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La Verne's citrus history captured at Heritage Park
Posted March 20, 2006

Nicole Knight
Managing Editor

A light breeze rustles through the green leafy trees speckled with orange ovals and spins the rusty old-fashioned windmill watching after the tiny grove. The scent of the sweet citrus wafts over the grounds scattered with antique smudge pots and centered with an old cream-colored two-story house with a wooden picket fence. The working grove extends to the back of the property complemented by a pristine white barn and a pumpkin patch. As if separating the past and the present, a black asphalt road, Via de Mansion, lies in between the grove and a sea of modern residential housing. This slice of history stands as the last preserved orange grove in La Verne, located at the top of Wheeler Avenue.

During the orange picking season of January to March, the Heritage Park Foundation invites families to come and pick their own oranges every Saturday at Heritage Park.

Once a labor-intensive grove of the past, Heritage Park has transformed into a learning playground for children.

“That’s the difference from the groves of the past; the groves can now be a hands-on experience for kids,” said Hal Frederickson, director of community development for La Verne.

Offering families a chance to experience the life and labor of a working grove, the foundation sponsors the event “Spring Squeeze,” running from March 7 through 17. The event hosts a wide variety of guests from herds of children from local schools to parents simply stopping by with their wide-eyed children.

“People and teachers have been coming for years to this event,” La Verne Foundation President Robin Molina said. “They are very excited to share the city’s history with their kids.”

Basking in the sun and sweet citrus air, children and parents enjoyed a morning full of activities including tractor rides, a tour of the grove, orange squeezing then delighting in the juice, and planting a pansy in half of the orange they squeezed. The tractor rides bordering the grove were definitely a popular attraction for the eager children who spilled into the wooden wagon pulled by an orange clunky tractor and laughed heartily enjoying the bumpy ride.

“This is a great outdoor event and a chance for kids to learn about the process and development of oranges,” said Priscilla Dompier, a teacher for the parenting class at Griswold School in conjunction with Tri-Community Adult Education. “The event gives the kids appreciation of what it [the grove] was and how it has changed.”

Dompier has taken the class, which includes parents who home school their preschool-aged children and actively participate in events that encourage learning, for six years every fall and spring.

Parents agreed the “Spring Squeeze” gave their children an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors while learning.

“This is a neat experience she [her daughter Madison] won’t be able to do on a regular basis,” said Julie Villanueva, a parent participant in the Griswold School parenting class.

Madison Villanueva’s favorite activity of the day was making the juice and riding the tractor.

“He [her son Christian] is a big fan of the outdoors and this is a great chance to let him exercise,” said Katie Perez, another participating parent in the class. “He actually thought we were on a farm when we arrived.”

As Christian called to his mother to see the near-by butterflies, Perez said she enjoyed watching her son have fun and explore nature, especially with the butterflies and ladybugs.

“This is a great chance for kids to experience and explore the groves and be around other kids,” said Annette Sanchez, another participant in the class who took her son Matthew to the event.

The children’s laughter and excitement could be heard throughout the grounds and gave the morning a relaxing atmosphere reflecting the historic days of the orange groves.

“These events are very important to understand the history of the community otherwise how would we remember our past?” Frederickson said. “This last grove provides a preserved view of citrus for the community.”

Citrus once dominated La Verne in every shape and form. The industry supported farmers, gave work to laborers and provided college students with a winter job of smudging.

“The citrus industry was the life blood of the city, and of course that has now changed,” said Robert Neher, University of La Verne professor of biology. “It made La Verne what it is—not today—but it definitely was the founding force behind the city.”

Progress and time changed the fate of the orange groves in La Verne and switched the land’s purpose to housing and businesses.

The citrus empire began with an unstable and uncertain start. La Verne’s desert-like climate posed a serious problem for citrus farmers searching for irrigation. A well proved the solution for the farmers, and immediately after the underground water discovery, windmills and wells were installed practically overnight. With the assurance of water, farmers began settling and planting at a fast and productive rate.

California sought to have its successful fruit noticed by the entire nation. In 1877, partly as an experiment and hopefully a calling card to the Golden State, the first train load of oranges shipped from Southern California to the east of the nation. The shipment was successful and started the nation’s craving for California’s citrus.

