus still is California. Citrus, more than any other industry, established modern California. Orange County has its name because it was once all orange groves. Imagine that where Disneyland is now used to be all citrus groves. There was a time when “Citrus was King” in California, and the citrus boom of the early 1900s was called the “second Gold Rush.” All those oranges, lemons and grapefruit helped continue California’s legacy as “The Golden State” — the land of sunshine and opportunity (and citrus!)
Charles G. Thompson is a Los Angeles-based freelance food writer, whose reviews and stories can be found at his blog 100 Miles, an exploration of local sustainibility.