History of Citrus Crate Label Art

                                                                      by Ralph Thomas



In 1877, William Wolfskill, a pioneer citrus grower, sent a carload of oranges from Los Angeles to St. Louis.  The fruit was carefully packed in wooden crates that were branded on the box end Wolfskill, California Oranges.  A month later the oranges arrived in good condition and this was the start of a friendship between orange growers and the railroad.  Strong local demand quickly spread eastward as the railroad opened up new opportunities.  California packers needed an effective way to identify and advertise a product for customers who lived thousands of miles away.  They developed a wood shipping box about 12”x 12”x 27”, and used a label on the box end.  If oranges could make the trip from sunny Los Angeles to the East, why shouldn’t folks from the East dream of a sweeter world at the other end of the railroad tracks.  Thousands were lured to California for its healthy climate and acres of land that would produce the golden fruit. 

 

A great publicity campaign was launched with the slogan Oranges for Health, California for Wealth and there was the largest migration to California since the Gold Rush.  Between 1880 and 1890 the population increased by 345,000.  The great influx of citrus settlers that conversed on Los Angeles, Pasadena, Riverside, Pomona, Santa Ana, San Bernardino and Santa Paula made brand name labeling a virtual necessity-besides as a matter of pride, each family wanted to personalize its shipments East.  Typically, early labels featured the grower’s name and place and a rendering of the nearby landscape.

 

During the panic of 1885, many disillusioned California settlers returned east.  The citrus boom had gotten out of hand and with surplus production, deflated currency and market manipulation, many lost their dreams of citrus success.  In August 1893, T.H. Chamblin and P.J. Dreher decided the only way to keep the citrus industry alive was to form a cooperative of growers.  They unified all the major Southern California growers into one cooperative.  By 1905, they had adopted the name California Fruit Growers Exchange which established the Sunkist trademark.

 

The Exchange created the secret code of theme labels, whereby each packinghouse used 2 or 3 related brands such as Basketball, Athlete and Umpire with one receiving the Sunkist logo and the other classified as Fancy or Choice.  You could tell by looking at the label on the end of the boxes what quality of fruit they held.  After 1918, all three major marketing cooperatives marked their labels with grade standards, with the most aesthetically pleasing fruit receiving the top grade like Sunkist or Pure Gold.  Blemished fruit had no grading on their labels.  Some labels, like Peasant, encouraged buyers to purchase the cosmetically flawed fruit despite their appearances.

 

The history of citrus crate label art is a rich and vivid one.  The earliest surviving labels were only six inches in diameter, featured branded trademarks and were pasted on rectangular patterns stenciled on wooden citrus crates.  Before long, they were replaced by larger, more colorful labels (approximately 11” x 10”), which were pasted onto the ends of the crates.  Most of these early citrus crate labels were designed by artists who worked for two California lithographers, Schmidt Litho. Company of San Francisco and Western Litho. Company of Los Angeles.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of these artists didn’t receive individual recognition for their work.  The reasons for this are many: label designs were often a joint project, many litho companies didn’t allow artists to sign their work and many artists considered their work nothing more than paste-up commercialism, anyway.  In the seven decades of citrus crate art, the labels reflected the ever-changing state of American commercial art. 

 

The first successful artist/salesman team to bring their wares to the California citrus groves was C.A. Beck and E.H. Lenz of Schmidt Lithograph in Los Angeles.  In 1889, Beck designed several stock labels with different images such as, crystal bowls filled with citrus fruit, green palm trees, and lovely women frolicking on the seashore and waving from trains holding baskets of golden fruit.  No brand names were included.  A grower would pick his favorite labels and wait for delivery of the labels sporting his name.  Eventually, this method created a problem, since many growers ended up with the same label design.  Because the use of stock labels resulted in no differentiation between growers, E.H. Lenz began carrying his artist’s tools right into the citrus groves.  His tools included copyrighted pictures of plates or bowls of fruit, peeled and unpeeled, fruit with leaves, postcards and magazine illustrations.  Working with scissors and paste and often using a picture of the grower’s family and ranch, Lenz would create a unique label for that grower. 

