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Squeezing Zest Into Citrus Festival

August 11, 1994|LEONARD REED | Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

SANTA PAULA — The lemon and orange destiny of this place was shaped by a handful of down-easters, or fortune seekers from the taciturn state of Maine.

Nathan Blanchard left the New England fog and craggy pine forests in 1854 to pick for gold up north and, failing, tried meat butchering and then lumbering in Placer County.

He married, had a son who died, moved south to Ventura County in 1872 and joined Elisha Bradley in buying 2,700 acres of Rancho Santa Paula Y Saticoy. Within two years he had the first large-scale citrus operation up and running. Blanchard figured this was a good place to stay--a place to build fortunes.

But it needed a name. So he recorded the place in 1875 as Santa Paula.

Along came Wallace Hardison, also of Maine, who purchased 412 acres west of the budding new town for the establishment of his own lemon ranch. Lemons, it was turning out, grew at a prolific rate along this dusty sea-air corridor known as the Santa Clara River Valley.

Hardison sent sunny news back to ice-block Maine. Indeed, he encouraged his nephew, Charles Collins Teague, then 20 and casting about for a life in Maine, to come west and go to work for his neighbor and Maine pal, Nathan Blanchard.

C. C. Teague would do just that in 1893--the year, it turns out, in which his uncle would join Blanchard in founding the mammoth Limoneira company--and so much more. Teague arrived and pruned, picked and worked his way up to general manager of Blanchard's citrus operation. By 1920, Teague's Yankee ingenuity would, within the citrus world, fully bloom: He became president of the Fruit Growers Exchange, an outfit known, since 1952, as Sunkist.

The Maine men had made their mark. And the place they created, Santa Paula, was bursting with lemons, oranges and more lemons. Yes, there was oil, too--Hardison, among other things, founded the Union Oil Co. here. But by the turn of the century, Santa Paula really meant one thing: citrus.

Today, Ventura County--and principally the ranches that emanate from Santa Paula along the Santa Clara River Valley--produces nearly half of all lemons produced in the United States.

But somehow, when people think of Santa Paula, it's not necessarily a happy vision of agricultural riches, of lemon-scented air, of booming times. Santa Paula is a place that has struggled in the last decade for respect. Indeed, some of the hardest times here were in the otherwise prosperous mid-'80s, when a downtown redevelopment effort failed and merchants fled. Santa Paula became an aging agriculture town with a troubled, in places decrepit, business center.

Now comes the Kiwanis Club of Santa Paula. Over the weekend, the club managed to draw 6,000 people into Veterans Memorial Park for a celebration in the name of this city's principal regional product: lemons and oranges. They called it the Citrus Festival.

They have held the festival annually for 27 years--food booths, rides for the kids, bingo for the adults--and given proceeds to local charities. But only in recent years has it been called the Citrus Festival. The idea has been to bolster Santa Paula's self-image by celebrating proud agrarian roots.

Still, despite the name, "there wasn't much citrus in the Citrus Festival," says Santa Paula realtor Jim Garfield, a festival supporter.

So this year a new attraction was conceived and introduced: the Citrus Cookoff, in which a lemony salsa with cubed avocado (also local) reigned, along with orange poppy-seed cake and lemon-edged chicken piccata. Competing entries, all incorporating citrus ingredients, included peanut soup, teriyaki chicken wings, bread pudding, baked orange cups, grapefruit sponge cake and something called orange rice.

The competition drew a modest crowd: Perhaps 25 people watched from within a traditional festival food court dominated by Santa Paula Jr. Cardinals Youth Football (hamburgers), Los Caballeros/Our Lady of Guadeloupe Church (tacos), Santa Paula Bobby Sox (pizza by Domino's), Santa Clara Valley Knights of Columbus (pit barbecue), Santa Paula Lions Club (hot dogs), and Maxine's Marvelous BBQ.

But it was a start in a new direction, a start Garfield and the Kiwanis Club feel will help re-establish what Santa Paula is to Santa Paulans--and thereby serve to instill pride, foster respect. To ensure that the citrus dimension of the Citrus Festival is not entirely ephemeral or lost on a tiny audience, a book containing all recipes entered in the citrus cook-off will be released this month.

It's one town's way of fighting back, of doing something small and bright that complements real gains seen in the downtown district in the last couple of years.

It's also a way to embrace a legacy from a time when things were clearer and perhaps simpler, though without embellishing the truth: For Santa Paula, seat of the Santa Clara River Valley, remains a citrus power.

Just ask one of the Maine men. They are still here, in the form of descendant ranchers. Alan Teague, C.C.'s grandson, is not only a developer but also chairman of the board of Limoneira.

"Oh, the future for our lemons looks pretty good," says Teague. "I don't believe--and this is just my opinion--that the future here is so bright for Valencia oranges, as there is world overproduction and our quality is not up to market (demand). But avocados have great potential, and some ranches right now are replanting Valencias with lemons, which should work pretty well."

That's called ingenuity, Yankee or otherwise. It's nothing new in Santa Paula. If it can happen in the orchards, it can happen in the town square.

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