The Fruits of Their Labor

The verdant landscape around the California Citrus State Historic Park belies all that takes place behind the scenes for citrus to flourish. Land that had sustained Native Americans for thousands of years was transformed to serve a single crop that required large quantities of water, pesticides, and smog-producing devices to be profitable. Waves of immigrants and migrants treated as disposable labor kept wages low. Not everyone equally enjoyed the fruits of these labors.


A “budder” inserts wood from a fruit-bearing plant into a new seedling. This begins the laborious, delicate process of grafting orange buds. By doing so, citriculturalists could propagate trees suited to local soil and climate conditions and resistant to dangers such as pests or disease. Grafting also allowed growers to cultivate fruits with the desirable qualities – sweetness, seedlessness, and vivid color – that made California citrus a profitable industry.

Smudge Pots

On cold nights, citrus workers awoke before dawn to light “smudge pots” filled with diesel fuel. These smudge pots produced billowing smoke and soot, which kept the air under the tree canopies warm, protecting the trees when winter temperatures dropped low enough to damage valuable fruit or kill the trees entirely. Here, exhausted workers rest on crates beside lit smudge pots as the groves grow smoky.


By the turn of the twentieth century, Inland Southern California’s citrus industry relied upon the labor and expertise of immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. These men and women built communities around the groves, operated businesses, and originated welfare associations essential to the economics and social fabric of Southern California. Despite this, racism led the United States to sharply restrict East Asian immigration in 1882, 1892, and 1924. Once the largest labor group in the citrus industry, dwindling immigration, discrimination, and outright violence threatened many Asian American communities.


Women comprised most of the workforce in the packinghouse, then and now. They worked long hours on their feet, for less pay than men. Their work required great skill, as women had to assess the size and quality of fruit on moving conveyors and wrap each piece of the most valuable fruit individually in sheets of tissue paper imprinted with “Sunkist” and other names. Speed was of the utmost importance, as packers were paid by the amount of fruit they handled during their shift. Anyone older, slower, or less agile could not make a living wage.


Taken less than a quarter mile from the park, this 1913 photograph shows laborers tightening the joints and adjusting the plates on the steel flume that replaced the original wood at Mockingbird Canyon Dam on the Gage Canal. This canal, constructed in the 1880s, doubled the land available for citrus cultivation. Many of Riverside’s surviving citrus groves – including those at California Citrus State Historic Park – continue to draw their water from the Gage Canal.