The entire Pomona Valley developed into the world-leader in the citrus industry. At the same time, surrounding cities were experiencing the same citrus success, such as San Dimas, well-known for their lemon groves. La Verne’s oranges were deemed the finest in the country and became known as the “La Verne Beauties.”

With the growing publicity and demand, a marketing organization called the La Verne Growers Association was incorporated in 1909. The association supported the packing and marketing of La Verne area growers. In span of merely five years, the association’s packinghouse increased output from 275 to 625 carloads annually. By 1919, the association shipped about 1,000 carloads a year, and by 1934 that number increased to 1,800 and allowed La Verne to take pride as the second largest packinghouse in the world.

“The citrus industry dominated the economy in the Los Angeles area for nearly 50 years,” said Al Clark, ULV associate vice president of academic affairs and self-interested historian. “We were the most productive in the United States.”

Many elements contributed to the decline of La Verne’s and the valley’s citrus industry. The first major reason was the “quick decline” virus that attacks the root of the tree and prevents it from receiving food. The effects of smog took their toll on the groves as well.

However, the defining and finishing decline of the trees was the demand for land by housing and business developers. To sell the grove was more profitable that to maintain its slowly worsening condition.

“In the ‘70s, there was a population explosion that led to the disappearance of the orange groves,” said Martin Lomeli, La Verne city manager.

Progress and urbanization eventually won and created a new identity for La Verne.

“We lost the bond to the citrus industry completely,” Neher said. “Today, we aren’t agricultural in any sense of the word, only historically.”

Due to the conditions of property rights, a grove owner has the freedom to do whatever he or she wishes with his or her land. Neher, a former city council member, said the city’s motto regarding the groves and progress was once, “if you can’t buy the groves, you can’t protect them.”

Today the city has taken great strides to preserve its last working grove found at Heritage Park, located at Via de Mansion and Wheeler Avenue in northern La Verne. The La Verne Heritage Foundation has preserved the park and opened its gates to the community to experience a taste of old La Verne. Founded by Craig Walters in 1985, the foundation uses grants and event funding to upkeep the park. The foundation has preserved about an acre and a half of the original grove that once covered the area. Replacing only a few trees over time, the groves still contains many of the original trees. The foundation has also worked to preserve buildings that reflect La Verne’s past, including one of the oldest houses in La Verne called the Weber House, primarily owned by John Weber who moved in around 1895, and the Sloan Barn, originally built in the 1920s. When construction and development threatened to tear down these buildings, the foundation moved them from their original location to the park. These buildings add to the park’s yesteryear feeling.

The mission of the Heritage Foundation is to “preserve a slice of La Verne’s history” for future generations. Teaching La Verne’s children about the olden days of La Verne is a primary goal and hope for the foundation.

“When I grew up there was nothing but orange and lemon groves, and they [children] don’t have that,” said Bill Aguirre, parks and community services director for La Verne. “We’re preserving a clip of the past for generations to come. It’s important for kids to know how we used to live.”

La Verne adults, who grew up with the orange groves, feel a strong need to show today’s children of the difference between the past and present.

“With technology growing so fast, young kids seem to miss out on how it was in the olden days,” said Bonnie Brunel, La Verne Heritage Foundation treasurer and member since 1987. “It is important for children to learn and see how technology has improved.”

One other prominent grove in La Verne still stands, however it is unpreserved by the city. Warden’s Christmas Tree Farm, a grove producing oranges, lemons and Christmas trees, is located further north on Wheeler Avenue. Like the ones before it, the farm has plans to be developed, city administrators confirmed. The farm has recently been sold to Everett Hughes Community Development, which plans to build a possible 17 residential homes on the property, according to Aguirre.

“Very soon there won’t be any [unpreserved] groves left in the community…and very few communities have kept up their past regarding the citrus industry,” Aguirre said. 

“The city has been instrumental to preserving what we have; we work the best to our degree of limitations,” Frederickson said. 

Nicole Knight can be reached at nknight@ulv.edu.