 

Almost 500 separate labels were being developed by the spring of 1901 and at the same time, brand name awareness was a relatively new concept in advertising.  Because it was assumed that women would be responding to the designs, many of the labels were drawn with soft colors showing innocent women, children, flowers, birds and bowls of fruit.  Through market research, it was discovered that the target for the labels should be the buyers at the wholesale markets, not housewives.  When the growers realized their labels should attract the attention of wholesale buyers, they began to design their labels with a more masculine flair.  The artists began using themes showing the Old West.  Bronco, Redskins and Indian Belle brands all captured the romantic frontier of the West and attracted the male eye at the wholesale market.  Eventually growers hit upon the most appealing subject of all for their labels, women.  As time wore on, the ladies became more and more seductive.  In the 1920’s, the innocent princess was a favorite image.  By the 1930’s, sultry ladies with a come-hither look were popular, no doubt influenced by the Hollywood dream makers.  Around the 1940’s, the women on citrus box labels became pin-up girls, the picture of glowing health holding a piece of fruit.  As the California Fruit Growers Exchange grew, the growers were encouraged to give up their homespun labels in favor of eye-catching titles and sharply-defined images that would be easily remembered.  

 

Though a kaleidoscope of concepts, themes and production techniques were used from mid-1880’s to the mid-1950, crate art can be divided into three distinct periods.

The first period, “Naturalism” lasted from mid 1880’s to the end of World War I.  Citrus crate labels in this period pictured everyday subjects such as flowers, California scenery, the growers’ homes, orchards, birds and animals and the old west including Indians, cowboys, pioneer hero’s and  Mexican heritage.

 

Attractive women have always been a popular theme with citrus crate label artists.  In the “Naturalism” period, most of these renditions were naturalistic portraits of actual women.  Two exceptions to that style were the Gypsy Queen Brand label from F.H. Speich & Co. of Riverside, California showing an exotic 1891 portrait of a lovely gypsy and a label featuring a mythological goddess adorned in a flowing robe from the Riverside Fruit Company.

 

The early labels possessed a quality that the later ones seemed to lack, exceptionally subtle color hues.  Instead of using standardized colors, the pressman in the early days created colors and inks from scratch, jealously regarding their formulas as trade secrets.  In addition, the crude and cumbersome printing process known as stone lithography lent itself particularly well to the reproduction of subtle color gradations.

 

The second period of citrus crate art, “Advertising” stretched from the end of World War I until the mid-1930’s.  As America began changing from a predominately rural to a more cosmopolitan, urbanized society, label themes also became more sophisticated and began stressing product identification, advertising and the health benefits of eating oranges.  The discovery of vitamins in 1915 fueled America’s interest on health issues.  The citrus industry responded by heavily marketing the Vitamin C content in their produce.  Another reason for the new emphasis on advertising lay in the watershed study conducted in 1918 by the advertising manager of the California Fruit Growers Exchange.  He pointed out that naturalistic renderings did little to sell oranges and lemons and those labels should be designed, colored and lettered with the buyer in mind who were mostly men.  Labels then began exhibiting all the elements of successful posters- the images were clear and simple, the messages were direct and the titles were compelling.  The Fancia label, a colorful example printed in 1932, shows changes made during the advertising period.  It retains the use of a landscape, but artists updated the design by framing it with the human figure standing outside the frame.  The figure’s attire reflects the Hispanic heritage of the region, another carry-over from the naturalistic period.  The inclusion of his smoking on the label was a new design element reflecting the cultural changes during the 1920’s.

