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The Introduction of the Washington Navel Orange to California
By Gordon T. McClelland

Griffin & Skelley Washington Navel
Washington Navel Orange label
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The Washington Navel orange is considered by many to be the very finest tasting variety of orange. In the mid-1870s it was discovered that this particular variety of citrus fruit would not only grow well in the Riverside area, but it would actually thrive in this environment. That discovery changed the course of citrus growing in California and greatly helped establish California as the premier producer of top quality eating oranges for the world. The navel orange industry expanded rapidly, and between 1885 and 1955 thousands of different orange box labels were designed to promote the sale of this luxury fruit.

The history of how the Washington Navel orange made its way to California begins with a man named Francis J.C. Schneider (1832-1910). He immigrated to America from Germany and by 1861 was a Pastor, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church of the United States. German was his first language, but he spoke English as well. In the early 1860s, he traveled to Brazil where he was asked to lead a church attended by German colonists and other local residents. By the late 1860s, he had settled into a ministry in Bahia, Brazil.

  Francis J.C. Schneider
  Francis J.C. Schneider

After moving to Bahia, he became aware of some orange trees that were growing on Sr. Teixeria’s farm, which was named Engenho Velho. This farm was located in the suburbs of Bahia, not too far from the Schneider home. After eating the oranges from Teixeria’s trees, Schneider decided to write to the United States Department of Agriculture in Washington D.C. and let them know about the existence of this great tasting orange with no seeds.

William Saunders
William Saunders

After receiving a response to his letter, Schneider mailed a box of twigs from the Bahia orange trees to Washington D.C. for inspection. William Saunders, the Superintendent of Garden and Grounds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wrote back and stated that the twigs had dried out in transit and were useless. He went on to say that for any propagation of this fruit, he would need to receive several small trees in reasonably healthy condition. Schneider arranged to acquire these trees and several other citrus varieties from Teixeria’s farmlands.

The trees were carefully boxed and shipped to Washington D.C., as per Saunders' instructions. They arrived in good condition, and as soon as they flowered, the buds from the Bahia trees were budded onto healthy citrus stock that Saunders had ready and waiting. By 1873, Saunders had a number of small navel orange trees growing.

  Eliza Tibbits
  Eliza Tibbits

That year, Saunders was asked to send a few of these trees, budded to the Bahia orange variety, to the Luther and Eliza Tibbits homestead in Riverside, California. This was an experiment to see if this variety would grow in the soil and climate of California. The Tibbits were grain farmers, not fruit farmers, and although they were clearly the ones who requested the trees and had them shipped to Riverside, they had no idea of how to properly plant and care for them.

Fortunately, when the trees arrived, three horticulture enthusiasts named George Garcelon, Josiah Cover and Samuel McCoy were there to help. The trees were carefully planted in the Tibbits front yard and were cared for by Cover and McCoy, who owned a fruit farm and nursery across the street from the Tibbits farm.

Luther Tibbits
Luther Tibbits

When the trees flowered, Cover and McCoy took buds and budded them onto mature orange trees they had growing in their orchard. As a result, Cover and McCoy actually had a mature crop of Bahia Navel oranges, before the Tibbits. Within two years it was obvious that this variety grew extremely well and produced outstanding oranges. The Tibbits started a business selling buds from their trees, while Cover and McCoy developed the world’s first commercial grove of Bahia Navel oranges.

That is the story of how the Bahia variety of navel orange was introduced to the California commercial citrus industry. Settlers in Riverside began promoting this variety as the Riverside Navel orange, but by the late 1880s, horticulturists settled on the name Washington Navels as a tribute to them coming to California from Washington D.C. William Saunders thought they should have been called Bahia Navels, but Washington Navels is the name that stuck and is still being used today.

Primary Sources:

  • Thirty-Ninth Annual Report, Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church, April 30, 1876.
  • Pacific Rural Press, San Bernardino County Notes, June 1897.
  • Department Bulletin #445, United States Department of Agriculture, Washington D.C., February 10, 1917.
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