History of Placentia Fruit Company Explored at CSUF Library

Climbing up the stairs of the CSUF Pollak Library, I stopped at the fourth floor. Amidst the child development textbooks and young adult and juvenile literature, I encountered a small exhibit that focused on the history of the Placentia Fruit Company and how it related to the state’s oldest Valencia Orange orchard, originally planted in the middle of what is now the CSUF campus.

Curated by Trish Campbell, Exhibit Program Coordinator at CSUF’s Pollak Library and Adjunct Professor in the Division of Anthropology, this small display was one component of a larger exhibition that marked the Fullerton Arboretum’s 40th anniversary. The full display was initially shown in the Orange County Agricultural & Nikkei Heritage Museum at the Fullerton Arboretum from 2018 to 2019.

Consisting of two glass tables and a wall display containing photographs on loan from the Bowers Museum with captions and newspaper clippings documenting early Orange County history, this exhibit is located right next to the Pollak Library’s 4th-floor restrooms and elevators. Although small, it happens to hold a lot of useful information. Housing orange crates and their labels, the display begins by explaining who Richard H. Gilman was, and how his history relates to the planting of the first Valencia orange grove in Southern California.

“Richard Gilman, a native of New Hampshire, arrived in Sonoma County, California, where he joined with a group in 1872 in forming the Southern California Semi-Tropical Fruit Company (SCSFC),” reads the exhibit wall text. The company was searching for fertile citrus-producing land to develop. “Gilman, on behalf of the corporation, purchased for them a tract [in Southern California] consisting of 110 acres at a rate of $17.50 per acre from the Sterns Land Company. Returning north, he reported the deal. Gilman returned in 1873, arriving in Placentia equipped with a four-horse team and a wagon loaded with farming tools to begin the development of one of the earliest citrus ranches in the southland.”

Interestingly, Gilman received a delivery of “orange trees of ‘unlabeled’ varieties” from a place called the River Brothers nursery in London, England, according to the wall text. Reading on, I found out that “one variety” of oranges “was a late producer and Gilman pioneered the development of groves from buds from this tree known as the Valencia late.” In 1880, Gilman went on to plant the first 5-acre grove of Valencia oranges. This location on the Gilman Ranch, which is now part of CSUF, became known as the birthplace of the world-famous Valencia orange, a widely popular summer-time fruit that helped boost Placentia’s economy.

What I didn’t know until encountering the exhibit was that all strains of this type of orange can be traced back to the River Brothers nursery. From the research on display, I learned that the strains of Valencia Orange are all believed to have entered the U.S. in about 1876, and some were developed in hothouse conditions in a nursery in New York, before arriving in Florida and California.

I also noticed that quite a few of the photos and newspaper articles on display are on loan from the Bowers Museum. Trish Campbell explained that they contributed a small amount to the section in the library, but there were more photos and artifacts included in the initial exhibit.

“It was a much larger exhibition, which included a section on the Chapman Family, and early packing,” explained Campbell via email, “I borrowed a couple of orange crate labels and three small tools/implements from the Bowers for that section that are not included in the library part. All other objects came directly from the Fullerton Arboretum. That is with the exception of a few photographs.”

She explained that the library installs small exhibits on the fourth floor that can highlight a part of their collection. “In this instance, we focused on farming and gardening, which prompted me to ask the arboretum if I could borrow the early history section. Unfortunately, you didn’t see the whole thing, part of it has been de-installed and the rest to follow shortly,” said Campbell, who had five student assistants help curate the original exhibit.

Since that exhibition was much larger and focused more on the arboretum’s history, Campbell’s research was largely done using scrapbooks, photo albums and other ephemera from the Fullerton Arboretum’s archives, or borrowed from members of the Friends of the Fullerton Arboretum, with a few items from University Archives and Special Collections in the Pollak Library. “When I started working with the arboretum on this project, we had quite a lot to cover from the earliest days of the arboretum,” she said. “To have a fuller picture, we really needed the history that predates CSUF.”

Everything changed when she found one small photo album with a few pictures of Richard Gilman, his wife, and a couple of newspaper clippings, which then prompted her to conduct research on earlier components of Gilman’s life, such as how he came to California and why, or when. As that information unfolded, so did Campbell’s research on early irrigation in the area, water rights, the names of early farmers, and prominent members of the community. She said, “Making these discoveries helped to fuel my goals of creating a picture of the properties surrounding what would become Cal State Fullerton and the Fullerton Arboretum.”

When she begins any project, there is always an element of research. However, the rigor with which that is carried out is often determined by the type of exhibition and other factors. Campbell explained that the rigor used is important so that any content included, or narrative used, is as accurate as it can possibly be. While conducting her research for the small exhibit on Richard Gilman’s history, she learned more about the early history of the area, which she believes has fallen out of recent memory.

“I have been around a little while, and learning more about our location and our predecessors is exciting,” said Campbell. “It’s like putting together a giant puzzle. It is hugely gratifying to share this small part of Richard Gilman’s story and that of early CSUF and Arboretum history with our community. One part of Richard Gilman’s story is part of our story, or the story of those who follow and part of the institutional stories shared by CSUF and the Fullerton Arboretum. I want to believe that by understanding how these people and components are related, that perhaps we have a better understanding of why they are important to our futures.”