by Enedina Perez
photography by Alen Zilic
It was called the banana belt because citrus raised here did not freeze. This was the premiere place to grow citrus, recalled old time rancher Floyd Bunnelle in 1977.
Today, the La Verne Heights plateau area where Bunnelle lived and worked on the northwest border of La Verne is occupied by hundreds of homes built in the early 1980s.
The city is left only with the memory of its proud heritage.
La Verne love affair with growing citrus fruit starting in the 1870s, with the planting of the first groves. The first La Verne orange shipment, grown by Joseph Wolfskill, travelled east on a train in 1877. That shipment led to others — La Verne oranges quickly became the most sought after citrus in the world. Cooperative marketing began in 1892, with the establishment of the Claremont California Fruit Growers Exchange. On July 31, 1909, the La Verne Growers Association was chartered. The La Verne Orange Association was probably the largest of its kind in the world.
In 1895, The Los Angeles Times reported that “around Lordsburg, the Dunkers, who form the majority of the population of 2,500 inhabitants, are making the desert bloom.” But gaining water to irrigate the La Verne Heights fields was problematic, unlike in downtown Lordsburg, where a Miss Eckles boasted that she had dug six feet down to start a well. Water was hauled in horse and wagon teams to the orchards until the process was simplified by M.L. Wicks, an early subdivider, who installed a forebay that diverted water to the upper part of La Verne. There was no slowing down the northern growers now. M.L. Sparks set out 10 acres. W.S. Romick and L.H. Bixby each planted about five acres at the same time. For nearly a century, the citrus industry in La Verne did nothing but prosper. It not only met its consumers’ needs, but also those of the laborers’. By 1919, 1,000 train car loads of oranges were shipped, and by 1934, 1,800 car loads of fruit were being sent. The University of La Verne’s baseball fields were the site of orange packing house No. 1.
Unfortunately, this uprise declined between the years 1925 and 1945. One of the main reasons for this fall was a harmful virus called “quick decline.” According to Harvey Hayes, a retired citrus grower, “[It] was a virus which attacked our root range stock only — and when it hit a grove, the trees would die in a very short time — even in days.” By the late 1960s, it was more profitable to grow houses rather than oranges, and northern ranchers began to succumb to subdividers’ wishes.
Fields of houses now replace the empty holes left when the trees were knocked down. Although not much evidence of the industry is left, one can still see an isolated, abandoned and motionless windmill in the northwest part of La Verne. And an abandoned rancher’s car still sits where he parked it adjacent to Marshall Canyon Golf Course during the heyday of the citrus industry.