The Wright Brothers had yet to fly their first airplane, the population of Fresno barely topped 10,000 and President William McKinley occupied the White House when an unknown farmer planted an orange grove west of Lindsay.
The year was 1898, and citrus farming in the San Joaquin Valley was just getting started.
Remarkably, the old orchard still stands.
Tom Wollenman, 70, a 1965 graduate of Lindsay High, owns the 20-acre orchard with his brother and sister. On a recent tour, he pointed to a tree at random.
“This is the original tree, the original root stock, the original limbs,” he said. “Nothing’s been grafted in here or changed since these things were put into the ground. It’s all original.”
Even by the standards of the citrus belt of the San Joaquin Valley, where many trees planted before World War II are still producing, to have a 119-year-old orange grove is exceptional.
At the very least, it is one of the oldest orange groves in the Valley and could be the oldest, Wollenman said.
“I don’t know of anything older,” he said.
Gurreet Brar, assistant professor of pomology at California State University, Fresno, said there are individual orange trees in California that are older. For instance, the oldest orange tree in the state is in Oroville and was planted in 1856.
I don’t know of anything older.
Tom Wollenman, citrus grower
But century-old commercial orange groves are another matter.
“It’s hard to keep that whole grove producing that long,” he said. “That’s very unusual.”
They key to success is root health, he said.
“If you have good soil, a good watering schedule and good nutrition, you can keep the trees going,” he said.
The oldest Washington navel tree in the state is in Riverside, was planted in the 1870s and is still producing, Brar said.
The seedless orange takes its name from Washington, D.C., where the United States Department of Agriculture had obtained an orange tree from Brazil, propagated it and sent the first ones to Eliza Tibbets in Riverside.
The California citrus industry started there and expanded to the San Joaquin Valley about 30 years later.
Wollenman has studied the history of citrus farming in the San Joaquin Valley, which began between 1895 and 1900, he said.
“Lindsay was the epicenter at the turn of the century,” he said. “By the process of elimination, you know that this is the oldest area of citrus growing” in the Valley.
The late G.A. Wollenman, Tom Wollenman’s father, bought the grove in the 1960s from Ernest Whittemore.
Whittemore had owned the property for decades and filled them in on the history. (Another branch of the Wollenman family, the Brownfields, owns a grove next door planted at the same time.)
Wollenman grew up on a citrus ranch outside of Lindsay and is general manager and vice president of LoBue Citrus, a packing house in Lindsay.
His cousins, Guy Wollenman, 64, and Jody Wollenman, 61, also grew up on a citrus ranch and are lifelong growers who manage their cousin’s orange grove and about 1,700 more acres of citrus.
Wollenman and his cousins say several factors explain the grove’s longevity.
It’s like the old vine Zinfandel in the grape industry. It’s got a unique taste.
Jody Wollenman, citrus grower
There’s no hardpan layer so the roots have excellent drainage. Hardpan is a thick, impermeable layer of soil below the surface that pervades the east side citrus-growing region. If not removed, trees grow poorly.
Thanks to the geography, cold air does not pool around the trees. Overnight lows during cold spells are not quite as low as in other spots. The freeze of 1913 wiped out thousands of orange trees in the area, but the trees here survived, Wollenman said.
Another factor is that the trees are grafted to grapefruit root stock rather than sour orange or sour lemon root stock. Wollenman and his cousins firmly believe this has given the trees additional resistance to diseases.
Additionally, there’s no evidence the trees were subjected to girdling – cutting a ring around the trunk – a technique once common in citrus but no longer used. When it’s done improperly, girdling introduces disease.
It’s hard for non-farmers to believe that a grove so old could still produce commercial quantities of fruit, but the trees routinely produce 600 to 650 cartons per acre.
If you have good soil, a good watering schedule and good nutrition, you can keep the trees going.
Gurreet Brar, assistant professor of pomology at California State University, Fresno
“That’s normal yield,” Wollenman said.
But it’s the taste of the “old line” Washington navels that gets Wollenman and his cousins most excited.
“It’s noted for its very unique flavor,” Wollenman said of the orchard. “It has some of the finest flavor that you can find from an orange grove in central California. We go to special markets with this type or fruit.”
“It’s like the old vine Zinfandel in the grape industry,” his cousin Jody said. “It’s got a unique taste.”
The age of the grove and the flavor of the oranges are why the Wollenmans market them as “heritage reserve” oranges.
The Wollenmans came up with that marketing phrase, said Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual based in Exeter. Another citrus producer has also used the term for some old-grove oranges, he said.
Although heritage reserve is not a technical term in the field of citrus research, “I think it’s a good marketing strategy,” Brar said.
The taste is more than opinion, Wollenman said. The oranges from his old grove excel in lab tests that measure sugar and other attributes, he said.
The fate of most orange groves is to be torn out and replanted new – but not here.
“How long will the grove go on like this? I don’t know,” Wollenman said. “As I look at this grove right now, I’d say it’s good for another 100 years.”