by Jen Newman
photography by Jennifer Contreras
It is January of 1937: “It’s eight o’clock, and this is Floyd Young on KFI radio with tonight’s temperature reports . . . La Verne, another cold night is expected with lows predicted at 26 degrees.”
“Another cold night” turned into six nights, which turned into 10, and 10 turned into 17. Seventeen consecutive nights of freezing temperatures threatened the loss of citrus crops, especially the oranges.
Orchard heaters or smudge pots, as they are more commonly known, have a circular base that serves as a pot to fill with smudge oil, and a stack three to four feet tall projected from the center. There is a hatch on the pot to pour the oil into, and the stack is punctured with holes to let the smoke escape. Once the oil was lit, the heat would cause the smudge pot stack to get red-hot, which warmed the orchard air, eliminating the frost threat.
Smudge pots were developed after the freeze of Jan. 7, 1913, as a way to prevent the loss of fruit in the event of another cold snap. Prior to smudge pots, corn stalks surrounded the trees, and hay or straw was burned to raise the temperatures in the orange groves. These methods failed against the 1913 Freeze, and all the oranges froze.
After Young, on KFI radio, listed the expected critical low temperatures and dew points of every town where citrus grew – from southern to central California – smudgers were notified to prepare for the coming long nights. Smudgers were typically high school or college-aged males who worked the smudge pots in the orange groves. Finding people willing to work was not hard with the students of La Verne College, now the University of La Verne, close by.
“Most of the smudging was basically done by the college students,” tells Daryl Brandt, La Verne College class of 1952. If temperatures were in the danger zone, anything 28 degrees or below, smudgers knew a night’s sleep warm in bed was only a dream. They would instead be spending their night outside in freezing temperatures keeping the crops of oranges warm by means of smudge pots. The smudgers’ goal was to warm the air to 30 degrees or above to keep the oranges from freezing and try to keep warm themselves.
Being out during the freezing nights meant the youthful smudgers had to bundle up also to not freeze. Dr. Dwight Hanawalt, La Verne College class of 1941 and professor of physical education emeritus at ULV, recalls wearing a heavy work boot, long underwear, the oldest pants he had, a wool shirt he did not care about, a sweatshirt, “and if it was really a cold night, a coat on top of that” and “always gloves or mittens.” As he warmed up through out the night, layers could be taken off. Other smudgers wore bib overalls or coveralls, reports Brandt. No matter what smudgers wore, they faced those clothes being ruined by all the oil and smoke belched by the smudge pots.
However, without oil to burn, the smudge pot system would not work. Brandt who got “involved in smudging as a kid, a young man, a boy,” describes smudge oil as a low-grade diesel that went for about 3.5 to 4 cents a gallon during the 1930s and ’40s. In the book, “La Verne, The Story of the People Who Made a Difference” by Evelyn Hollinger, a story is included from the Nov. 8, 1962, edition of the Pomona Progress-Bulletin about a search for oil during the cold snap of 1937.
Fred Harmsen, manager of the former La Verne Orange Association, was sent on a mission to find oil to buy after the 350,000 gallon oil tank ran empty that was used by all local growers to fill their smudge pots. Harmsen tried four refineries before finding enough oil to meet the demand of the orange growers. He purchased 600,000 gallons from General Petroleum, which is now Mobil Oil. This supply of oil was still being used to fill smudge pots during cold snaps when the Bulletin article was printed in 1962. “Had they not been able to [find] oil, then they would have lost all the fruit and possibly even some of the trees,” Brandt reflects on this story.
For young men in the La Verne area whose families had orange groves, smudging was expected. Hanawalt, like Brandt, started smudging at a young age. Hanawalt started at age 10 on his father’s two small orange groves. With the widespread area of groves, there were many young men who experienced smudging. “Everything north of 7th Street was oranges clear to the mountains,” recalls Hanawalt, while motioning with his hands the vastness of the area. Twenty miles east of La Verne and 10 to 15 miles west of La Verne were solid orange groves Hanawalt informs. Closer to La Verne’s town center, smaller groves were dispersed among houses on the lower ground, including where the University of La Verne is. Brandt’s father had groves from Third Street to the railroad tracks and on what is now the Brown Property south of Arrow Highway.
“It wasn’t heavy work; it was just in the middle of the night, and it was cold, and it was dirty, but it was a source of money,” tells Hanawalt about being a smudger. A smudger’s work was usually risk free; the only potential harm factor was lack of sleep, but Hanawalt remembers two or three deaths while people were lighting the smudge pots and caught fire. All smudgers used a lighter that had a canister as the base; the canister was filled with a mix of smudge oil and gasoline. The lighter had a spout that the mixture was poured from. At the tip of the spout was a lighted wick, like a candle. When the oil and gas mixture was poured into the smudge pot base, it would begin the burning of the oil and the warming of the orchard air.
