Citrus grower Jean Lecouage walked along a row of orange trees, talking of his plans for spring. There was new irrigation pipe to install. And, as usual, he was battling an infestation of snails that were chewing small, white holes in his healthy Valencia oranges. But this will be a quieter growing season for Lecouage. Last year, the San Juan Capistrano rancher gave up a 67-year family tradition and sold 255 acres of groves to a developer.
"For aesthetics," he said, he kept five acres at the end of San Juan Creek Road. Located on a hill, these last 250 orange trees surround two mobile homes and a large stucco house where he and his children still live.
Below the hill, Dividend Development Corp. of Santa Clara has ripped out the trees that Lecouage's father first planted in 1920. In their stead wooden stakes with pink flags sprout from the dark clay, marking sites where 230 homes will be built. As a bulldozer moved back and forth across the dirt one recent sunny morning, Lecouage watched quietly but said he had no regrets about selling.
"A farm is a business, by golly," he said. "When it's served its purpose, out come the trees. It's really like selling a hardware store or a shoe store."
The story is a familiar one in Orange County. Land that grew citrus now grows homes. Lecouage is simply one of the latest growers to sell.\f7
Harold E. Wahlberg, Orange County's farm adviser for 35 years, once described the county as "one big orange grove." The groves stretched from Yorba Linda to San Juan Capistrano in row upon row of trees, the juicy fruit of which was the county's principal crop for nearly 100 years.
Although Orange County's first orange trees were planted in the 1700s by Franciscan friars, the cultivation of oranges as an industry did not catch on until the latter 1800s. In fact, as late as 1875, visiting historian Theodore Van Dyke criticized the local product, calling it "pithy, sour, thick-skinned and dry . . . an insult to the noblest of fruit."
It was in 1870 that Anaheim doctor William N. Hardin bought two barrels of rotten Tahitian oranges and planted their seeds. Three years later, Patterson Bowers planted a small stand of seedless Australian navel oranges along Santiago Creek near Orange.
At the time, oranges were viewed mainly as curiosities. For instance, real estate developer Capt. W. T. Glassell in 1872 used them as a sales gimmick, placing two orange seedlings in front of his office in Richland, which later became the city of Orange.
In 1875, county ranchers made a serious effort to grow oranges when Richard Hall Gilman, an advance man for the newly formed Southern California Semi-Tropical Fruit Co., bought 110 acres of land in Placentia. He planted some of the land in walnuts, but devoted 40 acres to Valencia seedlings, creating the county's first orange grove. Not long after Gilman established his grove, Fullerton resident Sheldon Littlefield planted another stand of Valencias east of Fullerton.
During the next decade, the orange industry took hold, spurred by the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad, which by 1887 serviced the length of Orange County and made markets in Chicago, Des Moines and New York available to county growers.
The grape blight of 1886 provided another incentive when a virus called "the Anaheim disease" wiped out 5 million grapevines, encouraging ranchers to switch to a more promising crop--citrus.
In 1894, Littlefield's grove was acquired by Charles C. Chapman, a former hotel builder from Chicago who became Fullerton's first mayor. An aggressive promoter of his own Old Mission Brand oranges, Chapman garnered fame as "the father of the Valencia industry."
"I believed that I could see a tremendous future, particularly for the development of the orange," he wrote. "And I threw my whole energy into the culture of this glorious fruit."
In 1921, when the county's first Valencia Orange Show opened in Anaheim, Chapman kicked it off with a bevy of Hollywood actresses (Gloria Swanson among them) and a telephone greeting from President Warren Harding.
At the county agriculture commissioner's office in Anaheim, a logbook of faded entries charts the growth of the citrus industry. In 1923, some 37,528 acres of Valencias produced 4.3 million boxes of oranges worth $10.9 million. And by 1930, county growers had expanded their plantings to 44,449 acres that produced 5 million boxes of Valencias valued at $35.7 million.
These were good years, too, for Jean Lecouage's father Pierre, a Basque immigrant from France who had bought his land in 1920 for $50 an acre. "My father paid for the land out of the profits of his oranges," Lecouage said. "In the middle of the Depression, he paid it off."