While citrus fruits had been grown in the San Fernando Valley, along with field crops like wheat, for some time, the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, bringing water from eastern California, revolutionized agriculture in the region.
The Pacific Packing Company, which had a number of facilities throughout the southern California area, established a lemon packing plant just south of the Mission San Fernando about 1911. One article from that year detailed how the firm was poised to deliver 3,000 railroad cars of oranges and lemons from its packing houses in Riverside, Ontario, Pomona, Glendora, Orange, Fullerton, San Diego and San Fernando, among others.
In 1915, however, it sold the facility to a new concern: the San Fernando Heights Lemon Association. While the use of the word “heights” is a strange one, given the generally flat terrain of the location, the association soon became a successful endeavor. Among the brand names for the fruit transferred from Pacific to the new firm were Silver Moon, Blue Moon, Evening Star, and Southern Cross.
In following years, times were good as a population surge and economic boom in the region fueled most industries, including citrus. In 1922, a national engineering and contracting journal reported that a new building, of one story and a basement, was being erected for the association, measuring 80′ x 172′ and costing $24,000.
In June 1925, the Van Nuys News reported that what was believed to be a record price of over $14 a box was fetched for association lemons shipped to Cleveland. Among the fortunate beneficiaries of this surge in prices were local growers M.C. Sutton and Dr. C.B. Canby, who had nearly 2,500 boxes from their grove in the association’s packing house during the shipment.
The good times continued the following year, with a September 1926 news article reporting that 450 train loads had been shipped during the season with 100 more on hand and some 60,000 boxes were to be picked that month. Another 200 loads were expected through the end of the year. Unfortunately, abundant inventory also meant a steep decline in prices, as about $3 for an 84-pound box was expected.
While the Great Depression certainly affected business to a significant degree, the facility had an additional three-story packing structure built in 1936. An interesting and novel idea instituted at the plant came in the same year, when management decided to use a wide palette of paint colors. Orange-packing machinery was painted violet, grading tables became mustard yellow, conveyor belts sported a shade of peacock blue and the women who constituted a majority of plant workers wore two-tone tan uniforms with orange piping. One newspaper article quoted an employee as saying, “We love it!” while another enthused “and we don’t get so tired.”
The sprucing up of the plant with snappy new colors, though, seems to have had its limits on employee morale. In a decade filled with labor strife through the West Coast and other parts of the United States, the association was the target of a strike in August 1938. It was reported that some 1,000 picketers, many of them not plant employees, descended on the facility to ask for higher pay.
After World War II, however, matters changed. Huge numbers of new residents to the greater Los Angeles region transformed suburban areas such as the San Fernando Valley. In 1948, the San Fernando Lemon Association, a nearby facility, closed its doors in the face of declining acreage of lemon groves and the resulting effect on production. Still, at the end of the year, a news report observed that the San Fernando Heights plant had 8o workers processing fruit picked by 100 field hands in the association’s fields.
Labor shortages in the postwar years led to increasing arrangements for Mexican nationals to work in the fields and packing houses. Another creative way around the labor problem was described in a 1950 article, in which the Association had, for a couple of years, contracted with Hollywood studions for filming at the plant. When publicized, the plant was besieged with applicants hoping to get discovered while pakcing and wrapping fruit.
In 1956, it was reported that regional citrus acreage had declined from 11,000 to 6,000 acres in the previous decade and that the number of packing houses in operation fell from eight to five. Herbert S. Sykes, who managed the plant for some three decades, noted that mechanization, plant consolidation and changes in grading and packing practices still allowed for solid profitability. Notably, pickers were also packing, whereas there were historically separate crews for the work. This was not only touted as beneficial for the association’s bottom line but as better for the worker, who had more continuous employment. No one seems to have asked the laborers for their view of the situation, however.
A May 1961 piece in the Van Nuys Valley News reflected how much things had changed. Observing that the importation of water from the Aqueduct in the 1910s brought citrus to the forefront, “the arrival of man in ever increasing numbers cracked the industry’s foundation by slowly but surely consuming the rich farm lands and orchards for residential and other uses.” During the World War II years, the industry topped $25 million in sales, but it “has continually slipped and now is nearing its final days as a serious business in the area.”
Tract homes, retail centers and commercial properties continued to replace lemon and orange trees and the San Fernando Heights facility closed. At least some of the structures, however, continue to stand and have been most recently used as storage facilities.
As the mania for collectibles grew in the years after the plant’s closure, one of the ways in which citrus farming had a continuing visual presence was in the collectibility of packing crate labels. Mounted on the two long ends of a wood crate which carried cirtus fruits, these labels became increasingly more colorful and romantic, taking advantage of the “mission” theme for both product names and imagery.
Included here is one example of a San Fernando Heights Lemon Association label, probably from the 1930s heyday of the industry, that is a surviving reminder of the days when citrus reigned supreme in the local and regional economy and was a symbol, along with Hollywood, to the rest of the United States and internationally of what southern California represented.