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Were El Toro Apricots the Pits? Happily Yes!

"I’d pluck three or four of the little 'cots, flick off any stowaway ants, then enjoy the tangy-sweet pulp and—far from the disapproving eyes of grown-ups—allow the juice to trickle down my chin and neck."

About five years after my grandfather died, my grandmother sold their El Modena where they’d lived for almost 50 years and moved into a little house less than a mile from the City of Orange’s Plaza. Since my parents and I lived nearby, I was soon a frequent weekend guest.

Staying with Grandmother was great fun. For one thing, we made a point of always watching Password and the The Andy Griffith Show on her old Packard Bell TV set. For another, she spoiled me silly by preparing her special recipe of fried chicken for lunch ... better even than the Colonel’s, as I used to tell her.

An extra bonus was rummaging through the bottom drawer of her desk. Not only was it at first glance well-stocked with storybooks, crayons and drawing paper, but its depths revealed an assortment of envelopes and partially collapsed cardboard boxes, each chock-full of family photographs that Grandmother was willing to tell me about.

However, a good portion of Grandmother's day also included time on the phone with her El Modena Friends Church friends. Since these phone calls could go on seemingly forever, I’d often signal my intent—and she'd nod an okay—that I could play out in the backyard. 

Grandmother’s backyard was a large, square, grassy paradise. A clothesline ran parallel to a vine-covered back fence and to the side was a narrow concrete driveway and quaint little one-car garage. But the most outstanding features were two beautifully leafy trees. In season one bore peaches, the other apricots.

My favorite occupation was to sit under one of these trees and read a book or a ladies magazine snagged from Grandmother's coffee table. By late spring and early summer, the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae was when each of these trees was bearing their annual crop.

I couldn’t say which fruit was my favorite. But as I recall, the apricots changed color first. And if I was lucky, I’d be there just as pale green gave way to a soft yellow-orange, and just ahead of the man who sprayed for bugs and birds. Disregarding all but the most obvious of peck marks, I’d pluck three or four of the little 'cots, flick off any stowaway ants, then enjoy the tangy-sweet pulp and—far from the disapproving eyes of grown-ups—allow the juice to trickle down my chin and neck.

EL TORO’S FAMOUS EXPORT

As we know, advertised El Toro as a great place to make a living via  In the earlier days, however, when "the city"—Santa Ana—and adjacent areas had a water system but El Toro families got by with home-dug wells and dry farming, citrus was not the recommended crop. Instead Whiting sang the praises of prunes, pears, walnuts, and—most especially—apricots.

reports in A History of El Toro that shipping California fruit to the eastern states began in 1883 and "by 1887 was quite an industry," but that "aside from the region about Orange, Villa Park and Tustin, where the conditions favored and there was an adequate supply of water, chief interest was taken in apricots." The 'cots were not packed individually into boxes, as were the oranges, but first were dried and then packed for shipment. The success of El Toro fruit famers such as set the standard: In one season, Fox says, he not only shipped off ten tons of peaches, one ton of walnuts, and one ton of apples, but nine-and-a-half tons of dried apricots!

Another El Toro pioneer who raised apricots with considerable success was A. C. Twist. Like Captain Huddy, he was one of the . Fox says that Twist "came to Orange County with his bride in 1893." Next, after working for a few years to learn the care of orchards with E. P. Hoyle, "the first English colonist on the Whiting tract," Twist bought out Hoyle and built a house on the remaining unoccupied knoll. Twist then commenced planting apricots and, for more than a decade, harvested, dried, and sold 35 to 40 tons of apricots each season.

An article written by Saddleback Valley historian Sid Bomhard for the October 1984 issue of Dawn magazine continues the narrative. Apricots, she says, did very well in the general Orange County area, and "harvesting the fruit provided summer employment for many of the young people, some of whom came from towns like Santa Ana to spend their vacations working in the orchards. The boys and young men picked the fruit and carried trays, while the girls and women prepared the apricots for drying. There was a great deal of competition to be recognized as the fastest pitter. It was a social occasion, too, as the clatter of conversation kept pace with the speed of the fingers."

"A good crop of apricots, at the prices which have prevailed for several years past," wrote Samuel Armor in his 1921 History of Orange County, California, "will net the grower about $250 per acre . . . the statistician for 1910 gave the dried apricots from that year’s crop as 1,700,000 pounds, worth $170,000; but he took no account of the fresh apricots that were marketed and consumed before the drying commenced. These amounted to 105 tons worth $12,600."

FROM KIDS TO KAISERS

As we know from a previous El Toro & More, one of those apricot workers was , the youngest daughter of and Moulton.

"I remember pitting apricots one summer at the John Gless ranch," she said in a 1994 interview. "The boxes of apricots would be brought in from the orchards by horse teams and wagons, and we pitters would be lined up in rows beside long tables under some shed roofs. The boxes of apricots would be dumped out along the tables, and we would slice them in halves, remove the pits, and place them on trays, which would be then carried out and placed on the ground in the sun to dry ... I made a little money, of which I was most proud. I think my father was proud of me also."

Sid Bomhard further describes the process, which "involved cutting the apricots all around and slipping out the pits. Then the fruit halves were laid out on trays to dry for three days after being fumigated with sulpher. The pits were not discarded; some were sold for fuel to be used in steam boilers at local mines. Further uses were discovered such as in the making of baby powder and medicine. Machines were used to crack the kernels to get out the inner meat."

But baby powder and fuel were only half the story. For Bomhard adds that "Prior to the first World War, the export of pits to Europe was very profitable," and that "Germany used the cracked pits in the making of marzipan, an enjoyable sweet delicacy." Rumor had it that even Kaiser Bill had a strong affection for the delectable marzipan that had its origins in El Toro orchards.

With the advent of World War I, of course, that market disappeared, opening the way to other types of fruit production—, in particular—since new methods were now being developed to supply water to El Toro and its environs.

Despite the takeover of oranges, however, apricots continued to be popular among El Toro residents. As Clara Mason Fox wrote in the late 1930s, "Apricots proved to be the only deciduous fruit that could withstand our warm winters and dry summers, and some of the orchards they planted have been retained until very recently."

So although I've rhapsodized about ... well, I'd be equally happy to take a time machine back to El Toro, circa 1912, and breathe deeply the apricot-scented air!

Charles August 19, 2012 at 07:42 PM
Another excellent column. And, before it was called "El Toro", it was called "Aliso City" or the City of the Elder Tree.
BOOMFREAKAinLF August 21, 2012 at 12:50 PM
Thank you Janet Whitcomb for the wonderful insights of your childhood memories at 'grandma's house'. Brings to mind all the precious moments with my grandparents. I found it very interesting how young men and women would spend their vacations pitting 'cots! What a romantic idea!
Janet Whitcomb August 25, 2012 at 05:33 PM
Thanks, Charles! My first "El Toro & More"--way back in December 2010 [eye roll!]--does explore the name issue. However, I've since found additional information about how the name of El Toro came into being, and once I've researched the matter a bit more fully, I'll include it in a future column.
Janet Whitcomb August 25, 2012 at 05:39 PM
You're welcome, BoomfreakainLF, and I should mention that many young people from "the city" (Santa Ana) and other central Orange County communities met their future spouses during El Toro's fruit harvesting seasons. Yet another subject for a future El Toro & More!

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