La Verne Magazine
The Grove Experience: Smudging All Night Long
by Jen Newman
photography by Jennifer Contreras
Through the mid 1960s, fruit tree orchards covered much of the city of La
Verne. Farmers used smudge pots to heat the immediate air when the temperature
plunged below freezing to ward off freezing of the fruit or blossoms. The
smoke from the smudge pots was thick and toxic and would eventually bring
about the end of their use. As a teenager, Galen Beery worked with smudge
pots, such as this one at Heritage Park.
It is January of 1937: "It's eight o'clock, and this is Floyd Young
on KFI radio with tonight's temperature reports . . . La Verne, another
cold night is expected with lows predicted at 26 degrees."
"Another cold night" turned into six nights, which turned
into 10, and 10 turned into 17. Seventeen consecutive nights of freezing
temperatures threatened the loss of citrus crops, especially the oranges.
Orchard heaters or smudge pots, as they are more commonly known, have
a circular base that serves as a pot to fill with smudge oil, and a stack
three to four feet tall projected from the center. There is a hatch on the
pot to pour the oil into, and the stack is punctured with holes to let the
smoke escape. Once the oil was lit, the heat would cause the smudge pot
stack to get red-hot, which warmed the orchard air, eliminating the frost
Smudge pots were developed after the freeze of Jan. 7, 1913, as a way
to prevent the loss of fruit in the event of another cold snap. Prior to
smudge pots, corn stalks surrounded the trees, and hay or straw was burned
to raise the temperatures in the orange groves. These methods failed against
the 1913 Freeze, and all the oranges froze.
After Young, on KFI radio, listed the expected critical low temperatures
and dew points of every town where citrus grew-from southern to central
California- smudgers were notified to prepare for the coming long nights.
Smudgers were typically high school or college-aged males who worked the
smudge pots in the orange groves. Finding people willing to work was not
hard with the students of La Verne College, now the University of La Verne,
"Most of the smudging was basically done by the college students,"
tells Daryl Brandt, La Verne College class of 1952. If temperatures were
in the danger zone, anything 28 degrees or below, smudgers knew a night's
sleep warm in bed was only a dream. They would instead be spending their
night outside in freezing temperatures keeping the crops of oranges warm
by means of smudge pots. The smudgers' goal was to warm the air to 30 degrees
or above to keep the oranges from freezing and try to keep warm themselves.
Being out during the freezing nights meant the youthful smudgers had
to bundle up also to not freeze. Dr. Dwight Hanawalt, La Verne College class
of 1941 and professor of physical education emeritus at ULV, recalls wearing
a heavy work boot, long underwear, the oldest pants he had, a wool shirt
he did not care about, a sweatshirt, "and if it was really a cold night,
a coat on top of that" and "always gloves or mittens." As
he warmed up through out the night, layers could be taken off. Other smudgers
wore bib overalls or coveralls, reports Brandt. No matter what smudgers
wore, they faced those clothes being ruined by all the oil and smoke belched
by the smudge pots.
However, without oil to burn, the smudge pot system would not work.
Brandt who got "involved in smudging as a kid, a young man, a boy,"
describes smudge oil as a low-grade diesel that went for about 3.5 to 4
cents a gallon during the 1930s and '40s. In the book, "La Verne, The
Story of the People Who Made a Difference" by Evelyn Hollinger, a story
is included from the Nov. 8, 1962, edition of the Pomona Progress-Bulletin
about a search for oil during the cold snap of 1937.
Fred Harmsen, manager of the former La Verne Orange Association, was
sent on a mission to find oil to buy after the 350,000 gallon oil tank ran
empty that was used by all local growers to fill their smudge pots. Harmsen
tried four refineries before finding enough oil to meet the demand of the
orange growers. He purchased 600,000 gallons from General Petroleum, which
is now Mobil Oil. This supply of oil was still being used to fill smudge
pots during cold snaps when the Bulletin article was printed in 1962. "Had
they not been able to [find] oil, then they would have lost all the fruit
and possibly even some of the trees," Brandt reflects on this story.
For young men in the La Verne area whose families had orange groves,
smudging was expected. Hanawalt, like Brandt, started smudging at a young
age. Hanawalt started at age 10 on his father's two small orange groves.
With the widespread area of groves, there were many young men who experienced
smudging. "Everything north of 7th Street was oranges clear to the
mountains," recalls Hanawalt, while motioning with his hands the vastness
of the area. Twenty miles east of La Verne and 10 to 15 miles west of La
Verne were solid orange groves Hanawalt informs. Closer to La Verne's town
center, smaller groves were dispersed among houses on the lower ground,
including where the University of La Verne is. Brandt's father had groves
from Third Street to the railroad tracks and on what is now the Brown Property
south of Arrow Highway.