There were two ways to tell whether smudge pots had been lit the night before. One, after a night of smudging, the city would be enveloped in a black smoke cloud, resembling a heavy fog. The smoke would seep through cracks in houses and settle on everything, including the walls, tells both Brandt and Hanawalt. Since there was no point cleaning until the smudging season, which was usually only December and January, was completely over, sheets were used to cover furniture, and curtains were taken down. Cars drove with their lights on all day. “Most of the people who lived here hated smudging because in the morning, man, after you’d smudged all night . . . the smudge was just like fog but dirty and black,” describes Hanawalt.
The other way to tell was by the smudgers. “There was no problem telling who the kids had been that had smudged the night before. Their eyes would be all dark,” tells Hanawalt. The black around the eye was not only the soot attracted to moist areas, but from lack of sleep. They returned home looking like they had spent time in a coal mine. “Smudge soot would be in your hair, ears, and nose and all over. When you’d blow your nose, it would be black,” Brandt accounts.
During the Freeze of 1937, children wishing for a holiday snow would press their noses to their windows and peer out in the morning to find the ground covered . . . but not in the white fluffiness they had hoped would come during the night. Instead a black residue from the smudge pots covered their lawns. Daryl Brandt remembers walking to school barefoot (the stories our parents told us about this are true!) and leaving footprints “on the sidewalk because the soot was so heavy that it covered everything.” The sun could not pierce the smog-like cover over La Verne for a period of two weeks.
Pulling an “all-nighter,” as many University of La Verne students find themselves doing during finals or the night before a big paper is due, had a completely different meaning to smudgers during cold snaps. “The cold snap in ’37 is really in my brain because for almost a week, I didn’t take my clothes off because it would get cold enough to start smudging by about 9 o’clock in the evening, and we would continue burning the smudge pots until about 7:30 or 8 in the morning,” reports Hanawalt. For the La Verne College students who worked part-time as smudgers, “all-nighters” could be five to 20 consecutive nights, depending on the temperatures. When cold snaps were not prolonged, smudge pots would need to be lit around 2 to 4 in the morning, allowing the smudgers some time to sleep in the night. Temperatures would usually be out of the danger zone by 6 to 8 in the morning with the warmth of the rising sun.
Once the temperature was warm enough, the smudge pots were turned off by putting a cap over the top of the stack and shutting the hatch so the airflow was cut off. A smudge pot contained enough oil, typically, to burn eight or nine hours. After a night of smudging, the pots would have to be filled, in preparation for another cold night.
During the freeze of 1937, pots had to be refilled in the middle of the night. Only after these last chores of the night could smudgers finally get some rest, but not necessarily in bed. Hanawalt and his brother would lie on the kitchen floor because they did not want to get everything dirty. “We’d stretch out on the linoleum and sleep,” remembers Hanawalt.
Without the smudger’s dedication and labor, the oranges would freeze, and without the oranges, the industry would go under. “The orange industry brought the wealth of the community; it was the largest employer in the city,” recalls Brandt. The crop of oranges in 1937 was worth close to $ 5 million. Growers realized the importance of the smudgers, and, in return for their work, some grove owner’s would provide breakfast, cooked by their wife, or a place to sleep, usually in a garage or in a part of the ranch house.
The headquarters of a large ranch was not even a mile from the ULV campus. Located on D Street, where the Methodist Church is now located, was the headquarters of the Evergreen Ranch. This ranch paid the best wages, fed the best, and would have smudgers in the fields for longer hours recalls Hanawalt. The manager of Evergreen Ranch got a bonus every season if he didn’t lose any fruit; for this reason, smudgers were employed when temperatures were close to, but not in, the danger zone. Those employed did not mind the extra money they earned for the holidays. The typical pay for smudging was about 50 cents an hour according to Hanawalt.
Cold snaps proved not to be the end of the citrus industry but a disease given the name “Quick Decline.” During the 1943 and 1944 season, owners began noticing trees were dying without logical reason. “Eventually it was determined by the citrus experimental station that it was a virus brought to the valley on the Meyer Lemon,” writes Hollinger in “La Verne, The Story of the People Who Made a Difference.” Once infected with the virus, which blocked water and nutrients from getting to the tops of the trees from the roots, trees died quickly. To make a final profit, growers began to sell their land to developers. “As fast as orange groves would be pulled out, houses moved in and took over,” says Hanawalt.
If trees were not affected by “Quick Decline,” another affliction contributed also to the decline of the orange industry: smog. The residue from smog also blocked the natural process, weakening the orange trees. “As the orange industry went, so did the economy of the area,” reflects Hanawalt. One story in Hollinger’s book told that orange crops were not even enough to pay the water bills for the land by 1970. An industry that once brought in $ 5 million to the community could not even pay the necessities by the 1970s.
“Smudging is one of those neat things, and when you look around, you can’t really understand how important it was at the time because now nothing is really left. I’m glad I had that experience,” remarks Hanawalt.