Photos: When Orange County Was Rural (And Oranges Actually Grew There)

Citrus trees in Placentia, 1961. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Orange County hardly lives up to its name1 anymore. A few relict orchards may survive, but today the endless citrus groves that once clothed the county in green are only a memory.

Before a postwar population boom triggered an almost wholesale conversation of farmland to suburbia, much of Orange County appeared decidedly rural. In 1948, a vast forest of five million Valencia orange trees grew on 67,000 acres2 -- but the county's sprawling ranches supported more than just citriculture. Dairy farms dominated the Orange County's northern reaches, while in the south cattle grazed on the rolling hills of vast estates like the Irvine Ranch and Rancho Mission Viejo. Elsewhere, farmers cultivated celery, walnuts, lima beans, and sugar beets. Berries were common, too; the Knott's Berry Farm amusement park began as a roadside fruit stand on an actual berry farm.

In 1950, Orange County was a network of modest towns surrounded by fields and rangeland, home to roughly 216,000 people. Highways and interurban rail lines connected the area to the growing metropolis to the northwest, but Orange County still played the role of country to Los Angeles' city. Then L.A.'s suburban growth began spilling over the county line, and new master-planned communities in the Garden City tradition sprang from once-agricultural lands. By 1990, Orange County's population had exploded to 2.4 million, and the area had developed into a semiautonomous, "postsuburban" region--a social transformation mirrored in the physical landscape.

Much of Los Angeles County witnessed similar change, but in Orange County -- as in the Inland Empire -- the metamorphosis was recent and sudden enough that longtime residents still remember when office parks were strawberry fields, housing tracts were open pastures, and twelve-lane superhighways were quiet country roads.

Memories fade, but the photographic collections of the Orange County Archives -- a rich trove of more than a million historical images -- more permanently preserve visions of Orange County's rural past. The Archives have made the highlights freely available through Flickr and have digitized tens of thousands more.

1 In fact, Orange County's name was first proposed long before oranges became the area's dominant crop.

2 Two new books tell the story of Southern California's oranges in detail: Jared Farmer's "Trees in Paradise: A California History" and David Boulé's forthcoming "The Orange and the Dream of California."

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The I-5 freeway, pictured here in the 1960s at El Toro Road as a four-lane highway, becomes a 26-lane superfreeway at the El Toro Y interchange. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

An Orange County strawberry field, circa 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

A mature citrus grove in Orange County, 1961. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

A chicken ranch in Orange County (possibly Anaheim) in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Farmland surrounds the Marine Corps Air Facility Santa Ana in 1965. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Postcard of celery fields near Westminster, circa 1900. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

The city of Cypress first incorporated as Dairy City. Here, a county roads worker stands with dairy cows on a Cypress farm in 1969. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Cowboys on South Orange County ranch. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

A man stands close to a large rotary saw on a Yorba Linda citrus ranch in 1949. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

A ditch digger on the Rumbolt orange grove in Orange County, 1955. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Farmer Walter Knott strikes a serious pose with his berries in 1948. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Aerial view of Knott's Berry Farm in 1938, when it was still an actual farm. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Walt Disney carved his Magic Kingdom, seen here from the air in 1955, out of Anaheim's orange groves. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

A man in a stump puller uproots a citrus tree. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

Workers fell a eucalyptus windbreak in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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