Jul 26, 2014
Partly Cloudy

When Citrus Was King

To paraphrase a Pete Seeger song, "Where have all the oranges gone?"

When Citrus Was King

A few days ago I learned about attempts to save the last substantial orange orchard in Santa Ana.

The grove in question is, in fact, located very close to the Santa Ana/City of Orange border, and the City of Orange—or just “Orange,” as I was taught to say it—is where I grew up.

Readers of this column also may recall that I’ve mentioned, on occasion, the fact that my grandparents were citrus ranchers in the El Modena area, now fully incorporated into the City of Orange, from about 1912 until well into the mid 1950s.


So to read that Santa Ana’s City Council recently voted, 4-1, to add this particular property to the Santa Ana Register of Historical Properties gives me great satisfaction. The battle isn’t over yet, but if enough money can be raised, the property may be preserved and turned into a place where people can learn about Orange County history. 

The current owners' original plan was to bulldoze the orchard and build 24 houses on the five acre site. But the developer has since stated a willingness to sell the land to the Save Our Orchard Coalition, which has worked for more than a year to preserve the grove.  

What does this have to do with El Toro & Before? Well, up until the early 1970s, El Toro and its environs were among the highest yielding citrus producing areas in a county world-famous for its oranges. In fact, you could drive along El Toro Road in your family station wagon—since supplanted by the SUV—and see very little else but orange groves.

Not to mention the enjoyment, at certain times of the year, of the sweet and occasionally quite heady fragrance of orange blossoms.

Were all of these groves the result of Dwight Whiting’s promotion of El Toro, Calif., as a fruit grower’s heaven? Not entirely!

Dwight Whiting’s seminal booklet, , speaks primarily of apricots, pears, walnuts, and pecans. But orange growing already had been introduced in Anaheim, and in time enterprising agriculturalists would find that the fruit was well suited to the area.

As long, of course, as water was readily accessible. Water in the early days of El Toro was available but not abundant. And as wrote in her 1939 history of El Toro, “Orange trees needed water, and plenty of it.”

Once the acquisition of water became a reality, however, citrus became king throughout much of the southern California region, and perhaps most famously in the aptly-named Orange County.

Moreover, it turned out that the El Toro area was among those having an ideal combination of soil, weather, and folks willing to invest their time and energies into developing citrus. So much so, in fact, that today it’s safe to say that most Lake Forest residents live on land that once was occupied by orange groves. 


I have to admit that my fellow Baby Boomers and I were an inadvertent cause of the removal of the groves. My mother, who had grown up on her parents' citrus ranch near El Modena, did what many Orange County women did during the war and post-war years: She met a serviceman—my father, who was stationed at the El Toro Marine Corps base—and married him. Then my father, born and raised in upstate New York, did what so many former servicemen did in those days: Rather than take his wife and child back to cold eastern winters, we put down roots in Southern California.

And so my parents purchased a house a few miles from the Orange Plaza, out in the relative boonies of Collins Avenue, which my mom's dad had long referred to as a “cow path.” Our newly-built, three bedroom, two-bath structure had been constructed, along with about twenty others, on former citrus property. 

And the changes continued. A few years later, during my naptime, I could hear from three houses away the sound of buzz saws, busily removing a long row of eucalyptus trees that had served as a windbreak for those orange groves. Soon after the mammoth stumps were removed, more houses sprouted in their place.

If you are thinking that orange groves are something I look upon with great nostalgia, you are absolutely correct. And so I hereby issue a Spoiler Alert: Future editions of El Toro & Before will address the prominence that the orange growing industry had in the lives of El Toro pioneers . . . plus maybe include, now and then, a bit of information about my grandparents and their citrus operation near the other end of  Santiago Canyon

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