Monday, December 29, 2008

Women Changing the Course of History: Eliza Tibbets

I'd never heard of Eliza Tibbets before this morning. Now, I wonder how that could possibly have been the case.

To provide some context, my wife and I have been on a "mini-vacation" (less than 24 full hours) with her parents in Riverside, CA, staying at the famous Mission Inn, which is worth a blog entry in its own right. After a restful night's sleep, we took a tour of the Inn this morning, and it was during that tour that I learned about Mrs. Tibbets' story.

As the story was told to us, Mrs. Tibbets was in possession of two small navel orange trees. Although her husband didn't think much of the project, and forbade his wife from wasting water on the frivolous endeavor, Mrs. Tibbets faithfully watered the trees with used dishwater, and eventually the trees grew and flourished, and became the parents of all navel oranges produced in America to this day.

Naturally, such a story caught my attention, and so I decided to do a bit of research to see how much of that was true (this is my most reputable source, although I've checked several others. Note that the link leads directly to a PDF file). I've been able to verify a surprising amount. The trees apparently did come to Riverside at Eliza's initiation, through a friend, one William Saunders, who the Tibbetses knew in Washington, DC, where they lived before emigrating to Southern California. Saunders was in possession of the young navel orange trees through a connection in Brazil, from which it appears that this variety originates. Unfortunately for Saunders, his attempts to grow the trees were unsuccessful. Eliza asked to be given a chance to see if she could do better.

Apparently, there may have been as many as three young trees sent to California, but one was either trampled or eaten by cattle, and thus didn't survive. As to the two that remained, apparently they were indeed sustained via dishwater, as the Tibbetses were apparently not connected to any canal water at the time. This would certainly support the idea that water was scarce, although I haven't found explicit verification for the idea that Luther Tibbets actually forbade his wife from using fresher water on the plants, nor that he actively disapproved of the project. On the other hand, it does appear that his involvement in cultivating the trees was minimal, and he is even called "a poor businessman" in the article linked above. This may be especially noteworthy since the successful cultivation of navel oranges was apparently responsible for revolutionizing the California citrus industry, which was indeed one of the main sources of California wealth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The navel orange has, in fact, been called "the most important plant introduction ever made into the United States."

One of Eliza Tibbets' navel orange trees died in 1921, but the other continues to survive to this day (now over 130 years old!), and is indeed considered to be the parent of potentially all existing navel oranges anywhere (the original stock in Brazil has since died off, although an offshoot of one of Tibbets' trees was given to Brazil in 1955 as a gift). (Many of these strong, but unlinked, statements can be verified through the PDF file linked above.)

Besides her involvement in introducing navel oranges to the commercial world, Eliza Tibbets was apparently also a political campaigner (with her husband) for various social issues, including and especially women's suffrage. Sadly, she died roughly 20 years before women were actually granted the right to vote across the United States.

I'm often impressed with how small things can sometimes prove to make such a big difference. Here, the use of some leftover water, dirty from washing dishes, was responsible for a huge portion of California commerce as a young state, and thus for much of what we take for granted on the West Coast today. Thanks, Mrs. Tibbets!

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  1. Great story--hurrah for Eliza!! Thanks for the research. C & B

  2. That's pretty cool. Thanks for sharing. :)

  3. Very cool! I love learning stuff like this when I travel (when I can drag my hubby out). Thank you for posting it (as you can see - I'm very behind on my blog reading... lol). Jodie Edwards

  4. Thanks for sharing Eliza's story! I am a sculptor and we are currently creating a monument celebrating Eliza's many contributions. The bronze sculpture will be installed next to the Mission Inn in Riverside. Thought you would like to know. Thanks Again!

  5. Thank you for your research. Eliza is my great, great, great, great grandmother and much of my mothers family still lives in the Riverside. I read somewhere recently that they are going to dedicate a statue of her in June! Hope I can make it :)


  6. I'd read about the statue recently, myself. That's really cool! Best wishes!

  7. New biography and history of Eliza Lovell Tibbets and the history of the naval orange:

    New Sculpture to be dedicated at Riverside August 5th 7Pm:



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