Tibbets house on Central Avenue with the parent navel orange trees behind barbed wire

Eliza Tibbets

Eliza Tibbets is widely acknowledged to be the mother of the citrus industry in Riverside. Born Eliza Lovell in Cincinnati, Eliza was married twice before she met Luther C. Tibbets, first to a Mr. Summons with whom she had her son James B. Summons, and secondly to Dr. Neal in New York City.

A spiritualist who cultivated the appearance of Queen Victoria, according to local historian Tom Patterson, Eliza “indulged in seances and other exotica.” After she arrived, she lived with her son and daughter-in-law Harriet, Luther’s daughter from his first marriage. Eventually, Eliza and Luther approached local justice of the peace, Lyman C. Waite, to legalize their union.

The first navel orange trees were imported into the United States by William Saunders of the Department of Agriculture in 1870. Before leaving Washington, Eliza persuaded Saunders, a friend, to ship two of the navel orange trees that originated in Bahia Province, Brazil, to the Tibbets home in Riverside. The trees were planted in 1874-5. Anecdotes have it that Eliza nurtured the little trees with her dishwater. According to local historian Tom Patterson, “Upon maturing the fruit was found to be superior in every way. Bud sales were brisk, and the two trees, ringed with barbed wire, became famous. Although officially called the Bahia, the fruit was soon dubbed the Riverside Navel, and its popularity eventually made Riverside a citrus center and prosperous showplace.” Eliza’s dishwater story pointed to the early colony’s most important commodity-water.

The rise of the citrus industry is more the doing of the Tibbets’s neighbor, Samuel McCoy, who with his partner, Cyrus Cover owned 20 acres next door to Eliza and Luther. McCoy cut a bud from one of Eliza’s trees and grafted it to an orange seedling of his own and it fruited before the original trees. Cover and McCoy budded about 10 acres as soon as they could get buds and the navel industry was on its way.

With Luther, Eliza’s fortunes rose and waned. Her health and the welfare of her family seemed to connect. The pair went bankrupt in 1878, the same year the granddaughter they had raised for years drowned in a tragic accident. In 1898 creditors foreclosed on the Tibbets’s property. Eliza had always been a sufferer of asthma but developed other medical problems as well. She “was invited to stay with friends in the Spiritualist colony at Summerland, near Santa Barbara. She died in a Santa Barbara hospital July 14, 1898” at the age of 73.