Not long ago, the hills were strung with the clustered pearls of trees. As we drove up the 5 Freeway with the top down, the sugary scent of all those blossoms had a way of lingering.
In a generation, Orange County went from farm to city. From a $30 million cash crop spreading across nearly 70,000 acres at its peak in 1948, the county now has 40 commercial acres of oranges logged by the Orange County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.
Funny thing about the history of oranges here: When the founders named us Orange County, we weren’t exactly overflowing with citrus. It was 1871, only eight years past a drought that wiped out cattle fortunes and forced the sale and development of huge tracts of land. So it’s possible the branding was something of a gimmick: If we name it, they will come. And come they did—the oranges, and the people, too.
Citrus magnate Charles C. Chapman planted seedlings of the Valencia he imported from Europe in the 1870s. Others followed. The Fullerton area soon bloomed into the largest citrus grove in the world—the Bastanchury Ranch.
Today, the orange kingdom has been reduced to a dozen museum plots and small family farms. Fortunately, many photos have survived in archives around Orange County. They tell of an era when oranges actually ruled.
Valencia Orange Show | When the president of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce realized that San Bernardino was showing us up with its popular Navel Orange Show, he decided Anaheim needed its own Valencia Orange Show. The first one, in 1921, touted more than 2 million oranges in its exhibits. By the time of this photo in 1926, the event was into its sixth year of showcasing the summer orange. To attract visitors, organizers offered an amusement park they claimed was better than Coney Island and Venice Beach combined. Because the county’s population was still relatively sparse, the orange show depended on L.A. County for up to 90 percent of its patrons. Despite heroic efforts to attract tourists, the show couldn’t turn a profit. In 1932, during the Depression, the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce was forced to turn over the venture’s assets to creditors, ending the show forever.
Orange Grove Landscape| The Bastanchury Ranch in the Sunny Hills area of Fullerton once was considered the world’s largest orange grove. The first Valencias in the county were planted in 1875 on the Richard H. Gilman ranch, now part of Cal State Fullerton. Soon, more farmers arrived. The oranges quickly became a cash cow, because Valencias were available in the summer, when Navels were out of season. In 1893, the Fullerton Tribune reported that oranges from Fullerton and Placentia were commanding the highest prices in the county.
In the early 1920s, the Bastanchury brothers borrowed $14 million in bonds to transform their family sheep farm-turned cattle and grain farm into an orange grove. By 1923, the operation was so successful that three railroads built spur tracks to the property.
Prescott Ranch Market stand | All you can drink for a dime. That’s how plentiful orange juice was when the Prescott family ran this fruit stand in Tustin. Julian and Mabel Prescott started farming oranges in 1912, with Mabel managing her own packing house. After her husband’s death, she took over the 27-acre grove. On July 4, 1941, Mabel and her son, John, opened the Prescott Ranch Market on El Camino Real, Highway 101—the street that was the main drag through Orange County for two centuries. The 5 Freeway drastically reduced the family’s customers, and the market closed in 1956. Armstrong Garden Center now occupies the land. Until his death in 2001, John Prescott, a successful rancher and businessman, was a leading proponent and host of the downtown Tustin Farmers Market.
Turn-of-the-century Packing House | This 1894 photo of the Placentia Orange Growers Association packing house depicts how fruit was packed in the early days of the industry. Gravity largely powered the conveyor, but when it needed more oomph, that was provided by a man pumping bicycle pedals. Historical photos show men and women working side by side in all aspects of the orange business, even as early as the 19th century.
Handpicking | While mechanization vastly improved the packing industry, picking oranges always has required human labor, as demonstrated by this man in the 1910s. A mechanized picker has since been invented for oranges, but it doesn’t work with Valencias because it requires shaking the tree, a movement that threatens the next year’s crop.
If the land was fertile, the human capital available to farm it was often scant. In times of war, there were more jobs in the orange industry here than there were white men to fill them. In came women and Mexican American laborers to harvest the crop.
A Rare Sight | No, it’s not the woman on the tractor in 1910 that’s so unusual. It’s the tractor. Invented in Iowa in 1892, the tractor was not yet mainstream, with only 1,000 tractors sold in the U.S. at the time this photo was taken. But Orange County has always been an early adopter.
Unloading the haul | By the early 1940s, there were 45 packing houses in Orange County. Here, a worker uses a dolly to unload boxes of oranges from the field. Though mechanization made the job easier by the mid-1940s, many tasks like this one still required pure muscle.
A Feminine Touch | Growers liked to employ women in the packing houses because they had a “nurturing touch,” one newsletter reported, a trait apparently required so as not to bruise the orange as it was wrapped in tissue. This photo of the Orange Belt Fruit Distributors packing house in Anaheim shows packers Marcella Gomez and Chonita Veyna in the foreground with two unknown women in the early 1940s. Do you know the women in the background? Write to us and tell us about them!