During the past several decades, progress has greatly eliminated the rural landscape of Highland. The sweet aroma of orange blossoms has been replaced with housing developments, schools, coffee shops and scent of exhaust fumes.
Cloistered among the hundreds of homes and new businesses that represent the Highland of today exists a few thriving citrus ranches interwoven between Greenspot Road, Base Line, Highland Avenue and other major thoroughfares.
In the late 1800s to early 1900s, Edson MacLean, the grandfather of Charles Kiel of Highland, was 19 when the MacLeans came to Highland. He started setting up citrus groves. Edson put together several parcels of property to create and expand the MacLean Ranch.
Along with property that he had purchased on his own, Edson had purchased the property owned by his father George MacLean to complete the MacLean Ranch-Grove.
George MacLean was the great-grandfather of Charles Kiel.
Since then, however, some of the parcels have been developed.
There were three different parcels put together by his grandfather Edson that totaled 28 acres.
Charles’ mother, Elizabeth MacLean, married Donald Kiel in the early 1940s and continued the legacy that is the MacLean Ranch.
“Eighteen acres were farmable,” said Kiel. “At one time there were lemon groves. The lemon grove was taken out when I was young. We have Washington navel oranges, which is what this place is famous for, and we have some Valencias.”
During that time, there were olive groves in the Highland-Del Rosa, Kiel said. “Olives grow well around here,” said Kiel. “There are still some along the freeway in the Del Rosa area. On the north side of the freeway, there some of trees from those groves.”
Maintaining the citrus ranch was an exhaustive endeavor unto itself.
“We didn’t have grove laborers at that time,” said Kiel. “We had contract labor.”
There were companies and contractors in the area that did grove care for growers.
“When our fruit was ready to be picked, we contracted through the packinghouse to have it picked,” said Kiel.
Elizabeth MacLean and her mother Lillian Morse-MacLean were the matriarchs of the MacLean Grove.
“They both ran it together,” said Kiel. “My grandfather passed away in the early 50s.”
Lillian Morse-MacLean is a descendant of the Samuel Finley Breese Morse, the inventor of the Morse Code.
In several of my stories, you may have learned that the biting cold can be detrimental to a healthy fruit harvest. Several methods to heat the groves were employed. One such method to heat the citrus grove was to use briquette smudge pots.
“When I was an elementary school kid, we used coal briquette smudge pots,” said Kiel. “The briquettes are like the kind you use in your barbecue. We layered some scraps of wood kindling (in the pot). Then we put briquettes on top. I’d be up at night lighting them and checking the thermometers in the grove. We didn’t have electronic thermometers.”
Throughout California the weather service had a fruit frost warning that predicted what the low temperatures would be in the different areas.
“When they predicted that it (the temperature) would be low enough, then we knew we had to watch the thermometers,” said Kiel. “We’d get up, usually starting at around two o’clock in the morning. If the temperature stayed low enough and long enough, then we knew that we had to start the smudge pots to try to get the temperature back up.”
Kiel had to walk from his house to a specific area in the grove. The thermometer was placed in the coldest area.
“This grove was lower than the groves around it on both sides,” said Kiel. “So, the cold air would come and settle in here. When I walk down my driveway, I can feel cold air coming over this slope. In the evenings, at sunset, you can feel the cold.”
The factors that determined whether the smudge pots would be used were the cold temperature and the duration of the cold temperature.
“If it (the temperature) was always in the high 20s, you started to worry,” said Kiel. “If it got to 27, 28 (degrees), we’d usually light the smudge pots. By 26 or 25 (degrees), at 3 o’clock in the morning, we’d be lighting them for sure. If it (the temperature) got that low below sunrise, which it always gets the coldest right before sunrise, we’d light the smudge pots.
“We had our hired hand come over in the middle of the night to light the smudge pots. Sometimes it was my dad, my mom and me. A lot of the time my mom would stay and watch the thermometer. She’d stay in the house and have hot chocolate for us when we got back in.”
The Kiel-MacLeans eventually went from the briquette smudge pot to the taller stove-pipe smudge pots that became a ubiquitous part of the citrus industry in the Inland Empire.
If you know anything about the history of Highland, I would be interested in hearing from you. You can reach me at (909) 816-0318.