“The wealth of this state was better known after the discovery of gold by James W. Marshall, January 1848. The gold rush quickly populated California and held the undivided interest in mining for several years to follow. It was not until the diggings became poor that attention was turned to agriculture and the mass of population shifted toward the south. In the meantime there was not more than a handful of enterprising men courageously engaging in the culture of oranges. Don Louis Vignes, William Wolfskill, Don Manual Requena, and Benjamin Wilson and a number of pioneers, blazed the trail. In time their attempts were well rewarded in a material way and the hope of commercializing the orange industry assumed a promising aspect.
The first orange orchard of any note, outside of the missions, was planted by Jean Louis Vignes at Los Angeles in 1834. Don Louis left his home in France in in 1831 reached Monterey. From there he went to San Pedro and later to Los Angeles, where he established himself permanently. Immediately his attention was turned to agriculture and especially to the growing of the grape. In 1834, he successfully transplanted thirty four orange trees from San Gabriel to his orchards on Aliso Street.
According to Mr. Evans’ ‘Orange Culture in California,’ the introduction of the orange seems to have been an accident. Although the story he tells is a feasible one, I have not been able to find definite proof of its veracity. He says:
‘It is currently reported that by the purest accident it was discovered that the tree would grow and bear fruit in the Los Angeles valley… separated from the San Gabriel valley by a very narrow ridge of low hills. Tradition has it, that this accident was the carting of the stump of an orange tree from the old mission orchard to Los Angeles, where it sprouted and bore fruit, to the astonishment of the natives.’
In his book, ‘Sixty Years in California,’ William Heath Davis states that Vignes came on the bark Louisa in company with him in 1831. He also was known as, ‘Don Louis del Aliso,’ the result of his great love for a sycamore (aliso) tree, which grew in front of his gate.
The tiny orchard was enclosed by some iron fencing which he had purchased from Father Sanchez at the mission. The grove was covered with a wire netting, ‘thus making an aviary in which he kept a flock of quail.’ Before long it was necessary to plant outside the enclosure. A few years later, he was known to have the largest orchard and vineyard (making the best wine) in the state. People knew him for his hospitality as well as for his enterprise in agriculture and there were many writers of the time who mention his generosity and his great interest in the cultivation of the orange and the vine. This interest was always paramount and to those who visited him in his home, it was apparent. Don Louis succeeded in inducing many of his countrymen to this country, who took up agriculture in a far more intelligent manner than had ever existed before in Alta California. ‘He was a great believer in the future of the country and particularly in the future of the vine and orange industries.’ Although his orchard was not planted with the view of profit, his example demonstrated the possibility of commercializing this fruit. It is said that not an orange was sold from this pioneer orchard until long after the advent of the Americans.
Don Louis died in 1862 at a ripe old age, ‘greatly respected and deserving of respect.’ His orchard later came in the possession of the Sansevaine Brothers. Fruits from this orchard were exhibited, September 2, 1855, in Los Angeles. Members of the Vignes family still reside in Southern California and at present live near the Dominquez ranch.
The first American to plant an orange orchard was William Wolfskill. He was a Kentuckian by birth, and at the age of thirty two, with eight years of experience as a trapper in territories about Santa Fe, set out with a company in New Mexico to trap in the great valleys of California. The party arrived in Los Angeles in February, 1831. Here they broke up, some remaining in California to become prominent pioneers, while the others returned to Mexico. Wolfskill was characterized by his enterprise and in a short time became classed in the same category as Vignes. ‘He became equally famous as the promoter, if not the starter, of one of the most important industries of the country,’ devoting the majority of his time to the growing of oranges and other orchard fruits, while Vignes on the other hand gave particular attention to the vine.
In November 1838, Mr. Wolfskill purchased the property in Los Angeles destined to become the nucleus of his famous orchard. Three years later, in 1841, he secured orange trees from San Gabriel Mission and planted a two acre orchard and without a doubt this was the first orange orchard planted in the state with a view to profit. The orchard was planted on the spot now occupied by the Arcade passenger station of the Southern Pacific railroad.
For a period of time, his undertaking did not promise success and several times he thought of tearing out the orange trees and replacing them with vines. However his efforts were amply repaid and moreover his successful attempt proved to other orchardists that Southern California possessed a climate favorable in many ways to the growing of fruit and in this case, oranges in particular.
Bryant in 1847 also speaks of the enterprise of Mr. Wolfskill (‘an American gentleman residing in Los Angeles’) and comments, ‘It was a delightful recreation to stroll through it and among the tropical fruit trees, bordering the walk.’ Between 1856 and 1875, two thousand more trees were planted, a little southwest of the Arcade depot, forming then the largest orchard of its kind in the state. A few years before (1853) Matthew Keller and Doctor Halsey obtained seeds from Central America and Hawaii, which they planted in large nurseries across the street from Wolfskill’s orchard. Doctor Halsey, a little later, went east, leaving his nursery in the care of Judge I. S. K. Ogier, who sold it for a mere song to Wolfskill. In this manner he was able to increase the size of his orchard which he had found had grown extremely profitable. Not only did he add to the size of his own orchard, but his example served to popularize the planting of orange trees, both in courtyards and orchards. By the year 1857 Mr. Wolfskill was making more than one hundred dollars apiece from his bearing trees.
The orchard soon attracted attention outside it immediate locality. The visiting committee of the State Agricultural Society, in 1858, reported that the orchard was planted in a ‘style of exact neatness seldom equaled. It presents a sight which, of its kind, is quite superior to anything in the State.’
That the Wolfskill orchard proved to be one of the show sights in Los Angeles was inevitable. Surely the majority of strangers or travelers coming to Los Angeles were allowed to see this famous sight. Miss Josephine Clifford, March 1872, writes, ‘A walk through the streets reveal the fact that Los Angeles is quite a city. The orangeries are numerous, and the most extensive, containing the largest trees, is the Wolfskill orchard, one of the oldest in the country.’
In 1863, Wolfskill had in his orchard more than two thirds of the total number of orange trees (2500) set out in orchard in the state, representing in part most of the oldest trees. By 1875, the number of trees in his orchard had increased to about two thousand with an average production of about fifteen hundred oranges. Two years later, the oranges from the Wolfskill orchard were the first to make up a full car to be sent to eastern markets. The fruit was sent to St. Louis, arriving in good condition after three months in transit.
The Wolfskill orchard, without a doubt, played a most important part in the genesis of the orange industry. Not only did it prove an incentive to other orchardists, but it proved to be a successful commercial undertaking. Mr. Spalding, who saw the orchard in 1874, says, ‘This success which had been attained as a commercial venture probably had more to do with stimulating orange planting in Southern California from that time forward than any other influence.’
William Wolfskill died in 1866 and the orchard and other property went to his children, who continued his work.”