By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Oranges did not give Orange County its name, as civic lore maintains—rather, it was the idea of the fruit. In 1881, Anaheim attorney Victor Montgomery crafted the secession bill that eventually broke the county from Los Angeles. He proposed naming the new entity Orange because the name, "emblazoned upon the map of our state, would, in my opinion, have more effect in drawing the tide of emigrants to this section than all the pamphlets, agents and other endeavors which have hitherto proved so futile."
At the time of Montgomery's proposal, the region had already proved a cornucopia that could support any number of livestock and produce but still wasn't sold on oranges. The county had gone through booms and busts brought by real-estate speculation and the unforgiving whims of Mother Nature: A prolonged drought killed thousands of cattle during the 1860s, blight destroyed the county's grapevines in 1886, and floods two years earlier ruined fortunes.
But with oranges, county businessmen discovered a sturdy crop that served as a testament to their ingenuity. "The men and women who came to California in those early days to engage in citrus culture had indomitable courage, for they were tackling a thing that no one had yet succeeded at; an industry still in its swaddling clothes; how it would turn out none knew," wrote A.D. Bishop in "Establishing the Orange Industry," an entry in 1931's Orange County History Series, Vol. I.
The oranges were seen as proof of the county's superiority to other American regions—indeed, the world.
"The Divine hand has been lavish in bestowing upon all Southern California, and upon Orange County in particular, rare natural advantages, perhaps greater than those enjoyed by any other section over which the flag floats," wrote Charles C. Chapman in a 1911 history of the young industry.
"Our climate is faultless," Fullerton's first mayor and the name behind Chapman University continued. "In fact, it is not too much to say that as to fertility of soil, the charming climate and the scenery with its grandeur and beauty, it is not surpassed the world around."
Citrus farming reached its peak in 1948, when more than 67,000 acres of Valencias alone—about 13 percent of the county's total land—covered Orange County.
Soon after that, however, the once-hallowed orange groves became a burden. Taxes and the demand for housing convinced growers to sell off their lands to developers, who quickly plowed the land in favor of tract housing. A mysterious disease known as quick decline but more popularly referred to as la tristeza ("the sadness" in Spanish) killed thousands of trees within years, hastening the death of the orange industry. Any concern about conserving some acres for posterity's sake was pushed aside—besides, the thinking went, there were more than enough groves to go around.
Nevertheless, county chronologists lamented the passing of King Citrus. In 1963's Historical Volume and Reference Works: Including Biographical Sketches of Leading Citizens, a three-volume compendium of Orange County history, author Mildred Yorba MacArthur wrote an essay titled "The Vanishing Orange?" Calling Orange County "the land of disappearing citrus groves," she longed for the days "when an orange was something to be eaten, not poured from a can." At the time, though, there were still more than 28,000 acres of Valencias left. She held out hope that South County—still largely rural then—might "keep the citrus industry alive for many years."
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The story of how Lujano came to tend some of Orange County's last orange groves is in many ways the story of South County itself.
Lujano was born in 1923 in Holbrook, Arizona, but was raised in Mexico. He migrated to the United States alongside his brother in March 1958; each had 10 pesos in his pocket. Upon crossing the Mexican border, the Lujanos bought bus tickets and told the driver to drop them off as far as the 10 pesos could take them. The ride stopped in San Juan Capistrano.
At the time, it was still very much a mission town, cut off, along with San Clemente, from the rest of Orange County by miles and miles of agricultural fields and untamed hills, linked to suburbia only by U.S. Route 101 (now Interstate 5). Farming was still the main industry in town, and the Lujanos quickly found work. Word of Ignacio's gift for cultivation spread around the tight-knit community, and he worked for all the major farmers in the city—the Bathgates, the Kinoshitas, among others. He eventually settled with the Rosenbaum family, which owned a massive ranch in the northern end of San Juan Capistrano.
Ignacio stayed there even after his brother left for Los Angeles. "The land was beautiful," he recalls. "It was so peaceful and fresh. Trees and crops everywhere. The air was like no other air I had ever breathed. Once I got here, I knew I never wanted to leave."
The Rosenbaums employed him until 1970, when they decided to sell the ranch. Unfortunately, they didn't give Lujano much warning. "One day, one of the Rosenbaums called me into his office and said, 'Ignacio, you're a great worker, and we thank you for all your years helping us. But we're going to close the ranch. Here's your last paycheck.' With that, I was out of a job."