Go See the Surviving Parent Navel Orange Tree in Riverside, California Where Our Roots Run Deep

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Eliza's Plaque. | Heather Monroe

A tree stands beneath a protective tent at the intersection of Arlington and Magnolia Avenues. Motorists and pedestrians pass every day without considering this remarkable tree and why it has grown there for over a hundred years. Truthfully, this tree is a living memorial to one of Riverside’s founders and a testament to the spirit of equality and perseverance that all Riversiders share.

Her name was Eliza

When Eliza arrived in Riverside in 1871, she was 48 years old. Eliza had been married three times and buried four daughters. Eliza was raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, by two extremely progressive thinking parents. The family belonged to the Swedenborg Church, which taught that slavery wasn’t simply unjust but incompatible with Christianity.

Eliza Lovell left Cincinnati as an adult. The American Civil War turned her hometown into a hostile and dangerous environment. She lived in New York City, where she made friends with influential folks involved in the Spiritualist Movement. There, Eliza found work as a medium and frequently conducted seances for money. She also met and married her third husband, Luther Tibbets.

Spirituality was important to Eliza but still second to equality. She and Luther relocated to Fredricksburg, Virginia, where the couple tried to start a colony where former slaves and white settlers could work side-by-side, in harmony. The family received threats from the local KKK and had to move. Before they left Fredericksburg, Eliza adopted the young, black child of a woman from the ill-fated colony. The little girl’s name was Nicey Robinson.

Statue of Eliza Tibbets at Downtown Riverside. | Photo by Heather Monroe

With no money and no prospects, the Tibbets family moved to Washington DC. Eliza did her best to socialize and made some critical government connections. One of these connections was to John North. Like Eliza and Luther, John longed to build a utopian community, where race played no part in the success or failure of an individual. He was recruiting families to head west to present-day Riverside to start such a community. Eliza, her husband, son, and Nicey decided to head west. What they found was an expanse of undeveloped prairie-like land. The climate was good, but the soil was sandy, and water was scarce—none of that deterred Eliza, who was determined to make a go of it.

The Tibbets family built a home near present-day Central Street. They needed a cash crop. Eliza wrote to a friend back in DC and asked what would grow and produce in a climate like ours. That friend was William Saunders, head of the Department of Agriculture.

Mr. Saunders sent Eliza two small orange trees. Unlike the lemons and small oranges that already grew in Riverside, these were large, seedless oranges from Bahia, Brazil. Mr. Saunders tried planting them in Florida without success.

In 1871, Eliza planted the trees and tended to them daily. At the time, water was only available to the Tibbets property line. If they wanted water, they would need to pay for it or bring it to their house in barrels from the Santa Ana River. Mr. Tibbets was opposed to paying for water. Some say he was a miserly man, but it is more likely he saw water as a human right and not a commodity. Barrels it was.

Eliza’s Tented Tree. | Photo by Heather Monroe

A legend persists that Eliza watered her two trees with dirty dishwater, but this hasn’t been proven. However she watered them, the little trees thrived. Sure, many had successfully grown oranges in Riverside, but Eliza’s oranges were special.

The Naval Oranges were large and juicy with a thick skin that ensured their safe transportation by train. One would think Mr. Tibbets would have planted a giant orchard and became a rich man. He didn’t. Instead, Eliza and Luther sold cuttings to farmers who would graft them onto existing trees. And this is how our citrus empire was born.

Aftermath

Eliza died in 1898, and her husband followed in 1902. Their homestead was demolished, but her trees were moved to their present location. One tree didn’t survive the transplant. The other tree is particularly tenacious and lives on at that little triangular bit of intersection.

The tree on Arlington and Magnolia isn’t a descendent. It is the actual tree Eliza planted and cared for so long ago. If you have ever eaten a Navel Orange in southern California, that orange was a genetic clone of every orange Eliza’s tree produced.

Eliza Tibbets. | Public Domain Photo

Navel Oranges are only one way Eliza leaves her mark on the Inland Empire, especially Riverside. We are a community built on more than oranges—we are rooted in equality and love. Sadly, homelessness, a global pandemic, and racial strife continue to ravish our nation. Riverside isn’t immune to these issues, but we Riversiders sure are prepared to handle them. We will tend to these tensions with kindness, just as Eliza would have.

A statue of Eliza stands in the downtown Riverside pedestrian mall. It depicts a thin, Julie Andrews-type woman in a swinging dress. On the other hand, the real Eliza was a short but fleshy woman who resembled Queen Victoria more than Julie Andrews. I feel her spirit is best captured in the tree monument.

Next time you’re in the area, stop by and visit Eliza’s tree. It is sick and tented to prevent further damage but continues to produce lovely oranges. While you’re there, take a moment to say thank you. Let that tree serve as a reminder to be good to yourself, love your community, and never give up.

A direct descendant of Eliza, Patricia Ortlieb with Peter Economy, has written a wonderful book, Creating an Orange Utopia Eliza Lovell Tibbets and the Birth of California’s Citrus Industry, which chronicles the life of this forward-thinking pioneer. You can buy the book at the Swedenborg Church Website, and learn all about Eliza’s journey and the history of Riverside.

Heather Monroe | Contributed

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