Isn’t it curious how we in the Inland Empire still like to identify ourselves with citrus? Nobody’s painting murals about tract homes, strip malls and taquerias — although someone really should. Instead, our public art looks back decades to glorify oranges, lemons, groves and snow-capped peaks.
“It really has this grip on the public imagination,” says Ben Jenkins. “Why are we still celebrating something that’s gone? Shouldn’t we celebrate something that’s here?”
Jenkins thinks about this stuff for a living. An assistant professor of history at the University of La Verne, Jenkins, 32, missed out on the glory days. But he’s been studying the citrus industry since grad school, fascinated by its wide-ranging impact in building California and the myths that overshadow the industry’s grittier (and sootier) reality.
He’s had more to study since the university took possession of the Citrus Roots Collection, the holdings of a nonprofit foundation.
Photos, news clippings, grower records, crate art, advertisements and more are part of the archive, consisting of “tens of thousands” of pages of documents, Jenkins tells me when we meet Monday in the university’s archive.
The collection, valued at $500,000, was primarily the work of Dick Barker, whose father owned a packing house in Fallbrook. After retiring as a banker, the Upland man began documenting the citrus industry’s history in California.
Barker did research at UCLA, the Huntington Library and CSU Fullerton and got materials from friends and contacts in the industry. Some are mundane, of interest only to researchers, such as government studies and minutes of grower association board meetings.
Barker also compiled a fairly comprehensive list of every packing house and every prominent grower. “He created an Excel spreadsheet with thousands of names and the years they were active,” an impressed Jenkins says.
Some of the collection is more visual. A 1920s smudge pot, for example. It’s about 4 feet tall, made by Scheu Products in Upland and branded as a “Hy-Lo Heater.” It looks incongruous in the Wilson Library, standing near a digital scanner in the cramped archive area.
Smudge pots, for the uninitiated, were used on winter nights when a freeze might ruin an entire crop. The heaters burned oil and emitted warm smoke in an attempt to keep the orchards warm, while also casting a literal pall on the region via sooty smoke.
Jenkins says the heater in the collection hasn’t been used in decades, but when he examined it, “there’s actually some soot in there still.”
Citrus labels are part of the collection too. Jenkins shows off a few, including Tournament Brand, advertising a Pasadena packing house’s products, and Pride of La Verne.
Advertising is included, much of it full-page Sunkist ads in Ladies Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post touting the alleged health benefits of orange juice.
“Bottled by nature,” one ad proclaims. Another features a painting of a serious-looking pediatrician in an armchair, with text that touts “93 doctors’ opinions,” summarized as follows: “– and give him orange juice every day.”
“Sunkist fixed orange juice as a cornerstone of the American breakfast,” Jenkins says.
Audio is part of the gift too, via recordings of Floyd Young’s frost warnings from Pomona on KNX.
The Citrus Roots Foundation’s gift was announced in December 2019, a few weeks before the pandemic. Jenkins had planned to start displaying the collection publicly in spring 2020, but that had to be put on ice. (Maybe he should have fired up the smudge pot.)
With the university having switched to remote learning for much of the past two years — in-person classes resumed Monday, Feb, 14, the day of my visit — Jenkins hasn’t spent much time on campus. He’s managed to create a rough “finding aid” to what’s in the collection.
And he’s compiled a book, “California’s Citrus Heritage,” from Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. Photos come from libraries and museums throughout the region as well as from the archive.
Naturally Riverside’s contribution to citrus is highlighted. Eliza Tibbets planted the first navel orange trees in the 1870s, creating an industry.
Then-rural Riverside, Redlands, Pasadena and Anaheim were early beneficiaries. “New counties, such as Orange and Riverside, came into being,” Jenkins writes, “thanks to the returns on investment from oranges.”
Materials from the collection will be shown in an exhibit at the L.A. County Fair in May. Jenkins has spoken in recent weeks in Riverside and Redlands. A stop at the Pomona Public Library at 3:30 p.m. Feb. 23 will include children’s activities.
As Jenkins tells me, “everybody had a stake in California citrus,” which touched lives across race and gender. But he says a “racial hierarchy” was at work, with “wealthy White landowners at the top and workers of color who made the industry run at the bottom,” alongside women who sorted and packed fruit in packinghouses.
In our conversation in the archive, Jenkins shows off an orange picker’s canvas bag, which is worn over one shoulder. That leaves both hands free for picking.
“It’s grueling labor,” Jenkins explains. “You’re in the hot sun all day. You have to move the ladder, go up the tree, go down the tree, move the ladder again. These are skilled, practiced individuals. The bags weigh 60 or 70 pounds when they’re full.”
In his Riverside talk at the 1891 city-owned Heritage House, “I picked some oranges,” Jenkins says brightly. “It was the first time I’d ever picked oranges, despite writing about it for 10 years.”
He understood why pickers wear gloves. Orange trees have thorns.
While I pay as little attention as possible to football, as an Illinois native I was of course proud to see two Midwestern teams in the Super Bowl. Cincinnati lost, giving the championship to the St. Louis Rams. (dodges hail of rotten produce) Hey, at least throw some oranges!
David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and (dodges hail of rotten produce) Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.