Luther C Tibbets

Left: Luther fenced in the parent navel orange trees at the Tibbets home to protect them from the theft of valuable buds. Right: Tibbets house on Central Avenue with the parent navel orange trees behind barbed wire.

On a trip to Washington, D.C., John W. North met Luther Tibbets. Tibbets owned a general store in Virginia, but because he had supported the Union Army in the Civil War, his business suffered, and he was almost broke. Hearing about North’s colony, Luther and Eliza decided to move here. “Luther arrived in Riverside in December 1870.” Even these earliest biographical details point to controversy that surrounds Luther and Eliza Tibbets. “Luther Tibbets had come from a New England farm and was a successful retail merchant until the Civil War. Then he was in the wholesale grain business in New York City. According to his biography in the 1890 Southern California history, he refused to enter monopoly activities of war profiteers, who conspired and caused him to lose all he had. The story is plausible. Luther always had principles; he seemed later to have lost common sense.”

Among the colony’s first pioneers, Luther Tibbets “took up squatter’s rights on the Government Tract in December 1870. By all accounts he was an irascible and argumentative character, a man of high principles but a rather loose grasp on reality. [He] was constantly embroiled in controversy, and had an insatiable appetite for lawsuits. For a time he manned a small stockade, complete with gunports, to protect his corrals from marauders, and was once seriously injured by a shotgun blast during an argument with a neighbor over a grain crop.”

Presumably this reference is to the pound he kept for impounded stray horses and cattle in the Government Tract, collecting fees levied against their owners. By all accounts he “built a bullet-proof fort inside the corral” where he spent some nights on guard. Considered an eccentric and (along with his wife) one of the “town characters,” Luther was “once shot for trespassing” and another time for “trying to harvest a crop on what he said was government land.”

He was “widely ridiculed, for such matters as his too-adamant position in refusing to pay for water rights he believed he already owned and for his cantankerous personality.” “His lawsuits were legend,” says local historian, Tom Patterson. “Even founder John W. North had to laugh when, after leaving Riverside, he got a letter from a lawyer friend disclosing that Luther had filed suit against himself, North and others ‘charging … pretty near everything except kissing his wife.’”

His appearance added to his eccentricity. The gunshot he received from his neighbor earned him a $250 award and a permanent injury. He wore a veil “attached to the rim of his derby—a blue ladies’ veil” by one account, “usually during north winds. Probably it was to protect his troubled eyes.”

Both Luther and Eliza had three marriages. “By his first wife, Luther had five children. When she died he married her younger sister. On the eve of her third maternity he deserted her … according to one of his daughters.” Luther consulted a doctor in New York City about his eyes, and met the doctor’s wife, a Spiritualist medium named Eliza; the two “tried to get in touch with his departed first wife.” The pair moved to Washington. Her son married Luther’s eldest daughter, and the two men opened a general store in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “Their Union sympathies soon brought ostracism … broke or nearly so, they heard of John North’s colony plans … and left for Riverside.” Each built a modest house on the Government Tract.

With his wife Eliza, he was responsible for the local introduction of the navel orange in 1873. Though the claim is often hotly contested, although there seems less controversy about Eliza’s role in fostering the first trees.

By his account, Luther “came to Riverside in December 1870 when there was only one house in town…. Tibbets said that in 1872 he took up a government homestead just south of town and built a small house. In 1873 his wife Eliza arrived from Washington, D.C., where she had known William Saunders, Superintendent of Gardens and Grounds for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to Tibbets, at the request of his wife Eliza, Saunders mailed to them two small navel orange trees. Packed bare-root in moss, they arrived by mail in Riverside about December 10, 1873, after being a month on the way. First fruiting in 1875 they would revolutionize the local citrus industry. The first buds taken from these trees … [were] rebudded … in a near-by orchard.” “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. But that was yet to come … it takes [time] for an orchard to mature.”

It was not until the report of the Date Correction Committee in 1933 that all the facts of the introduction of the navel orange were sorted out, and they are still contested. In all likelihood, the Tibbets’ trees were planted in 1874 or 5 and did not produce fruit until 1879. The Bahia orange came to be called the “Riverside” navel orange so planters could distinguish the root stock; it later took the name “Washington” so real estate developers in Redlands, Corona and Bryn Mawr—other communities founded on navel orange culture—wouldn’t hesitate to promote it.

Patterson clarifies further: Luther “initially bought, or at least lived upon, property on Sixth Street downtown. Soon he bought, from a discouraged and departing colonist, the squatter claim on a quarter section—the 160 acres bounded by the present Arlington, Jurupa, Brockton and Palm Avenues.” He “fancied himself as a legal expert,” and “insisted he had acquired the right to water because he had helped dig the canal extension and because water had been supplied to his land. He had come from Washington, and despite his many commercial difficulties and his recent impoverishment, he still had acquaintances there.” For ten years the battle over local water rights involved the state and federal government. “Although Luther Tibbets lost many a lawsuit in which he served as his own attorney, he seems to have taken a legally defensible stand on the Government Tract.”