 

The final period of citrus crate art, “Commercial Art” began around 1935 and lasted until mid-1950’s.  Commercial art school concepts emphasized graphic product identification through a variety of techniques, such as abstract geometric patterns and dramatic renditions of oranges and lemons.  Lettering, often three dimensional, frequently became the main image.  Those labels introduced during this period used bold colors and block letters to attract the buyer’s attention.  Sunny Heights (1930’s) is a vivid example of the ubiquitous orange grove, but with the brand name formulated in block letters with color gradation in the title that gives depth and dimension.  The use of offset photolithography marked the major change in label designs.  Airbrushing and color gradation had not been possible using older techniques.  Photolithography also decreased advertising costs, a needed measure for businesses operating during the Depression.  The Depression also caused more competition between the various brands.  Few new designs were introduced, as the citrus associations continued to use older labels with some updating. 

 

Shortages of materials during World War I forced the advancement of lithography.  Metal plates for printing and more sophisticated methods of color composition were developed.  After World War I and the introduction of the corrugated cardboard box, most growers used the soft cardboard at the bottom of the crate as a “shock absorber” for the fruit.  It took twenty-five years and World War II to force the use of cardboard boxes for packing fruit.  Shortages of wood, aluminum and manpower affected the citrus industry.  Metal plates used by lithographers were sacrificed to scrap metal drives and the loss of manpower to build the crates all caused the demise of the need for citrus labels.  The citrus labels were reduced to a mere two-color stamp on the end of a paper box.  At the end of World War II, the labels quietly disappeared.   Supermarkets, which were springing up everywhere, cared less about brand differences than did the small stores and the jobbers.  As the advertising value of the labels declined, the cardboard boxes were labeled for simple identification purposes, just as the first citrus crates were in the 1880’s.  The new boxes were imprinted with simple two-color drawings by applying the name and graphic directly on the stock prior to the box assembly.

 

The acres of citrus groves soon became the sites of homes for the returning veterans and their growing families.  The homes still had a citrus tree or two in the backyard, but the commercial fruit-bearing groves were now being planted in central California and Arizona.  An era of creative and innovative graphic label art had ended.

 

In the 70-year history of citrus crate labels, more than 8000 distinct designs were developed for use on over two billion boxes.  If all the minor variations of these labels are included, the total number of designs nearly doubles.  Many of the labels designed and used over their rich 70-year history no longer exist or are extremely rare.  Today, the existing examples of citrus crate art provide a colorful, historical look at American society, commercial art and California business.

 

 

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                                                              Marketing California’s Gold

                                                        By Ralph H. Thomas




Today, we take marketing for granted.  It is everywhere.  Products are advertised on TV, radio, billboards, the internet, iPhones and through social media.  It is hard to imagine that marketing, advertising and product branding were relatively new concepts in 1900.  Early marketers determined that demand consisted of more than simple purchasing power. It was driven by consumer desire. New experiences with advertising were proving that desire could be increased and molded by factors other than the mere existence of supply.  As the quantity of products steadily increased at the beginning of the 20th century, marketers realized that the market was shifting from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market.  As citrus production increased beyond what could be consumed locally, this shift also applied to the California citrus industry.  California citrus growers and shippers would be faced with how to market and sell California’s gold beyond local markets.

Prior to the 1840’s, land west of the Mississippi was considered a waste land of little value.  This would all change in 1849 when gold was discovered in California.  Over the next 25 years, milestones such as the passing of the Homestead Act of 1862, completion of the transcontinental railroad and the telegraph in 1869 and introduction of the Washington Navel orange to California in 1873, would bring the second “Gold Rush”. 

Promotions for Southern California by the Southern Pacific Railroad promised year-round sunshine and glorified farming in order to entice people to re-locate there.  “It was not until the opening of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe (rail) lines in 1885 that the highest development took place,” Rahno Mabel MacCurdy wrote in The History of the California Fruit Growers Exchange.  “From this time on there was a veritable boom in orange planting,” MacCurdy noted.  Between 1880 and 1893, California’s citrus acreage jumped from 3,000 to over 40,000.  These events would soon present early citrus growers with a class of problems they had never faced before; how to pack, ship and market their oranges to consumers who lived thousands of miles away.

