For as much as we treasure our native trees and other native plants in Southern California, you can’t deny the impact that one import had on the development of our great state: the orange tree.
Citrus had become the second largest industry in California — just behind oil — right up until the late 1930s. But by World War II, what was once the “citrus belt” of Southern California — including areas like Lemon Grove in San Diego County, which had drawn visitors and property-buyers to its “sea of lemon trees” — was plowed and paved.
Citrus first arrived in California in the late 18th century (thanks to Spanish missionaries), but it took another 100 years for us to truly strike citrus gold — with a type of seedless orange tree from Brazil (by way of Washington D.C.).
And so was born the “Washington navel,” and legend has it that nearly all of the orange trees of this type that you’ll find in California are descendants of two “parent” trees.
You can find one of them — supposedly the “Mother of the California Citrus Industry” — in the City of Riverside at the intersection of Arlington and Magnolia Avenues.
But the Inland Empire isn’t the only place to discover what Southern California was like when citrus was king (though you’ll learn a lot just by visiting California Citrus State Historic Park, also in Riverside).
Citrus dollars built many of our residential neighborhoods and affluent cities — like Pasadena, which was founded by the San Gabriel Orange Grove Association. But a cornucopia of subtropical fruit could once be found from the San Fernando Valley to the San Gabriel Valley, the Pomona Valley, and the Spanish land grant ranchos that were to become what’s known today as Orange County.
Now, the extant citrus groves and packinghouses are mostly limited to a couple of small towns in an area of Ventura County known as “Heritage Valley.” But there are some other great places where you can peel back the layers of time and reveal the fruits of all those growers, pickers and packers who revolutionized Southern California commerce and tourism.
Here are five great places to stand in the shadows of groves gone by and get a slice of some juicy citrus history.
1. Irvine Ranch Historic Park, Irvine
In the 1890s, a large swath of land had been devoted to either lima bean fields or sheep and cattle grazing — and that included a large portion of the Rancho San Joaquin and Rancho Lomas de Santiago that James Irvine bought and transformed into his expansive Irvine Ranch. But those land uses soon gave way to citrus orchards — namely, Valencia oranges — and thus Irvine Ranch (and, later, The Irvine Company) became one of California's first major agricultural “growers” as well as one of the state’s earliest and most productive agricultural enterprises. At Irvine Ranch Historical Park, you'll find a little of what's left of the Irvine family’s orange empire — like the Driving Barn (a red behemoth at 54 feet by 120 feet) that once housed tractors, a lima bean windrower, and other farm machinery and equipment. Also in the park, the former Irvine family residence now serves as the Katie Wheeler Library, so named after the granddaughter of James Irvine who was born and raised in the ranch house. The original, built in 1876, was damaged by electrical fire in 1965 and demolished three years later, so the present-day library is a replica that was built according to its original blueprints, just an inch off of the original footprint. Other housing along the self-guided tour includes the bungalows and cottages along Foreman's Row on Irvine Boulevard, which were built between the 1900s and the 1930s — three of which have been restored. There’s also the turn-of-the-last-century mule corral that was repurposed as a bunkhouse for single male workers and the mess hall, although their interiors are off-limits to the public.
2. Anaheim Packing House, Anaheim
While much of SoCal’s citrus industry fell victim to development and demolition in the 1940s, Valencia oranges actually continued to be Anaheim’s top export until the 1960s. The packinghouse of the Southern California Fruit Growers Exchange (a.k.a. Sunkist), situated along an old Southern Pacific rail spur in the Packing District, is one of the few that remain in Southern California — and the only one left in Anaheim. Closed in 1955 (the year Disneyland opened and changed Anaheim forever), it’s been preserved, restored and converted into an eclectic food emporium and community gathering space. The current 42,000-square-foot packinghouse pays tribute to its roots by converting an old train into patio seating and retaining much of its rusty, industrial exterior. The food stalls that have been added keep the vintage, unfinished feel, having been fabricated from reclaimed wood, salvaged materials and other design elements befitting a giant converted warehouse. You can go for a nosh or a tipple, a yoga class, a concert, or any number of other events and activities that are offered in and outside, and at the adjacent Farmers Park. The stucco-clad building is a beauty to behold, with its skylights and clerestory windows in Mission Revival Style — so, in truth, you could probably stay there all day. But for the sake of due diligence, you can head 25 miles north to check out the former College Heights Lemon Packing House, which has been refurbished and repurposed as a multi-use space now known as Claremont Packing House.
