The Social History Of A Singular Fruit

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Enter mountain man William Wolfskill, a refugee from the dying fur trade. He had pioneered a trail from Taos to Los Angeles in 1831 and late in the decade decided to settle down in southern California. He took up a two-acre plot of land near the pueblo and purchased some orange cuttings and budwood (small orange trees) from the mission priests at San Gabriel. By 1848, when California became an American territory with the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Wolfskill’s oranges were being munched appreciatively as far north as Oregon. The Gold Rush of 1849-52, when at least one hundred thousand people scrabbled around after treasure in northern California, expanded his market considerably, and within a few years his grove had grown to seventy acres and the number of his trees to sixteen thousand, a good deal more than half of the twenty-five thousand orange trees under cultivation in the state by 1870.

Wolfskill’s near-monopoly was short-lived. In 1870, Judge John Wesley North, of Knoxville, Tennessee, organized a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-west entrepreneurs, bought four thousand acres of desert land sixty-five miles northeast of Los Angeles, and founded an agricultural colony called Riverside. In 1871, at a cost of $50,000, the Riverside colonists dug an irrigation canal from the anemic Santa Ana River to their land and began raising oranges. Similar settlements sprang up at Pasadena, Ontario, Redlands, Placentia, Anaheim, Duarte, and San Bernardino, and in all of them the growing of oranges and other citrus fruits was the predominant industry. By the middle of the 1870’s, more than ninety thousand orange trees had been planted, producing an average annual net profit of $20.50 per tree, or $1,435 per acre.

In 1876 the Southern Pacific Railroad completed a line from Sacramento to Los Angeles, and the following year William Wolfskill, with crossed fingers and high hopes, packed oranges on ice and sent a railroad car full of them to St. Louis on the Southern Pacific’s transcontinental hookup at Sacramento. It took what was called the “orange car” a month to arrive, but more than half the fruit survived the journey in good shape and was an instantaneous success—and made a handsome profit for Wolfskill. In 1882 the Southern Pacific opened its line from Los Angeles to New Orleans, and four years later the Santa Fe began its own transcontinental run from San Diego; at about the same time, the refrigerated railroad car was developed, and on February 14, 1886, the first entire train carrying nothing but oranges was sent out of Los Angeles. From then on, the East became the single largest market for California oranges.

Coincidental with the sudden flowering of the industry was the discovery and cultivation of a very special kind of orange. In about 1810, in Brazil, nature produced one of her more splendied mutants—a large, seedless, and succulent orange that ripened in winter (the Valencia came to fruit in the late spring and early summer). It was called the Bahia, or navel—after the buttonlike protuberance on its skin—and in 1870 it was encountered by a Presbyterian missionary in Brazil by the name of F.I.C. Schneider. Entranced with this strange fruit, Schneider sent budwood to William Saunders, of the U. S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, and in 1873 Saunders sent three small trees to Luther and Eliza Tibbetts, a couple who had joined the Riverside colony and had asked Saunders for advice on what to grow. One of the trees died upon replanting, but the other two flourished; soon, the Tibbettses were getting five dollars a bud from eager growers, and within fifteen years more than a million navel orange trees had been planted.

With the development of the winter-ripening navel to go with the summer-ripening Valencia, the completion of the transcontinental railroads, the invention of the refrigerator car, and an expanding Eastern market, southern California not only had its first year-round “money crop,” but half a nation of hungry buyers for it and a way to get it to them. By 1900 there were 5,648,714 trees under-cultivation, and five or six thousand carloads of oranges were being sent east every year.

Marketing, however, was a haphazard, cutthroat, and confusing affair. When a man sent two or three carloads of oranges to, say, St. Louis or Chicago, he had no way of knowing how many other growers might be doing so at the same time; if too many oranges arrived, the market would be glutted and quite often the grower would be presented with a shipping bill in excess of what his crop had brought at the point of sale. Moreover, he was utterly at the mercy of middlemen—jobbers and wholesalers in the East—whose distribution techniques were frequently slipshod and always designed to produce the quickest dollar possible (for them). It was a situation common to most of American agriculture at the time, but the average grower of California oranges was no simple yeoman farmer; he was a middle-aged transplant who had already made a respectable bundle in one business or another—a working pragmatist with experience and a determination to get his share of whatever pie might be available. It was not long before the growers got together, in the venerable American tradition, and in the process they developed one of the largest and most successful agricultural cooperatives in history.