Monthly Archives: February 2016

San Fernando Heights Lemon Association

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.

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Covina Argus, 30 September 1911.

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.

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Van Nuys News, 12 June 1925.

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.

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Van Nuys News, 10 September 1926.

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.”

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Florence (South Carolina) Morning News. 2 July 1936.

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.

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Amarillo (Texas) News, 21 April 1950.

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.

USC Examiner Collection sorting

Women packing fruit at the San Fernando Heights Lemon Association Packing House, undated (perhaps 1930s).  From the Herald Examiner Collection, University of Southern Calfornia Special Collections.

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.

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Courtesy of Paul Spitzzeri.

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.

Categories: California History, Citrus history, Lemon industry, Lopez Adobe, Pacific Packing Company, San Fernando agriculture, San Fernando buildings, San Fernando farming, San Fernando Heights Lemon Association, San Fernando History | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The San Fernando Theater

San Fernando street in 1940s

Among the many great photographs found in the Lopez Adobe collection is this circa 1940s view of Brand Boulevard, which is recognizable mainly for the old Pacific Electric Railway streetcar right-of-way in the center of the thoroughfare.  The electric poles and tracks are still in place in this view–later a landscaped median was installed and this is still the case today.

The view is taken from near San Fernando Road and looks southwest.  In addition to the PE track, cars parked along the street, some of the roadside landscaping and snippets of structures, there is one standout building:  the San Fernando Theater.

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Here’s a view of the San Fernando Theater from the Van Nuys News, 3 September 1964, as its destruction was forecast for a “double-decked” parking lot.  The theater was showing “Peligros de Juventud [Youth Films]” as well as Los Apuros de Dos Gallos (The Troubles of Two Roosters), a comedy released in May 1963 in Mexico and which was about a pair of singers who wandered onto a ranch and encountered all kinds of hardships.

Located at 303 S. Brand, the site originally housed the Cody Theater, but it appears that the old building was demolished in favor of what became the “New San Fernando” in 1925, when an article in the 25 August issue of the Van Nuys News reported that George Drake and Son were awarded a contract for the construction of the new building.

The theater remained a going concern for about forty years, but as times changed and redevelopment was taking place in San Fernando, the future of the aging building was looking ominous.  For one thing, the single-screen theater was going the way of the dodo, being replaced by multiplexes.  Secondly, by the mid-1960s, the city was actively pursuing its San Fernando Mall concept, a postcard of which was recently posted on the Lopez Adobe Facebook page.  As San Fernando Road was narrowed to two lanes and street parking removed, nearby areas were being converted to city parking lots.

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Another News article, from 5 September 1965, discusses 17 parcels in San Fernando condemned for parking lots and walkways as the San Fernando Mall project was pursued.

In 1964-65, after a good deal of deliberation and planning, city officials decided to condemn seventeen properties for conversion into parking lots and walkways.  One of these was the San Fernando Theater property.  Yet, even though the Mall project proceeded and a number of city-owned parking lots were implemented, the theater somehow evaded destruction.  Well, for a while.

On 9 February 1971, the Sylmar earthquake, registering about 6.6 on the Richter scale, struck in the early morning hours, causing widespread destruction in and around San Fernando.  Among the many structural casualties was the San Fernando Theater, which had to be razed.

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The demolition of the San Fernando Theater is shown in this photo from the 5 March 1971 edition of the News.  Thought it wasn’t a double-decker, as planned several years earlier (and which may not have withstood the Sylmar quake), a parking lot was built here and still serves that use today.

Sure enough, in its place was built a parking lot, which still serves this function today.  It does appear that the structure next to the theater in the 1940s photo, which looked to have had some kind of Art Deco architectural feature projecting above the one-story roofline is still standing today, as can be seen in this Google Maps link here.

Categories: Brand Boulevard, Cody Theater, Lopez Adobe, San Fernando History, San Fernando Mall, San Fernando photographs, San Fernando streets, San Fernando Theater, San Fernando theaters | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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