Until the mid 1880’s, oranges grown in California were mainly for local consumption.  By the late 1880’s, California citrus production exceeded what local markets could handle.  California citrus growers soon realized that in order to survive, they would need to ship their oranges east.  Growers were faced with a number of challenges shipping their fruit outside California.  There were weak distribution methods, no marketing capabilities and 2,000-3,000 miles that separated them from Eastern markets.

As early as the 1880’s, growers were branding their citrus by stenciling their names on the end of their wooded citrus crates.   By 1885, these stencils were replaced with paper labels that were glued on the ends of wooden citrus crates.  This was the first form of advertising that was used locally and would continue to be an element of advertising for the next 70 years.

Paper crate label from the turn of the century measuring 11 inches by 10 inches used by California citrus growers to identify and advertise their citrus shipped throughout the U.S.

The first step in creating a national marketing strategy was to coordinate growers and packer’s interest by creating an organization that would improve current methods of selling citrus.  A number of marketing organizations were created between 1885 and 1891, but because of a lack of collaboration and in-fighting, they all failed.  Finally in 1892, the first 2 successful citrus growers associations (organized by and for growers) were formed.  They would become the foundation of the Southern California Fruit Exchange, which was formed by 1893.  This organization created a "pool" from which to process and market its member’s fruit. The packing houses belonging to the cooperative graded, packed, and shipped the fruit, which the Exchange marketed. Each grower received a share of the proceeds based on quality, as well as the quantity of the fruit that was marketed.  Through branding and advertising, the orange would be transformed from a luxury household item to a necessity.

Prior to 1893, the quality of citrus had been unregulated.  One cornerstone of the new Exchange was quality.  As a member of the exchange, growers and packers were required to supply and sell only the highest quality citrus.  Growers and packers were desperate for an effective way to sell their citrus and thus they joined the Exchange.  In its first season of operation, the exchange represented 80 percent of all the orange growers in Southern California.  Over the next 10 years, the Exchange would experience a decrease in market share due to increased competition from old established dealers, commission agents and independent shippers.  By 1903, the Exchange represented only 47 percent of the orange output of Southern California.  In 1904, the Exchange announced to its members that it had decided to expand beyond its focus on quality and the orderly distribution of fruit to expanding its sales force and marketing efforts.  This would be the beginning of one of the most successful marketing organizations of all time.  To more effectively represent not only Southern California growers, but growers throughout the state, in 1905 the name of the cooperative was changed to the California Fruit Growers Exchange (Sunkist).  By the end of the 1904-05 growing season, the Exchange would represent 45 percent of California’s entire citrus industry.

The Exchange was now ready to launch its first advertising campaign.  Although there were many Exchange members against advertising because they felt it was an unnecessary extravagance, in 1907, $10,000 was approved to launch the first advertising campaign.  A three color newspaper ad in black, green and orange was developed to promote oranges. It would mark the first time a perishable fruit product was ever advertised.  On March 2, 1908 the ad ran in the Des Moines Register declaring “Orange Week in Iowa”.  The campaign cost less than $7,000.  While business for the country as a whole increased 20 percent, business in Iowa alone gained 50%.

The first Sunkist ad was drawn by the nationally famous cartoonist -J. N.”Ding” Darling

The Exchange realized that it needed a trademark/logo rather than just using the Exchange name.  In April 1908, the Exchange agreed on the word “Sunkist” as its trademark to appear on its best grades of fruit.

The Sunkist Sunburst logo appeared on paper crate labels of packers who were members of the cooperative indicating the best grades of fruit

“The purpose of advertising is to bring people to the product and the purpose of merchandising is to bring the product to people.  The Exchange was now ready to launch their first merchandising campaign.  To ensure that the Sunkist trademark would be exclusively associated with the Exchange, a plan also was developed to stamp the paper wrapper that enveloped each piece of fruit with the “Sunkist” name.  And to make sure that those wrappers stayed on the fruit until the consumer bought it, the Exchange offered a promotional gift.  For every twelve wrappers and twelve cents a consumer turned in, he or she would receive a sharp-pointed spoon for eating oranges cut in half.  Thousands of orders poured in, causing the Exchange to add knives and forks to the offer.”