"It wasn't heavy work; it was just in the middle of the night,
and it was cold, and it was dirty, but it was a source of money," tells
Hanawalt about being a smudger. A smudger's work was usually risk free;
the only potential harm factor was lack of sleep, but Hanawalt remembers
two or three deaths while people were lighting the smudge pots and caught
fire. All smudgers used a lighter that had a canister as the base; the canister
was filled with a mix of smudge oil and gasoline. The lighter had a spout
that the mixture was poured from. At the tip of the spout was a lighted
wick, like a candle. When the oil and gas mixture was poured into the smudge
pot base, it would begin the burning of the oil and the warming of the orchard
There were two ways to tell whether smudge pots had been lit the night
before. One, after a night of smudging, the city would be enveloped in a
black smoke cloud, resembling a heavy fog. The smoke would seep through
cracks in houses and settle on everything, including the walls, tells both
Brandt and Hanawalt. Since there was no point cleaning until the smudging
season, which was usually only December and January, was completely over,
sheets were used to cover furniture, and curtains were taken down. Cars
drove with their lights on all day. "Most of the people who lived here
hated smudging because in the morning, man, after you'd smudged all night
. . . the smudge was just like fog but dirty and black," describes
The other way to tell was by the smudgers. "There was no problem
telling who the kids had been that had smudged the night before. Their eyes
would be all dark," tells Hanawalt. The black around the eye was not
only the soot attracted to moist areas, but from lack of sleep. They returned
home looking like they had spent time in a coal mine. "Smudge soot
would be in your hair, ears, and nose and all over. When you'd blow your
nose, it would be black," Brandt accounts.
During the Freeze of 1937, children wishing for a holiday snow would
press their noses to their windows and peer out in the morning to find the
ground covered . . . but not in the white fluffiness they had hoped would
come during the night. Instead a black residue from the smudge pots covered
their lawns. Daryl Brandt remembers walking to school barefoot (the stories
our parents told us about this are true!) and leaving footprints "on
the sidewalk because the soot was so heavy that it covered everything."
The sun could not pierce the smog-like cover over La Verne for a period
of two weeks.
Pulling an "all-nighter," as many University of La Verne students
find themselves doing during finals or the night before a big paper is due,
had a completely different meaning to smudgers during cold snaps. "The
cold snap in '37 is really in my brain because for almost a week, I didn't
take my clothes off because it would get cold enough to start smudging by
about 9 o'clock in the evening, and we would continue burning the smudge
pots until about 7:30 or 8 in the morning," reports Hanawalt. For the
La Verne College students who worked part-time as smudgers, "all-nighters"
could be five to 20 consecutive nights, depending on the temperatures. When
cold snaps were not prolonged, smudge pots would need to be lit around 2
to 4 in the morning, allowing the smudgers some time to sleep in the night.
Temperatures would usually be out of the danger zone by 6 to 8 in the morning
with the warmth of the rising sun.
Once the temperature was warm enough, the smudge pots were turned off
by putting a cap over the top of the stack and shutting the hatch so the
airflow was cut off. A smudge pot contained enough oil, typically, to burn
eight or nine hours. After a night of smudging, the pots would have to be
filled, in preparation for another cold night.
During the freeze of 1937, pots had to be refilled in the middle of
the night. Only after these last chores of the night could smudgers finally
get some rest, but not necessarily in bed. Hanawalt and his brother would
lie on the kitchen floor because they did not want to get everything dirty.
"We'd stretch out on the linoleum and sleep," remembers Hanawalt.
Without the smudger's dedication and labor, the oranges would freeze,
and without the oranges, the industry would go under. "The orange industry
brought the wealth of the community; it was the largest employer in the
city," recalls Brandt. The crop of oranges in 1937 was worth close
to $ 5 million. Growers realized the importance of the smudgers, and, in
return for their work, some grove owner's would provide breakfast, cooked
by their wife, or a place to sleep, usually in a garage or in a part of
the ranch house.
The headquarters of a large ranch was not even a mile from the ULV campus.
Located on D Street, where the Methodist Church is now located, was the
headquarters of the Evergreen Ranch. This ranch paid the best wages, fed
the best, and would have smudgers in the fields for longer hours recalls
Hanawalt. The manager of Evergreen Ranch got a bonus every season if he
didn't lose any fruit; for this reason, smudgers were employed when temperatures
were close to, but not in, the danger zone. Those employed did not mind
the extra money they earned for the holidays. The typical pay for smudging
was about 50 cents an hour according to Hanawalt.
Cold snaps proved not to be the end of the citrus industry but a disease
given the name "Quick Decline." During the 1943 and 1944 season,
owners began noticing trees were dying without logical reason. "Eventually
it was determined by the citrus experimental station that it was a virus
brought to the valley on the Meyer Lemon," writes Hollinger in "La
Verne, The Story of the People Who Made a Difference." Once infected
with the virus, which blocked water and nutrients from getting to the tops
of the trees from the roots, trees died quickly. To make a final profit,
growers began to sell their land to developers. "As fast as orange
groves would be pulled out, houses moved in and took over," says Hanawalt.
If trees were not affected by "Quick Decline," another affliction
contributed also to the decline of the orange industry: smog. The residue
from smog also blocked the natural process, weakening the orange trees.
"As the orange industry went, so did the economy of the area,"
reflects Hanawalt. One story in Hollinger's book told that orange crops
were not even enough to pay the water bills for the land by 1970. An industry
that once brought in $ 5 million to the community could not even pay the
necessities by the 1970s.
"Smudging is one of those neat things, and when you look around,
you can't really understand how important it was at the time because now
nothing is really left. I'm glad I had that experience," remarks Hanawalt.