Packing up La Verne’s citrus empire
by Kristen Campbell
photography by Christopher Guzman
The historical senses can still see and hear horse-drawn wagons arriving at La Verne’s packinghouses to drop off freshly picked citrus. Steam trains come to a rumbling halt to pick up shipments to be sent on their world journeys. In the present time, these buildings are now known for the quality educational pursuits that take place inside their walls. Nearly lost, except to the mind’s eye, is their international fame for packing quality citrus that was sent to far-off lands, even to the Queen of England.
Hard-learned lessons brought La Verne to the citrus forefront. In 1894, the first shipment of La Verne oranges sent to New York arrived rotten and covered in blue-green mold. The leaders of the fledgling citrus industry had much to learn to swiftly get their quality product into the hands of an eager public. Although there were packinghouses in San Dimas and Pomona, La Verne rancher Marcus L. Sparks decided to save money and precious time by doing his own packing and shipping. He hired Chinese workers, and they worked on the platform of the La Verne railway station. Sparks persisted and, by trial and error, developed proper methods of packing and shipping so those on the receiving end would get a salable product. Soon, he built two packinghouses near his groves; one on the SW corner of D and First streets (see map 2), and the second at the SE corner of E and First streets (see map 4). His prime location land
began to gain value, and he started selling his orange groves to industrialization companies wanting to be near the railroad. By 1909, he had sold his citrus and packinghouses to the budding La Verne Orange Growers Association. Sparks may have been turning away from citrus, but the La Verne citrus empire was just blossoming. The D and First streets packinghouse (map 2) was expanded and named the La Verne Orange and Lemon Growers Association Packinghouse. This large wooden structure was in use until the 1960s when it was demolished, and citrus operations moved to Upland.
Citrus structures still standing
Marcus Sparks built a co-op headquarters in 1919 on the SW corner of First and D streets (map 1). It still stands today as a University of La Verne Organizational Leadership building (soon to be converted into the new home of the La Verne Chamber of Commerce). His E and First streets packinghouse was rebuilt with reinforced concrete and was named the La Verne Orange Association Plant Number 2 (map 4). The oranges were marketed under the Sunkist brand for 40 years. This packinghouse provided the association with ice-making capabilities as well as room in the basement for box-making, leaving the main floor clear for orange packing. Today it houses the University’s Enrollment Management, Mail Services and Facilities Management.
Valentine Peyton, another prominent orange grower, also had a privately-owned packinghouse (map 3) directly across the street from Sparks’ (now demolished) house (map 2). Once the Association acquired Sparks’ properties, it expanded its operation to handle lemons. When Peyton sold his packinghouse in 1914, the name of the group was changed to the La Verne Orange and Lemon Growers Association. By fall 1918, lemon and orange house packing had increased to more than the packinghouse’s capacities, so the Peyton building was expanded. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, the Association saw the shipment of more than 1,700 carloads of fruit. In 1960, the former Peyton lemon packinghouse was closed and the laborers were moved to Upland. The last Upland packinghouse was razed in 2002. “It seemed almost overnight the packing of oranges shifted from 10 or 15 area houses down to just one in Upland because it was cheaper,” Galen Beery, La Verne city historian, says.
After Peyton’s fruit trees were uprooted and replaced with homes, his packinghouse (map 3) stood empty or was used as a warehouse for three decades until the University of La Verne acquired it in 1988. With structural and minor remodeling, the University used the property for warehousing and storage. In the mid-1990s, additional remodeling converted the main floor into the University’s Art Department and the basement into U.L.V. Graphics, a printing company then owned by the school. Around the same time, murals reminiscent of La Verne being the heart of the citrus industry were painted on its south side. The building’s transformation came in 2000 when Claremont Environmental Design Group turned the aging building into an Art and Communications building. Today, its massive front wall of glass provides light for art studio classes on the main floor. The building is simultaneously utilized by the Communications Department, housing television, radio, multimedia and print journalism areas. The remodel shows off its ducts and metal features and reminds visitors that the building was born as a packinghouse. Those who walk into the building find it constantly alive with students engaging in studio and production activities. The still-rumbling trains are a reminder that its historic close railway location was meant to facilitate citrus loading ease.
How citrus made a name for La Verne
The year was 1873 when the United States Department of Agriculture sent, at the request of Riverside resident Eliza Tibbets, two budded Washington navel orange trees. Unfortunately, the land where she planted the trees was low, water would not drain, and the trees’ roots literally drowned. But from failure came success: her two orange trees would be the beginning of an industry that would define a city and a region. In 1886, Mr. and Mrs. L.H. Bixby and Dr. and Mrs. Lyman Allen, Mrs. Bixby’s brother-in-law and sister, settled on their northern La Verne land, planning to farm. Because of the hot, dry summers, they realized they could not undertake conventional crop cultivation until a better source of water could be made available. The two couples and other ranchers below the foothills began to dry-farm, planting different crops in the fall and harvesting in the early summer, soon learning citrus would thrive. In order to survive, cooperation between ranchers became a necessity to share and manage scarce water supplies.
