For Riverside native and author Susan Straight, citrus and camaraderie were once the ties that bound people in the part of southern California called the Inland Empire. This area includes the many cities east of greater Los Angeles, and west of Palm Springs, in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. New arrivals used to plant lemons, tangerines, and oranges in their yards, as well as figs, persimmons, avocados, and loquats, and they shared their bounty with friends and neighbors. For California’s public broadcasting service KCET, Straight writes an evocative essay that mixes regional history with personal history, and celebrates the way these imported fruits have shaped the social fabric and local economy. She has an 80 year old apricot tree growing on her property. Even though this arid region isn’t known for its timber, Straight calls its planted gardens “non-native woods” and sees them as paradise, because they helped provide many people what was truly a piece of the good life. “The groves are nearly gone now,” Straight writes, “housing tracts named for what they’ve erased.” But locals don’t give up these traditions.
Eliza Tibbets started the first two seedling navel orange trees. A statue of her was recently unveiled in downtown Riverside, and it seems a fitting time to remind ourselves of the woman who transformed California’s landscape, not just with daring but with generosity. (I still drive past the Parent Navel Orange Trees, at the corner of Arlington and Magnolia Avenues, every week.)
She was married three times, an abolitionist (her third husband, Mr. Tibbets, campaigned as a “Radical Republican” who tried integration in Virginia), a suffragist who tried to vote in 1871, a spiritualist who led séances in Riverside when she got here. But in 1873, she sent to Washington’s new Bureau of Agriculture for the first two seedling trees of a new variety of seedless oranges from Bahia, Brazil, and planted them in her yard in Riverside. She kept them alive with dishwater, shared the fruit and more cuttings, and changed the economy and the very look of Southern California. (Neither she, born in Cincinnati, or the seedlings, were natives.)
By 1886, entire towns like Rialto, Bloomington, Corona and Redlands were laid out around groves of Washington navel orange trees. Packing houses for Sunkist Growers and other cooperatives were built, the Santa Fe Railroad took boxcars full of fruit all over the nation, and oranges were shipped around the world. By 1895, Riverside had the highest per capita income in America, thanks to the citrus industry.
The faces of Southern California changed with citrus, too. Chinese laborers, Italians and Mexicans and Japanese and African-American southerners, Dust Bowl refugees from Oklahoma and Texas and Colorado — all picked and packed and trucked oranges. I grew up with their kids.