by Julia Carachure
photography by Tom Galaraga
Oranges adorn the trees like Christmas decorations. Smudge pots that used to heat the oranges on cold nights now sit unused beneath the trees. A thermometer hangs nearby on a post, indicating the temperature that was once crucial in making sure the oranges would not freeze and remained in good condition before being shipped around the world.
Welcome to the last remaining orange grove in the city of La Verne: Heritage Park. For residents, this is an opportunity to take a glance at what was once the economic livelihood of the city. Residents get the opportunity to pick oranges for $4 per bag, $6 for two bags from the first Saturday in January until the last Saturday in March.
However, that was not always the case. Instead of one orange grove, there was a virtual sea of orange groves spreading across the valley. The trees lapped up to the foothills–a virtual green belt that defined Southern California. La Verne was not alone. From the 1870s to the 1970s, most of Southern California’s cities were dedicated to the citrus industry. Residents’ lives revolved around the growing, packing and shipping of oranges that were shipped to discerning consumers throughout the nation-and even the world. Converging causes resulted in the industry’s end: a virus called “Quick Decline” destroyed the trees’ roots; smog affected the pollination process; but most significantly, the demand for area housing made agricultural land more valuable for housing tracts than for orange groves. By the late 1970s, the groves were being bulldozed at a phenomenal rate.
Bonnie Brunell, secretary-treasurer of the Heritage Foundation, explains why Heritage Grove is an important La Verne park. “It gives the community an opportunity to see what it was like in the past. This whole area at one time was citrus. This is one of the last orange groves left that people can come in and actually pick their own oranges.”
Brunell adds, “Some of the equipment that is around, like the smudge pots, gives an idea of what it was like in the past. That is what we are trying to do-to preserve that opportunity for the community and to give them a chance to see the Weber House.”
Founded in 1984 by Craig Walters, then a city councilman for La Verne, the Heritage Foundation was established for that purpose. Having grown up in the area, Walters was determined to save the last remnants from the citrus period in La Verne. An agreement was reached with a housing developer to gain a large tract of land north of Baseline for that purpose.
Next to the orange grove is the small two-story 1894 Weber farm house. Originally located about a mile south, the house was moved to its present site and repaired by Heritage Foundation volunteers. There were holes in the floor, the roof needed repair, many of the chimney bricks were missing and the windows were broken. Now finished, the house is open only for elementary school history tours. The children are allowed to see only the kitchen and the living room. The upstairs area is blocked off. Currently, the Heritage Foundation uses one of its rooms as an office. Another building on the property is the Sloan barn-once located at Emerald Avenue and Baseline Road-is used for equipment storage. A public restroom is located in the structure.
The “Orange Squeeze” is a two-year March tradition where elementary school students tour the grounds and see a demonstration on how a smudge pot works. A tractor ride takes the children around the grove, and, of course, the children squeeze their own oranges and drink the freshly squeezed orange juice.
Participating in the Citrus Tradition at Heritage Park
On a beautiful Saturday morning in March, the sun is shining brightly, and wisps of clouds are lightly scattered in the sky. It is the kind of morning that makes a person want to go to the beach, ride a bike or maybe just stop by Heritage Park to pick some oranges.
The first two visitors this morning, Brian Bennett and his 7-year-old son Kyle, are ready to pluck oranges to take home with them. “Give me a plumb juicy one,” says Brian to his son. Kyle walks around, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, wearing tennis shoes. Gloves cover his small hands, which are holding an orange picker, ready to pull an orange to add to their bag. Brian follows closely, and at the same time, he shows his son which oranges to pick, and which ones to leave on the tree to keep developing.
He warns Kyle not to pick up the oranges that are lying on the ground because no one knows how long they have been there. His father tells him to pick oranges on the bottom branches of the tree. Kyle, having the advantage of simply walking under the trees because he is small, walks around calmly and pulls off oranges one- by-one. “It’s fun picking these,” says Brian. At one point, he pulls an orange off, and part of the branch comes along with it. Brian, with clippers in one hand, grabs the orange from his son to check that he leaves a little bit of the stem on the orange, carefully cuts the branch off and places it in the bag. He warns Kyle not to pick the green oranges that are hanging highly on the tree since they are not ripe enough. After a while, both father and son manage to pick all the oranges they will take home with them that day. They are satisfied with their choice of oranges.
Brian found out about the orange picking season through the city newsletter and has been coming to pick oranges ever since. “We were just sitting around home today, my wife has to work today so I was asking him [Kyle] and giving him a list of things to do today and he said that orange picking is what he wanted to do, right?” he says, turning to look at his son. “Right,” says Kyle, who is busy walking on a tree log that is on the property.
While the citrus industry has ceased to exist, it is refreshing to find one place where people can step into the past and remember a time when growing oranges was once a way of life.