“Many a bride in the period 1910 to 1917 started her silver service with the Orange Blossom silverware offered by the Exchange,” The Sunkist Courier recalled many years later.  “So popular was the offer that the orders for spoons reached the staggering total of over 5,000 per day.  The Exchange became the largest single purchaser of flat silver in the world.”

By 1915, the Exchange’s advertising budget had increased to $250,000 a year.  Color ads were placed in famous national magazines.  These ads also included coupons for cookbooks, recipes and suggestions for uses of citrus.  The exchange membership was now producing 12 million boxes of oranges a year and consisted of 8,000 members (or 65%) of California’s citrus growers.  The Exchange knew in order to keep and grow its membership it would need to seek other ways to market the growing citrus crop.

Until 1916, orange juice was virtually unknown.  Oranges were eaten on the half-shell or sliced and eaten.  In 1916, one of the most successful advertising campaigns the Exchange ran began to appear in national magazines.  “The “Drink an Orange” campaign marked the first time orange juice was promoted.  “Because there were no juice extractors large enough for oranges on the market, the Exchange assisted in the development and distribution of the devices.  It persuaded glass companies to produce a million glass reamers for the exchange to distribute through retail outlets.  Glass hand juicers were offered for 10 cents each.”  The “Drink an Orange” campaign had exceeded all expectations.  Consumption of oranges increased from half an orange per serving to three per serving.

“Juice advertising became one of the most powerful innovations the Exchange ever introduced.  In addition to non-exchange members, other benefited as well.  Producers of tomatoes, grapes, apples and prunes soon followed what the Exchange had done.”

Ad promoting orange juice along with recipes and suggestions for additional uses for citrus

By 1920, Exchange members were producing almost 75% of all the citrus in California.  The discovery in 1912 that a lack of vitamins could lead to disease would produce another opportunity to market its members citrus.  In 1920, the Exchange would become the first to mention vitamins in its ad copy, emphasizing Vitamin C.  It had been reported that Vitamin C could be found in large amounts in citrus fruit.  Through the 1920’s, orange juice consumption would be promoted focusing on its nutritional value to young children.  The Exchange would also manufacture and sell thousands of Sunkist Electric Fruit Juice Extractors to soda fountains introducing fresh squeezed orange juice on a large scale. The Exchange would focus its advertising on the healthful benefits of Vitamin C and citrus for the next two decades.

In the late 1920’s, the Exchange would use other marketing approaches.  It would sponsor the first commercial radio broadcast between California and the East Coast.  It would also be the first organization to use motion picture stars in radio programs.  These programs were interspersed with announcements about the healthfulness of Sunkist oranges and orange juice.  In 1926, oranges would be stamped with the Sunkist brand, eliminating the need for tissue wrappers that once carried the brand name.

By 1930, the Exchange continued to diversify its advertising campaigns, promoting the Sunkist name and its high quality citrus.  One popular means of advertising was using promotional signs on thousands of street cars across the country.  Another method of exposure was sponsoring weekly radio programs.  The name “Sunkist” had become the world’s best know brand for fresh fruit.  “Surveys indicated that advertising by the Exchange had played a big role in increasing per-capita consumption of oranges from 31 a year in 1906, to 52 by 1926, and to 79 by 1936.”

During the 1940’s, the Exchange used network radio to advertise the Sunkist brand.  Radio provided coverage not only to the large metropolitan areas, but the surrounding rural and small towns as well.  The Exchange expanded its use of newspaper and national magazines.  “In one of the most popular pieces in its history, the Exchange promoted the “Sunkist Baby” in its Valencia orange advertisements.  The healthy little girl showed, in consecutive ads, how nicely “Sunkist-fed” babies grew from year to year.”  During World War II, citrus production reached an all time high.