Patterson observes, “There was a comic opera aspect, built around the Tibbbetses.” While that seems to be the case, certainly they were the instruments through which the navel orange came to Riverside and through which it prospered. Previously introduced to Florida and Australia, the Bahia orange needed a dry climate to produce the taste that made it remarkable.

When Eliza came to Riverside, she lived with her son and his wife. In 1874 Luther and Eliza went to Justice of the Peace, Lyman C. Waite and asked him “to draw up an agreement whereby they might be able to live together” which they did, later that year.

The Tibbets’ fortunes “were more down than up, and while they prospered a while from subdividing their land, they both died in poverty.… Having sold half his original claim, Luther” was able to build a comfortable home; he “went bankrupt in 1878, but retained the property…. In 1887 at the height of the boom he subdivided the remaining land and sold some lots. For a time Luther and Eliza rode in a top buggy behind a hired driver. They made a trip to the East.” Unfortunately, as “the boom ended their fortunes waned again.” Eliza developed a number of medical problems and died in July 1898, the same year creditors foreclosed on their property. Luther tried various legal maneuvers, but was evicted the following year. For the remainder of his life he was supported by the kindness of friends.

Tibbets’ final public appearance was at a Street Fair celebration in 1900. In failing health, he was cared for some months by a friend of his late wife. When she suffered a stroke and was moved to the new county hospital, Luther went as well, where he was cared for until his death. A newspaperman tried to raise money for Tibbets’ care, but was not successful. “Riversiders did not respond to the plea, apparently feeling that Tibbets with his many cantankerous laws suits had been improvident.”

Louis Jacobs bought the Tibbets property and gave one of the original orange trees to the City of Riverside and one to the Riverside Historical Society. “The city transplanted its tree to the present tiny park location on April 23, 1902. Luther died the following July 21, at the age of 80.” The plaque that accompanies that tree acknowledges only Eliza for her “good work” in the introduction of the navel orange.

Minnie Tibbets Mills, one of Luther’s daughters from his first marriage, waged a campaign to restore dignity to her father. Published in 1942 in the “Quarterly of the Historical Society of Southern California,” her account challenged the Committee report to set straight the history of the navel orange. The common recollection, and the Committee’s conclusion, was that “Luther paid little attention to the trees, except to sell buds after they proved to be valuable. The common belief was that Eliza rather than Luther was not only responsible for bringing the trees to Riverside but was the one who cared for them or arranged for their care after they were planted.” Mrs. Mills saw to it that a second plaque was erected for her father in 1935 at the site of the original trees. And there was more.

“It apparently was Mrs. Mills who arranged to place Luther’s name on a headstone in Evergreen Cemetery. There she did her most uninhibited job of scoring for Luther … as nothing less than ‘Founder of the Navel Orange Industry, 1873.’ … On the opposite side of the same stone are the names of herself and her husband, Dr. Charles F. Mills. Adjacent are the tiny headstones of Daisy Summons and her mother … Although Eliza’s body lies along side Luther’s, her name is omitted from the marker.”

The small headstones points to another, darker, story in the Tibbets saga. In the late 1870s colony property owners were at the mercy of the river, canals and flumes—not only for water, but for accessible routes across the county. There was talk of a future bridge, but on April 20, 1878, there was none, and Daisy Summons, 10-year-old granddaughter of Luther and Eliza Tibbets was drowned.

According to Tom Patterson:

Luther Tibbets was a man of positive mind, who acted upon his own judgments in defiance of contrary advice. His judgment often was bad and he suffered from it, but still he retained full self-confidence.

That morning Tibbets and his party were in Colton, taking on supplies in a lumber wagon, drawn by four horses. Charles North, one of the founder’s sons, crossed after him in a high wheeled buggy and found the river dangerously deep and rising. Seeing Tibbets, North advised him not to return until the water was lower. Tibbets observed … that ‘Four horses can paddle through a good deal.’ He ventured into the stream soon after noon. Eliza and Daisy were with him on the front seat, Daisy in the middle. On the back seat were two Spiritualist friends….

Midstream, the horses floundered and got off the course. The wagon tipped over ….

Two horsemen … saw the accident … rode into the stream and helped the adults ashore. Daisy was nowhere in sight. The horsemen went into the water again, righted the wagon and her body floated to the surface.

Daisy had lived with her grandparents because her mother, Tibbets’ daughter [Harriet] had died two years earlier. The Tibbetses and James Summons, Eliza’s son and the child’s father, were deeply hurt by the tragedy. The funeral was held in the same room where Mrs. Tibbets had presided over happy birthday parties for the girl.”

The bridge at Agua Mansa was completed the following November. Tom Patterson concludes, Luther “was not an orange grower in the ordinary sense of the word, but he owned two historic orange trees. His poverty was the consequence of his own mismanagement but most Riversiders, when they reflected, agreed that he was a kind and considerate person in personal relationships.”

  • Luther Tibbets