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A Vanishing County Symbol

May 06, 2001

Except for an isolated grove here and there, the only oranges left in Orange County are on county and city seals. Gone are the rows of orange trees that once dominated the county landscape and perfumed the air.

Orange trees have been synonymous always with the name of Orange County. Many believe it is so named because of the orange groves that dotted the land at incorporation in 1898. The history is less romantic. The name was chosen strictly for economic reasons, to try to lure Easterners who might be attracted to visions of owning a western orange ranch to buy real estate in the county. Perhaps another factor was to placate the city of Orange, which lost out to Santa Ana in its bid to become the county seat.

After incorporation, however, orange ranching did become popular and the county grew into its name, making it a place recognized for its fine citrus crops. In the boom years of land development, the groves gave way. Cut flowers and strawberries became the county's main crops. The orange orchards may have all but disappeared, but older residents' attachment to them hasn't.

What concerns some Anaheim residents with a strong sense of history is that one day soon there may be no orange groves left in the county. In the peak years of orange production there were about 65,000 acres of oranges, about 13% of the total county area. Today fewer than 200 acres remain.

In Anaheim, there is only one two-acre working orange grove left. Although it's not currently for sale, some residents are urging city officials to acquire and preserve it as an educational park where children can pick oranges and see farm equipment--and a view of the past.

Orange groves were a big business in Anaheim, a city whose existence preceded the county's incorporation in 1889. But they were replaced by a bigger business--Disneyland. It's understandable that residents want future generations to know that the area wasn't always all amusement parks, malls, motels and fast-food outlets. Yet it takes money to preserve a part of the past for those wishing to do so. The community services department is preparing a report to answer some of the City Council's questions about a proposed preservation project, estimated to cost $2 million.

That's a lot of money, and last year the Placentia City Council faced a similar decision. In a split 3-2 vote, it decided not to spend about the same amount to preserve an orange grove some residents were urging the city to acquire.

While Anaheim faces a difficult choice, the departure of the groves around the county also is a little sad. Not many other cities even will have to face such decisions. It's certain that for generations to come it will be Orange County in name only.

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