As with anything else, that which goes up must eventually come down and the citrus industry inevitably began to decline by the 1950’s as a result of urban development across Southern California. “The rapid and persistent growth of Southern California during the war and since is changing somewhat the map of citrus production” the Exchange general manager wrote.  “Citrus groves in the Los Angeles Metropolitan area and around the perimeter of the principal citrus belt communities are giving way to sub-division and other types of construction caused by industrial development in the area.”  With these changes, the hay day of marketing California’s gold came to an end.

Sources:          Heritage of Gold-The First 100 Years of Sunkist Growers

                        The California Citrograph

                                                         

                                             Making Lemons into Lemonade

                                                       By Ralph H. Thomas


 

The early citrus industry in California was dominated by the orange but by 1920, lemon production was exploding.  A number of new orchards throughout California were bearing fruit and new lemon packing houses were being built.  In 1887, 12 railroad cars of lemons were shipped from California. By 1920, 12,000 railroad cars were shipped.  At 400 boxes per car, the American public used 4,800,000 boxes of California lemons and 13,000 boxes of Italian lemons that year.

 

In 1920, it was reported by the San Dimas Lemon Association that in San Dimas, you could find “the beautiful, fragrant, waxy-white blossom on a green, glossy leaved lemon tree where valleys of citrus groves lie outstretched beneath magnificent snow capped mountains”.  You could also find one of the largest producing sections for Sunkist lemons in California.  Not to mention the largest cooperative Lemon Association in the California Fruit Growers Exchange (Sunkist), with 510 growers shipping their lemons through the San Dimas Lemon Associations packing house.

 

The best trees require strong parent stock and San Dimas was known as a nursery center.  Hundreds of thousands of trees from the San Dimas Citrus Nurseries (Teague Nurseries’) were grown in San Dimas and shipped around the world. These nurseries were the first to market “performance record” trees.  They took records over the course of several years on individual tree production from the best bearing groves and were able to segregate the trees that grew the greatest quantity of high-grade fruit.  From the best trees, they used fruit wood in propagating their nursery stock.  This ensured that the buyer was receiving the most reliable trees from the nursery.  A tree in full bearing would produce approximately 5 packed boxes of lemons annually.  Since a box would average around 300 lemons, each tree would produce 1500 lemons per year.  One tree was recorded to have produced 3000 lemons in one year!

 

Unlike apple, peach or orange trees, the lemon tree bears fruit year round.  Every month of the year you can find blossoms and fruit of all sizes on the same tree.  A lemon tree begins to bear fruit at about 4 years, but it must be 8 to 10 years old before it produces a profit.

 

At the turn of the century, lemon growers were faced with the challenge of increasing the number of lemons sold to consumers. How could they market the fruit in a way that would increase sales? 

 

The California Fruit Growers Exchange (Sunkist) was responsible for advertising and promoting citrus for it growers and shippers.  Although advertising was considered a waste of money by many growers, in 1908, funding was authorized to print one million stickers reading “Sunkist Lemons” that would be pasted on the regular labels of Sunkist shippers. Eventually, lemons would become a household necessity for years to come.

 

At the height of the lemon industry, lemons were picked every 4-6 weeks.  Unlike most fruit, lemons were picked while still perfectly green, not only in appearance but in development.  The fruit was gently clipped from the trees, never pulled. Each picker carried a ring in his left hand which he used to measure the lemon and determine if it was large enough to pick.  Once picked, the green fruit was taken to the packing house where it was stored in a temperature and humidity controlled room.  After approximately 30 days, the fruit would “cure” and take on a beautiful yellow color.  The fruit was so delicate and tender that the least little scratch would start decaying the lemon, so the pickers and packers all wore gloves. At the packing house, women graded the fruit after it was thoroughly washed.  The packers sized the fruit as they wrapped each lemon in tissue paper wraps.  Fruit of the same size was packed together and depending on the size, the number of lemons per box ranged from 210 to 490.

