The Social History Of A Singular Fruit

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The orange as industry had established itself, but what of the orange as culture symbol? Listen to Ma Joad speaking in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath in 1939: “I like to think how nice it’s gonna be, maybe, in California. Never cold. An’ fruit ever’place, an’ people just bein’ in the nicest places, little white houses in among the orange trees. I wonder—that is, if we all got jobs an’ all work—maybe we can get one of them little white houses. An’ the little fellas go out an’ pick oranges right off the tree.” Ma Joad did not get her little white house among the orange trees; she and her family found themselves dead up against it in California’s Central Valley. But the houses were there, and the trees, and they were inextricably bound up with what the rest of America (and much of the world) thought California was. In selling a product, the Sunkist growers had done a remarkable thing : they had sold an image and a way of life.

For some, there was the quality of the unreal, the strange, even the exotic about that way oflife. So it was for Jeffrey, the protagonist of John P. Marquand’s So Little Time (1943), as he drove through the San Bernardino Valley: “It was not his country and it never would be, no matter how long he remained there. Its people had come from everywhere. … They had come there with their savings to die in the sun, or else they had come to live again and grow oranges. Most of the valley floor was very green from the square miles of orange groves. Everyone was growing oranges. … The air was redolent of orange blossoms, but Jeffrey had nothing whatsoever to do with it. It was not his country.”

It may not have been Jeffrey’s country, but for those who had indeed come from everywhere—though most from the Middle West—to grow oranges, it was a good country, and a profitable one for many. “To own an orange grove in southern California is to live on the real gold coast of American agriculture,” Carey McWilliams wrote in 1946. “It is not by chance that millionaire row in Pasadena should be called Orange Grove Avenue.” They were not farmers, and they did not call themselves farmers; they were growers, but many had little or nothing to do with even that part of the business. They lived in among the orange trees in their big or little white houses and their most strenuous agricultural activity was in stepping out the back door and picking a few oranges for breakfast. Upon request, the exchange would do everything else: it planted, irrigated, pruned, sprayed the necessary pesticides, operated smudge pots on bitter winter mornings to prevent frost, harvested, culled, packed, shipped, and sold the crop for the owner, who would then walk down to the mailbox one day and find a fat check, less a suitable fee for services rendered. It was not the worst way in the world in which to make a living.

They were white, middle-class (and frequently middleaged), and Protestant, full of the pious certitudes of the type. The towns they built were clean and respectable and quiet, with more churches than bars, more hardware stores than whorehouses. They were staunchly conservative and brooked no nonsense from radicals or agitators—particularly labor agitators who periodically attempted to organize the Mexican workers who tended and harvested the fruit, only to find themselves facing the full weight of official and occasionally vigilante opposition. The Mexicans themselves were kept rigidly in their “place,” which usually was a squalid little Jimtown on the other side of whatever tracks were available. Theaters, swimming pools, and churches were segregated quite as thoroughly as in any town of the Deep South. The attitudes and the platitudes of the southern California orange grower dominated the politics and society of the region for more than fifty years.

As for the orange itself, no one could escape its presence. In the spring, summer, fall, and winter, the smell of its blossoms was always there, as pervasive, though not as visible, as the oily smudge that hung in the air on frost days, penetrating eyes, ears, noses, and throats and spoiling freshly hung washing. The central event of the region was the annual National Orange Show held every February in San Bernardino. a two-week extravaganza of respectable dimensions. Oranges were stacked in the shape of movie stars, Walt Disney characters, and great events in history; carnival rides whirred and buzzed and whined, and barkers touted the charms of dancing ladies; the Fruit Growers Exchange set up a complete packing plant on the grounds, so that people could watch oranges bouncing and hobbling along conveyor belts on their way to their boxes; technological marvels and industrial products of all kinds were on display; and the delights of the whole thing were broadcast to the entire nation by the likes of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, who staged their radio shows in the Orange Show auditorium.

It was a rigid and singularly narrow way of life, this culture of the orange—and until World War n, seemingly permanent. But between 1940 and 1950, the population of southern California rose from a little over three and one-half million to more than five and one-half million. Those two million additional people had to live somewhere, and most of the best land sprouted orange trees. Inevitably, the value of the land for housing and industrial development outstripped its value as a producer of oranges, and one-by-one the groves diminished, eaten into by housing, shopping centers, freeways, industrial parks, and all the concrete and asphalt components of the postwar world. A postwar boom in the Florida orange industry and the development there of frozen concentrates further crippled the business in southern California, and within twenty years the acreage under cultivation had dropped by more than half.