Ask most Californians what happened in the 1840s, and they'll tell you that's when gold was discovered. But another kind of gold also came to the state during that busy decade: Growers produced the first commercial orange crop.
Oranges are the main attraction at the 75th Diamond Jubilee of the National Orange Show, which continues through April 29 at the National Orange Show Fairgrounds in San Bernardino.
"This is the 75th year of the show (there was a hiatus during World War II), and we plan to always honor oranges," said C. Roger Cooper, president of the nonprofit show's board of directors.
The earliest groves of oranges were planted near Union Station in downtown Los Angeles, which made shipping easier. By the 1850s, oranges grown in Southern California were being sent by wagon to Los Angeles Harbor, by boat from there to San Francisco and then by wagon again to gold mining towns near Sacramento. Lemons, highly prized because they stayed fresh longer, sold for as much as $1 apiece.
In 1877, a load of Valencia oranges grown in the Southland was shipped east for the first time, arriving in St. Louis two months after it left.
But it was the introduction of navel oranges in the early 1880s that cemented the fruit's position as a key agricultural crop. Two parent trees of Washington Navels--called that because they cleared customs in the nation's capital after being shipped from Brazil--were sent to Luther and Eliza Tibbets, growers in Riverside.
One of the trees died shortly after its arrival; the other is still thriving. (If you'd like to see this historic orange tree, stop at the intersection of Magnolia and Arlington avenues the next time you're in Riverside. It was transplanted to this site in 1902.)
Navels had the distinct advantage of producing a crop virtually the entire year, and they were neater to eat than juicy Valencias because the thick skin was easier to peel. (Navels are so named because of the depression at the orange's end, which contains a small, undeveloped secondary fruit.)
By 1911, oranges were such a popular crop that promoters in San Bernardino County were advertising 50 acres, already planted with trees, for $5,000. Many of the people who optimistically bought these little orchards were out of business within a year, but many hung on. Agricultural production in Southern California peaked in the 1940s.
Then a more alluring gold--skyrocketing real estate prices--slowly began to turn the thousands of acres of orange groves into housing developments.
The decline in the number of groves was hastened as neighboring residents started complaining about "smudge-pot smog"--the gritty black smoke from diesel-powered pots used to prevent fruit from freezing. And although the oranges were there first, many localities decided to ban oil heaters in the orchards.
A great many of Southern California's best-known institutions are built on what used to be orange groves, including Disneyland and Cal State Northridge.
Although the crop has dwindled in this part of the state, interest in it and its lore has not. The National Orange Show, which opened Thursday, was started in 1911, and Cooper said the organization plans to open a packing house museum within a year.
The orange show is open from 3 to 10 p.m. on weekdays and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. It features exhibits on the history of oranges, in addition to handmade quilts, baked goods, flower arrangements and livestock displays. Entertainers ranging from Glen Campbell and Donny Osmond to Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello will be featured.
The National Orange Show, through April 29, 3 to 10 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. weekends, 689 E St., San Bernardino (near the intersection of Interstates 215 and 10). For information, call (714) 383-5444. Admission to the show is $5 for adults, $3 for children 6 to 12, and free for children 5 and under.