 

As producers discovered that lemons had a variety of uses, promotions for lemon sales depended on the time of year and consumer preference. The most common use of lemons was for making lemonade.  A story about lemons would not be complete without reference to an old rhyme:  “Lemonade, ice-cold lemonade, made in the shade, stirred with a spade by an old maid, ice-cold lemonade.”  It was reported that “You must visit San Dimas to find the shade that makes lemonade—the beautiful shade of a green-leaved California lemon grove.”

 

In 1920, the lemon industry branched out and lemons became known for their usefulness as a beautifier.  It was alleged that lemon juice would “Take off freckles, remove shine, bleach tan, make the skin soft, manicure the fingernails, make the hair soft and fluffy after a shampoo and was a splendid mouth wash.”  While talking about lemons on a local radio broadcast, the question was asked, “Do you know a girl who looks like a lemon?  It is probably because she doesn’t use lemons to improve her complexion and hair.  San Dimas girls are all good looking because they use lemon juice.”

 

Through the 1940’s, lemons were promoted for a number of uses.  They were introduced as lemon soap cleaner, a stain remover and a brass cleaner.  They were promoted heavily for use in lemon pie, as a condiment to bring out flavor, garnish for food, and flavoring in desserts and punches.  It was suggested that hot lemonade could be used as a laxative and that it could ward off colds and flu in the winter. The vitamin and mineral content in lemons was touted as being an important part of one’s overall nutrition.  Lemon by-products were used to produce citric acid for medicinal and industrial purposes as well as pectin in jelly.  Lemon oil was used as a flavor additive, particularly in ice creams and confections.  With this multitude of uses, it is no wonder that the California lemon industry thrived for years by “making lemons into lemonade”.

 

 

 

 

                                                              Los Angeles County Fair Cancelled?

                                                                  by Ralph Thomas 

 

 It was March of 1951, and over 1.2 million annual attendees of the Los Angeles County Fair waited in anticipation of a final decision.  Rumor had it that the Fair may be cancelled until the end of “the international unrest”. According to the Fair president, C. J. (Jack) Afflerbaugh, completion of a special lease deal would end the fair indefinitely and bring a halt to automobile and harness racing on the track there.  The front page headliners read:  “Dickering for L.A. Fair Ground”, “Lease Deal Seen as Threat to County Fair”, “County Fair Cancellation.  Use of Ground for War Plant Near”. 

 

Who could be responsible for all this havoc?  None other than one of the most controversial men of his time, Howard Hughes. 

 

To indulge his obsession for flying, Hughes had established Hughes Aircraft Company in 1932 as a new division of the Hughes Tool Company.  In the beginning, Hughes Aircraft “was nothing more than a glorified machine shop” which Hughes used exclusively for his tinkering.  The company lost money for years as a struggling defense contractor.  But that would all change in 1948 when the Air Force awarded Hughes Aircraft a contract to build the first electronics weapons system for the Lockheed F-94. Other Air Force contracts would follow, including the Falcon air-to-air missile and the electronic weapons and navigational system that would become the backbone of the American air defense strategy.  Because of their reputation as pioneers in the industry, Hughes Aircraft became the sole supplier for weapons systems when the Korean War broke out in 1950. To meet expanding commitments the company needed more space.  Enter, the L.A. County Fair ground site.

 

Hughes Aircraft Company of Culver City was negotiating with the County Fair association for a three year lease of the property.  Hughes planned to transform the 400 acre grounds at Pomona into a Hughes guided missile assembly plant.  The exposition buildings would supposedly be used for “aircraft assembly,” but it was generally known in 1951 that the Hughes Company was engaged almost exclusively in secret guided missiles and electronics research projects.

 

 

No sooner had it started and the deal was off.  Only fourteen days after rumors fled, the headlines read, “Fair Grounds Deal with Hughes is Off”. Afflerbaugh released a statement saying that the deal with Howard Hughes was cancelled “following change of plans by the Hughes Company.”  Hughes would ultimately expand the Culver City Plant, sparing the fairgrounds.  The 1951 Fair was held as scheduled, September 14 through 30 and 1,250,000 attendees breathed a sigh of relief.


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