Early on, the area south of Foothill Boulevard was held by two major owners, Valentine Peyton and William Mills. When Mills put his non-citrus property on the market, Peyton bought the northern acreage. His holdings extended to White Avenue. With the sale, new growers entered into the La Verne Co-op Orange Association. This barren land proved to the new owners that the soil and the climate allowed the Washington navel orange trees to flourish. The soil was mostly granite, which promoted drainage since navels could not thrive where water pooled.
The co-op’s first oranges came to harvest before Christmas 1910 and were sent on their way to the nation’s four corners. Stories tell of the cherished joy when East Coast children found a La Verne orange in their Christmas stockings. The oranges peeled easily, and those peels were then saved, dried and kept in a child’s dresser drawer.
As citrus became a new commodity, the eccentricities of the Washington navel orange were soon learned and solved with innovative strategies developed to harvest, pack and ship them for market. Ranchers discovered it took a large work force to grow and sell sizeable quantities of citrus. The local workforce was inadequate to sustain this demand. This was a skilled job because pickers had to be trusted not to carelessly drop the oranges into boxes. The skin of an orange is delicate, and, if damaged, rots quickly.
Between 1943 and 1944, grove owners began to notice their healthy trees showing signs of deterioration. In the end, it was a very small enemy that took over this booming industry, something the Agriculture Department called “quick decline.” Eventually, the citrus experimental station, now the University of California Riverside Graduate School of Management, identified that a virus brought with the Meyer lemon affected the buds of citrus trees and prevented an interchange of water and nutrients. Smog also prevented the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Prominence for years to come
Distinguished names and artifacts from the booming empire can be seen in several La Verne locations. The orange tree growing at La Verne City Hall was planted to honor 20 years of civic service by Frank Johnson. Heritage Park, a model working grove, captures the way and life of La Verne during the empire’s reign. Multiple buildings in downtown La Verne hold murals depicting citrus, packinghouses and grove life. Due to this living commemoration throughout the city, future visitors and residents will forever know the significance of the center of the citrus industry, La Verne.
Citrus as a Johnson family affair
Frank and Nadine Johnson owned five citrus groves and raised three sons, Scott, Steve and Kirk among their bountiful groves. “My dad would tell us as kids that it was his childhood dream to be a citrus farmer. Since he grew up with the packinghouses, he wanted to see and experience the other side of the citrus industry,” Kirk, the youngest son, a La Verne real estate broker and attorney, says. The family owned five California groves, one each in Upland, La Verne, Porterville, Springville and Corona, including a Corona packinghouse. Their La Verne grove was located near Fruit Street, site of a mobile home park today. Frank also served as city of La Verne mayor. “It was a magical time for our family because we got to teach our sons about business and responsibility early on, all while having fun doing it. Our boys would always get into mischief while playing in the groves, but that was to be expected since they were boys,” Nadine says. All three sons remember the fun of growing up on an orange grove and just “being boys,” as their mother so fondly recalls. “Our La Verne grove is basically in many, if not all, of my childhood memories,” says Steve, the middle son, a present day Farmers Insurance agent. Kirk says that he remembers getting into much waywardness. “My older brothers and I would go down to the pond at the Springville grove at night and go frog-gigging. We would try to catch bullfrogs to eat the frog legs, but I do not think we ever caught one. We would chase rabbits and scare rattlesnakes while we were working.”
A fond memory is going door-to-door with a wagon of freshly picked fruit. “It was a nice introduction to running a business and making money for yourself,” says Scott, the oldest son, an orange grower in Corona. Kirk says that he even enjoyed most of the manual labor, especially because they would have to get dirty and stay that way for a few hours. “Even though I liked the manual labor, I absolutely hated dead-wooding. I and two other kids would put on these thick, long-sleeved shirts and giant gloves and climb into the trees to remove the deadwood. We had to do this so the fruit would not get scarred because if it did, the value would diminish.”
While the Johnsons’ groves brought them together, it was not easy to run a Southern California grove. The weather was great to grow citrus, but orange trees need much water. “We owned our own wells on our property, but this region is a desert so there were droughts that hurt us significantly,” Nadine says. “Some years, the drought would be so intense, we would have to dig deeper, but you can only go so far.” The years passed and land values increased considerably. It was then that Nadine and Frank decided it was time to sell. “My parents eventually said we had to sell the groves because it was difficult to farm locally due to urban encroachment,” Steve says. Looking back, the Johnsons agree they miss living and working on their once-prominent groves. “My backyard is filled with citrus because the fragrance of the blossoms in the springtime is heavenly, and they are gorgeous fruits to look at,” Nadine says. “La Verne was the heart of the citrus empire, and I try to maintain some of that.”