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When Oranges Ruled the Inland Empire

Its throne may sit vacant today, but for roughly a century the Inland Empire paid fealty to a powerful emperor: the orange.

Excursion trains whisked tourists through the scented orchards of Southern California’s inland valleys. Citrus colonies from Pomona to Redlands functioned as genteel outposts of East Coast high society, complete with colleges and opera houses. Riverside, where Eliza Tibbets supposedly nurtured California’s first navel orange trees with her dishwater, became by 1895 the wealthiest city per capita in the nation. The Mission Inn guestbook boasted the names of presidents and plutocrats from Roosevelt to Rockefeller.

Orange Empire Trolley Trip brochure

Is it any wonder that, by the early 1900s, the area had earned a colorful moniker: the Orange Empire?

Civic boosters embraced the imperial name, but for some the orange was anything but benevolent. Growers made fortunes, but immigrant pickers and packers from China, Japan, and Mexico generally shared in little of the profits. They labored under a hostile racial climate that subjected them to discriminatory policies and occasional mob violence. Citriculture also menaced the general population, regardless of background; though orange groves perfumed the air in warm weather, in cold smudge pots belched dark, oily smoke into the atmosphere in an effort to protect the valuable fruit from frost.

Nevertheless, the orange’s reign extended well into the 20th century. San Bernardino prospered; the town, once abandoned by Mormon colonists in 1857, reinvented itself as a citrus capital in 1911 when it inaugurated its annual National Orange Show. Riverside also grew in stature; in 1907, the University of California opened a citrus experiment station, planting a seed that in 1959 sprouted into a full-fledged university.

And its imperial borders ranged far and wide. Definitions varied, but according to some the Orange Empire encompassed not just the Pomona, Riverside, and San Bernardino valleys, but also the San Gabriel Valley’s foothill citrus belt and Orange County’s sprawling Valencia groves.

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So how did the Orange Empire become the Inland Empire?

Local usage of “Inland Empire” – borrowed from Washington State’s inland agriculture heartland, where the name was in circulation since the 1860s – dates to at least 1907, when the Los Angeles Herald referred to “the inland empire which embraces such cities as Redlands, Riverside, Corona, San Bernardino, San Jacinto, Santa Ana, and others tributary to the coast.”

But the name didn’t gain widespread currency until the late 1970s – not coincidentally, around the same time rapid suburbanization dethroned the orange in San Bernardino and Riverside counties. With residential subdivisions and shipping warehouses squeezing out the once-extensive orange groves, a new generation of boosters – real-estate developers – adopted a new name for their sales pitch.

All images appear courtesy of the David Boulé California Orange Collection.

Further Reading

Boule, David. The Orange and the Dream of California. Los Angeles: Angel City Press, 2013.

Farmer, Jared. Trees in Paradise: A California History. New York: W. W. Norton, 2013.

Patterson, Thomas C. From Acorns to Warehouses: Historical Political Economy of Southern California's Inland Empire. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, 2015.

Sackman, Douglas Cazaux. Orange Empire: California and the Fruits of Eden. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.

 

Orange Groves and Snow Capped Mountains from Smiley Heights, Redlands

 

Looking Across the Redlands Valley
Mt. San Bernardino, 11,000 ft. – From Oranges to Snow
Souvenir from the Orange Belt of California

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