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Packing It In

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Olive Heights Citrus Assn. packinghouse, a decaying link to Orange County’s agricultural past, will be demolished Saturday to make way for a housing development.

The mammoth landmark, during its heyday one of California’s busiest produce distribution warehouses, boxed its last oranges in 1984 and was badly damaged by a series of fires. Today, the faded Sunkist orange logo shares space with graffiti, the roof has collapsed, and the once-polished interior is a grim caldron of rotted wood and fire-charred walls.

While nearby residents have long called for the demolition, some old-timers who remember the citrus association’s proud past are mourning the plant’s demise.

“It’s hard to see it go,” said Gordon McClelland, a Santa Ana author who worked at the packinghouse as a teenager in the 1960s. “I loved the way it smelled in there. They kept it so beautiful with hardwood floors and everything. I was always fascinated by the whole process, from picking the oranges to boxing them to putting them on the trains.”

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Half a century ago, the Olive Heights facility was one of 53 packinghouses that dotted the county from Brea to San Juan Capistrano. But as the miles of orange groves gave way to housing tracts after World War II, Valencia orange production plummeted. There were 65,000 acres dedicated to oranges in 1940 compared to less than 1,000 in 1995.

“First we saw the houses replace the orange trees. Now we see the packinghouses disappear,” said Herb Douglass, who headed Olive Heights Citrus Assn. for 20 years. “A real estate agent once told me it was progress. I said I wondered if it was progress in the right direction.”

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Only two packinghouses remain in Orange County, one in Anaheim Hills and the other in Villa Park. But because local orange production has dwindled, most of the fruit processed at the plants is trucked in from other counties.

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The Olive Heights packinghouse was built in the early 1920s on three acres of land beside the railroad tracks on Orange-Olive Road. For decades, the giant building was a landmark that employed hundreds of orange packers and truck drivers. Women inspected the fruit on long assembly lines--one of the few jobs easily available to them in those days.

In the early years, fruit cleaned and boxed at the plant was sent out on trains bound for New York, Washington and other East Coast destinations. More recently, the fruit was trucked to ports, loaded onto ships and delivered to Japan and other countries in Asia, said Mel Hamilton, an Orange resident who managed the packinghouse during its last decade of operation.

“It’s our history,” Hamilton said. “The oranges were first brought to the house on horse-drawn wagons. Then they got trucks. Then bigger trucks. Then semitrucks.”

McClelland said his first job for the citrus association was picking oranges in the fields, but he eventually got less strenuous work inside the packinghouse.

“Picking was such a hard job,” he said. “You scratched your arms going up the trees and got chemical dust all over you.”

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Production at the Olive Heights facility slowed as the surrounding orange groves disappeared. In 1984, the local citrus association merged with a packinghouse in Corona and closed the Orange plant. The building has been decaying ever since.

Nearby residents now complain that the packinghouse is a structurally unsafe haven for homeless people and drug users.

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The county’s housing and redevelopment department has joined with a developer to raze the building and replace it with a 36-home development. County officials will hold a ceremony to begin the demolition Saturday at 10 a.m. in front of the packinghouse.

Bulldozers will then begin knocking down the shell of the structure.

“It a safety hazard the way it is. . . . The walls can tumble down at any time,” said Bob Tunstall, an aide to Supervisor William G. Steiner, who represents the area. “This takes away a blighted situation.”

People who live near the plant agree.

“It’s a terrible eyesore,” said Will Taylor of Orange, who walks his dog past the packinghouse several times a week. “You hate to see history go away. But on the other hand, it’s just sitting there abandoned. . . . It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Orange Retrograde

Orange trees have been disappearing rapidly from postwar Orange County. Bearing acres of Valencia orange groves.

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Source: Orange County Agricultural Commissioner


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