A Woman of Foresight
Even as a relatively recent resident of Riverside, I’m a bit ashamed that I hadn’t heard of Eliza Tibbets before coming across a new monument to her downtown. Credited with being the originator of Riverside’s — and California’s — citrus industry, Tibbets planted, nurtured and raised two navel orange trees here in 1873 that would become the parents of all navel oranges in this country. A major accomplishment for a woman, and transplanted midwesterner, but not that surprising for Tibbets. Surely one of the Victorian era’s most-hyphenated women, listing all her titles is dizzying; she was a farmer-rancher-horticulturalist-spiritualist-medium-abolitionist-suffragette-free thinker, and, because she thought she favored her, a Queen Victoria lookalike.
In 1873, at her urging, Tibbets and her husband Luther were sent two small navel orange trees by friend William Saunders of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Originally from Brazil, the trees hadn’t fared well back-east; but on Tibbets’ Riverside ranch, they thrived. At that time, as now, water was a valuable resource, and Tibbets had to strike a deal with her less horticulturally predisposed husband to keep her trees watered, agreeing to use only her dishwater for their irrigation … Orange trees had already been planted here in 1871, but it wasn’t until Tibbets introduced these superior seedless Brazilian navels to growers that the citrus industry took off. Bud stock from her trees was sold to other growers and by 1881 there were over a half-million of these trees in California, with the majority in Riverside. Of Tibbets’ two trees, one died in 1921, but the other lives to this day at the corner of Magnolia and Arlington Avenue, and is still producing fruit.
This new monument to Tibbets is quite striking and a great artistic addition to the Main Street pedestrian mall at the Mission Inn. The work of Guy Angelo Wilson, the bronze statue includes an inscription and a poem on a column with oranges on its base, topped by an art nouveau dragonfly bust, then Tibbets herself. Youthful and wasp-waisted in the fashion of her time, with her skirts flaring dramatically around her, Tibbets seems to rush forward, palms up, as if imploring the heavens for rain … it’s beautiful and very operatic, if not reflective of most photos I was able to find online, which show a rather portly, un-classic beauty who actually does look like her era’s namesake Queen Victoria of England.
I like the statue, I do … I just wish it reflected more prominently some of the other facets that make Tibbets such a intriguing figure in Riverside’s history, especially her interest in the occult, clairvoyance and spiritualism. Popular at events for playing a fortune teller and seer, she enjoyed a good seance, and would call forth from the spirit world her personal friendly spirit, a young native-American woman. It was while staying at a spiritualist colony in Summerland, that Tibbets became ill and died in 1898 … were Tibbets’ clairvoyant powers such that she knew to ask that two orange saplings be sent to her, although others like them had refused to grow elsewhere? Who knows. What I do know is that because of this complex and multi-faceted woman’s vision, Riverside, the state, and the country, benefitted commercially and culturally. Realizing this, a monument to Tibbets has been long overdue …
Tibbets is buried at the historic Evergreen Cemetery, across the street from the Rancho at the rear (click here) … I love the idea that she rests there. I’ll visit her tomorrow and post a photo of that first monument to her life then.
Update: Eliza Tibbets, and husband Luther’s, headstones, Saturday, August 20, 2011. Click twice on photo to read inscription.