I’m getting a walking tour of California Citrus State Historic Park, a sprawling tribute in Riverside to the groves that once enticed millions of frigid Midwesterners and East Coast residents to head west for the good life.
Rather than sunny and warm on my late March visit, though, it’s overcast and chilly. Ehh, at least it’s stopped raining.
Along dirt paths, four of us walk past trees bearing navel and Valencia oranges, grapefruit, lemons and more. This is the Citrus Varietal Grove, with some 75 varieties of fruit.
As we stride along, trees on both sides of us along the curving path, it’s possible to forget we’re in the 21st century.
“This is a place to separate yourself from freeways and urban life,” says Ron Loveridge, a former mayor who as president of Friends of California Citrus Park may be this state park’s biggest champion.
Riverside was the birthplace of the Southern California orange empire after Eliza and Luther Tibbets planted three experimental seedless orange trees on their property in 1873 to great success. In the ensuing decades, citrus wealth built the city and the Inland Empire.
Eventually, groves began to make way for subdivisions. By the late 1970s, Riverside County parks leaders discussed how to memorialize the importance citrus had in Southern California.
After Pete Dangermond ascended from county parks director to state parks director under Gov. Jerry Brown in 1980, the idea had an influential backer.
“Part of the idea,” Dangermond recalled by phone later, “was that people would go there to buy citrus, similar to Oak Glen during apple season.”
Ron Loveridge, president of Friends of California Citrus Park, walks through the Citrus Varietal Grove, where 75 varieties are planted. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG) Riverside, Redlands and Irvine were in the running to host such a park, with Riverside winning out. (No one can say Dangermond put a thumb on the scales for his native Redlands.) The state Parks and Recreation Department bought grove property in Riverside’s Arlington Heights neighborhood.
And on Aug. 28, 1993, a few months shy of 30 years ago, California Citrus State Historic Park opened with a visitor center, 250 acres of parkland and an additional 150 acres in cultivation.
That wasn’t the idea, though.
A 1989 master plan envisioned building a workers’ camp bunkhouse, a grove house where a grower might have lived, a ranch with late 1800s farm equipment and a replica packinghouse to show where fruit would have been packed for shipping.
“We were never able to build it out,” Vince Moses, who was heavily involved in the master plan and earlier feasibility study, told me by phone.
Why? In 1990, California voters rejected a $437 million park bond, Proposition 149, which contained money to complete Citrus Historic Park.
“It cost us $10 million,” Moses said, “which in 1990 dollars would have been enough to do all the pieces.”
That was fatal to the park’s success. An economic consultant emphasized that the park had to be built all at once, not incrementally, Moses said.
But without bond money, “we opened with a visitors center and that was as far as you could go,” Moses said ruefully. “We had to go incremental.”
The Visitors Center at California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside offers a slice of history, plus a gift shop, but there are plans for much more. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG) Improvements have come in the three decades since. A new Visitors Center was built that at least gives a taste of history. (Plus it has that all-important feature: a gift shop.) And last year, a donated, vintage water-company engine weighing 17 tons was restored by volunteers to show how water was pumped through orange groves.
But Citrus Park has never lived up to its potential. People come, look at trees and leaf. Er, leave. Instead of the 200,000 annual visitors expected, it’s more like 20,000, Loveridge laments.
What’s missing, says Friends vice president John Brown, is a way to tell the human stories behind citrus, such as the women who worked in packinghouses and the ethnic minorities who worked the fields, creating the wealth for landowners.
That situation may finally change.
In 2022, $30 million was earmarked for the park in the state budget due to Assemblymember Sabrina Cervantes and state Sen. Richard Roth, both Democrats from Riverside.
State Parks initially was not enthusiastic, Brown and Loveridge say, but now appears to be fully on board with site visits and meetings with Friends, the nonprofit that helps manage the park.
“We’ve seen a lot more of State Parks in the past few months than we ever saw before,” Brown says. “That’s a very positive sign.”
The $30 million, say Brown, Loveridge and Susan van Zabern, executive director of Friends, ought to be enough to finally build out the park as originally envisioned. Stay tuned.
Sam Alonso of State Parks gives a talk to students from an Irvine elementary school who are touring California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG) Wrapping up our tour, we approach the Visitors Center, whose wooden facade makes me think of an old general store. Inside, ranger Sam Alonso is giving a presentation to students from Irvine’s Turtle Rock Elementary, who seem rapt.
We walk through the gift shop. What are the biggest selling items?
“The honey, the teas, the citrus soaps,” says van Zabern. “And the jams, my goodness.”
On the patio, docent Richard Saretsky is talking to a separate group of Turtle Rock students. Various pieces of fruit are cut up on plates and covered in plastic wrap. He’s already distributed samples of sweet or sour fruit. Now he’s asking the youngsters which ones they liked and which ones they didn’t. They tell him, shyly and amid giggles.
Want to visit? The park (9400 Dufferin Ave.) is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., although the visitor center and gift shop are open weekends only.
April 15 brings the annual, and free, Citrus Festival, which will offer citrus tastings, cooking demonstrations, craft vendors and more.
Currently there are no plans to mark the park’s 30th anniversary on Aug. 28. Let me suggest that just as crises shouldn’t go to waste, neither should round-number milestones.
Besides, in five months’ time, maybe there can be a good-news announcement that California Citrus State Historic Park is finally on the path to — dare I say it? — fruition.
David Allen writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday, and orange you glad. Email email@example.com, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.