3. Orange Grove, Northridge
While you may associate the San Fernando Valley more with burgers and hot dogs than with oranges and lemons, there’s just five acres left of the 15,000 acres of orange trees that once could be found there — in Canoga Park, Granada Hills and what’s known today as Northridge. Found at the southeast corner of the California State University, Northridge campus, this citrus paradise was almost paved to put in a parking lot in the 1990s, despite having been acknowledged as a historic site as far back as 1972. There are some 400 Citrus sinensis trees that still bear fruit in what’s considered the last remaining orange grove of the San Fernando Valley’s agricultural past. And you can not only visit the grove for free without being a CSUN student or faculty, but also pick a Valencia orange or two without anyone necessarily stopping you. There’s a nice path through the grove that’s been cleared — aptly named the Orange Grove Walk — and that leads to a lovely gazebo and a koi pond that’s frequented by red-eared slider turtles and all manner of ducks, geese and other waterfowl. Don’t disrupt the pond ecosystem by disturbing the birds, which are federally protected — and that means resisting the urge to feed them. You can park on the street for free or in one of the nearby paid lots on campus. If you’ve got a lot of time on your hands, continue your ramble through the CSUN “Urban Forest Tour,” which takes you deeper into the campus past a variety of notable species of non-native and largely ornamental trees that are characteristic of Southern California.
4. Heritage Park, La Verne
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, much of the San Gabriel Valley was covered with citrus trees — and the city of La Verne (called Lordsburg until 1917) was right at the center of it. Until the 1940s, citrus growing, picking, packing and shipping dominated the city — and it wasn’t just oranges, either, but also lemons and grapefruit. Today, you can witness first-hand all of the machinery that once went into cultivating a commercial grove — from hoppers and tractors to manure spreaders, furrowers and smudge pots — at Heritage Park in present-day La Verne. A real highlight on its 1.5 acres is the horse-drawn "spray rig" that was fashioned out of a 1930 Ford Model "A" truck. Also preserved on the property is the historic Sloan Barn. While the orange-picking season is only in January and February, the rest of the year the park hosts a variety of concerts, a pumpkin patch, a holiday festival with tractor “sleigh” rides and even a car show. Unfortunately, the La Verne Orange and Lemon Growers Association Packinghouse and D and First Streets was demolished in the 1960s, and there are few others still standing. While you’re in the area, swing by the La Verne Chamber of Commerce to see one of them in its current use. And the University of La Verne has repurposed historic packinghouses as its Arts & Communications building as well as the department of Enrollment Management, Mail Services and Facilities Management.
5. E. Waldo Ward & Son, Sierra Madre
The oldest business in Sierra Madre is E. Waldo Ward & Son, purveyors of local gourmet foods and home to a historic grove of Seville orange trees. Its 2.5-acre estate (reduced down from its original 30 acres, which once had over 600 trees) features original buildings in very good condition, like the home that Edward Waldo Ward Sr. built in 1900, which has housed various members of the Ward family over the years, including current, fourth generation owner Jeff Ward. The youngest Ward has preserved much of the original features of the kitchen, including the burners, 1950s-era conveyor belts, and many pots, pitchers, and pourers. The striking red barn out back, with its looming tower, is another original, preserved structure of the ranch that dates back to 1902 and includes a historical museum featuring an original jar of marmalade, empty jars with original labels and the presses that once embossed those labels. E. Waldo Ward is known not only for their jam-tastic marmalades but also their sweet pickled jarred kumquats — something they can pretty much guarantee you won’t find anywhere else. Although now citrus-based gourmet food products constitute just 10 percent of E. Waldo Ward’s overall business, they’re all made from the tangerines, oranges and kumquats grown right on the ranch property. You can tour the ranch and orchard (as well as its canning factory) on Saturdays by appointment — and reportedly the best time to visit is when they're actually cooking, canning and labeling. But you can also visit the shop to buy some of their goods direct from the source anytime during the week 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. or Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Closed on Sundays.)