CHOWCHILLA, Calif. — This city is in a pickle over a giant orange.
The onetime attraction sits rotting in the city storage yard, the end of the road for the last of the Central Valley’s fruit-themed food stands that once dotted Highway 99 from Bakersfield to Tracy.
There’s still a key in its cash register and a soda fountain that might work. But spider webs drape the ice bin, bird droppings paint the floor and the orange dimple paint is peeling.
So city worker Joe Roman is perplexed about a sudden, impassioned competition to buy and salvage the ersatz fruit.
“It was just sitting here year after year,” said the streets supervisor. “People would ask, ‘Hey, why do you guys have an orange?’”
Now the City Council will decide this month among hotly contested bids and competing visions of how to honor history and a type of architecture that gave the world doughnut-shaped doughnut shops, elephant-inspired carwashes and hot-dog stands in buns.
“There’s a lot of people for whom these fruit-shaped stands tug at the heartstrings,” said Gloria Scott, an architectural historian. “They hold multiple levels of nostalgia: migration, agriculture, transportation, family road trips.”
A relic of the post-World War II era, the Mammoth Orange stand marks a time when people breezed through sprawling groves with backdrops of blue skies, listening to jump blues on the radio, windows down, in cars with no air conditioning. Back then, Highway 99 was the Main Street of California, cutting a path from Calexico to Canada, before the interstate highway system muscled it and its roadside architecture aside.
The orange’s new moment in the sun began with Kathy Parrish. She’s 70 years old, farms 70 acres of almonds, largely by herself, and runs a fruit stand on Avenue 9 in nearby Madera.
“I’ve always loved old things; they hold so much character,” she said. “And now that I am one, I treasure their qualities even more.”
Parrish grew up in Chowchilla. Her daughter worked at Mammoth Orange during summers in the ‘70s, serving “Alaska-sized” burgers and “Texas-sized” fries from the stand, then located six miles south, in Fairmead.
The orange had originally been on a two-lane road in Chowchilla but was moved to the side of Highway 99 in 1954, a year before the first McDonald’s opened. Its final owners were Doris and Jim Stiggins of Chowchilla, who bought the stand in 1981.
One day last winter, Parrish got to wondering “sort of out of the blue” what had become of the orange.
The last time she’d seen it, graffiti was sprawled across the empty shell. A controversial $40-million Caltrans project at Fairmead had widened the highway, closed the exit and put the Stigginses out of business in 2007. It didn’t matter that the orange was on the California Register of Historical Resources and a candidate for the National Register of Historic Places. The once-sunny orb was a scarred hull marking a bypassed community on a disconsolate stretch of road.
In 2008, Chowchilla’s redevelopment agency bought the 10-foot orange for $5,000, planning to restore it to mint condition and move it near the original site as part of a museum.
But no museum ever opened, Parrish knew, so where was the orange?
She put the question to a Stiggins relative who was visiting her fruit stand.
“He told me ‘That orange is rotting under a flapping tarp at the city yard,’” she said. When the economy turned sour, a Rite-Aid pharmacy had gone up instead of the museum; a family of foxes moved into the orange.
Parrish decided she should restore the shell and set up an orange juice stand next to her antique windmill and cotton-hauling trailer planted with petunias. She brought her idea before the City Council, which seemed eager to get the orange off its hands. The plan was to put her offer of $1,000 on a future agenda.
That’s when Dale Thomas, vice president of the Chowchilla District Historical Society, cried foul.
“They were selling a registered California historical landmark without proper notice or bidding. We were really upset when we found out,” he said.
Thomas went to the people he felt had the biggest claim to the orange — the residents of Fairmead.
“When you were flying down the freeway and you saw that giant orange, you knew you were in Fairmead, California,” he said. “It needs to go back.”
Barbara Nelson, 66, founder and president of the Friends of Fairmead, said hers is a community that could use some friends.
This year Fairmead marks the 100th anniversary of its founding.
“When it started out 100 years ago it had 1,500 people, stores, churches, a library, hotel, factory and a lot of things going for it,” Nelson said. “Now we have 1,400 people, two churches, no store and a school that goes to sixth grade. It’s an unincorporated town, mostly people of color, and we’re a community struggling to stay afloat.
“But for 50 years we had that orange. You could see it from the freeway and everybody stopped. If we could get that orange back now wouldn’t that say something? We would be shouting, ‘We’re here! We will not be forgotten!’”
Chowchilla is now auctioning the orange as a surplus item. The historical society hopes to win the bid, then lease the orange to the Friends of Fairmead for $1 a year, once the group finds a spot for it and money to move it.
Parrish thinks the orange would be closer to its roots along Avenue 9, a back road that doesn’t look like much on a map but is a main artery for locals. A constant stream of cars flows by her fruit stand, with its gingham tablecloths and 4-H fresh eggs for sale. It’s a road a lot like Highway 99 was back in the day, she said.
Her 13-year-old grandson, Zachary Hendrix, sees Avenue 9 as the perfect fit: “It’s an orange. This is a fruit stand.”
But for Fairmead the orange is important to both the town’s heritage and its future, Nelson said:
“It’s part of Fairmead. It put us on the map and we need it here again, saying, ‘Don’t pass us by.’”
Scott, the architectural historian, says that whether the Mammoth Orange eventually settles on a back road, in a community without a highway exit or elsewhere, people like her who believe a slice of California history was written in funky architecture will find it.
“A giant orange,” she said, “is something to seek out.”