Smudging the citrus groves

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People who grew up here into the 1960s can recall or maybe took part in the wintertime ritual known as smudging. If temperatures dropped to freezing, a citrus crop might be ruined, and thus orchard heaters were put out in the groves and lighted to generate artificial heat. In a sense, they were the forerunners of the heaters used on restaurant patios, except these burned oil and created a blanket of haze.

It was a process that might last all night, as heaters were set out, lighted, checked, refilled or relighted. On the Rancho Cucamonga History page on Facebook, Jane Vath O’Connell recently penned a reminiscence of those days, which she invited me to share.

I remember the frosty nights in Alta Loma when my family would sit around the radio and listen to the ‘frost reports’. In every rancher’s kitchen it would be the same sight. If they predicted a freeze, my brothers would call their Alta Loma High School friends. Time to go to bed. Mom & I would stay up to check the grove thermometers. When it got to 29* we would wake my dad and brothers. My brothers would call their friends and there would be a commotion in the house while they assembled and I would drift off to sleep with the sound of the wind machines used to keep the air flowing through the groves. Throughout the night, I would hear the guys as they came back to the house to get food or hot drinks to get them through the night.

The next morning, when I got up for school, there would be a thick, black haze in the air and my brothers would be allowed to sleep in. Half the boys in Alta Loma High School would be absent and that’s just the way it was in this farming community. Dad was making breakfast for me, not having slept at all. He had to go to work but would first stop by Growers Service on Baseline and Hellman to order more smudge oil. I would go with dad sometimes and always enjoyed jumping off the loading dock amid the smell of smudge oil.

I’ve heard many stories of how those long, cold nights turned many boys into men. As did many ranchers, my father had a ‘day job’. He would come home after work that day and try to catch some sleep as the whole process started again.

Thanks, Jane. One aspect of her story that I hadn’t understood before, but which makes perfect sense, was that for many, farming was a sideline, probably because citrus isn’t a year-round crop. You might tend your grove, even all night when it was freezing, and then go to your real job.

Does anyone have memories to share of that era?

Photos are courtesy of Jane Vath O’Connell

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  • Ramona

    I remember that everyone’s upper lip was “smudged” from inhaling the haze in the air.
    When mom tried to remove cobwebs from the corners and the ceilings, she would get an oily “smudgy” mark on the wallpaper. Fortunately, the mark could be removed with a wet sponge.
    Sitting in class at PHS (Pomona High School), we coughed up “crud” and couldn’t leave class so we spit in tissues until we could get rid of them during breaks.
    Many of our guys were excused to go “smog” as well. It didn’t sit well with the football coach.
    Windows were “smudged” along the top and a real pain to clean. Dishes and pots and pans in cupboards were covered with tea towels – dish towels – to keep them clean.

    Is that enough gross memories? I could probably drudge up more.

    Well, you did ask!

    • Tom S

      Regarding your comment on the gentlemen farmers with day jobs. I am sure this is something of the past here in the Pomona/San Gabriel Valleys and Inland Empire, (except perhaps Chino and South Ontario). My grandfather was a railroad engineer in Michigan in the 1950’s but it was his dream to be a farmer, so he bought a 100 acre farm and worked it along with his full time job at the RR. He had beef cattle, hogs, and grew corn, alfalfa, and hay for both his animals and to sell. I swear he worked more on the farm than at the RR, but made less on the farm. A few years back my employer acquired a factory in Indiana, and I had to travel there. It was just outside Indianapolis. Most of the employees had small farms that they worked in addition to their “day jobs”. This is a part of Americana that I think we in the “big city” do not know about.

      • ST

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      • Richard_Pietrasz

        I took a vacation in central and western Canada in 1985. We stopped in on a distant cousin who was one of those part time farmers. He gave it up some years later, I believe.

  • Chris Darrow

    When I was first married we lived in the middle of 60 acres of lemon groves and went through the smudging process many times. In addition to smudge pots, they also used propeller driven fans to move the air so that frost couldn’t form. Kids missed school when I was at Claremont High, as well. That was in the late 50’s and early sixties. I got married in 1964 and that’s when we lived in the groves. Most of the groves in my area at gone, and I miss them very much. Housing tracts took their place! I have a couple of smudge pots at my house as garden sculpture.

  • Joe Paul Latham

    I went a few times to Stewart Citrus and lit and watched over lemon Groves in Upland with several other guys. I was in high school.

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