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Sunday, January 16, 2005

Giant Orange squeezed slice of Americana

Jerry Bowen

Solano had role in juicing up roadside appeal

I just had to run over to Dixon the other day. I wanted to see if the George’s Giant Orange booth still existed. I took the Dixon Exit from Interstate 80 and, yep, there it was and it was in great shape.

Boy, did it bring back a flood of memories when my family migrated from North Dakota to California in 1950. Although it’s not the same one we stopped at after a long drive on Highway 40, it still looked pretty much the same as I remembered where we gobbled down a hot dog and orange juice.

So what could be such a big deal about a giant orange? I had seen many of these before in the past when they were all over Northern California as well as many look-alikes under such names as Great Orange, Big Boy Orange, Mammoth Orange, The Orange, Whoa Boy Orange, Big Orange, and George’s Orange. Of course, George’s Orange is the one at Dixon today.  There is a history connected to these remnants of the past, and some of it is local.

Actually, these giant oranges were juice stands that were very popular from the early 1930s to the 1970s and were appropriately named “Giant Orange,” and, believe it or not, they had a connection to our once-beloved Nut Tree Restaurant in a roundabout way.

The original chain of Giant Orange stands was a brainchild of Frank E. Pohl. Frank was born in Williamsburg, Ohio in 1881 and in 1918 he, his wife, daughter and son moved to Richmond where he ran a grocery store.

His first venture outside of the meat market business was with a Jumbo Lemon Stand in Menlo Park. Yep, it was shaped just like an oversized lemon and they served lemonade as well as orange juice. Shortly before moving to Tracy, he opened a second Giant Lemon Stand in Menlo Park.

At the time, Highway 50 was the main highway running across the state. The rising popularity of the “motorcar” and better highways in the late 1920s and early 1930s soon began to breed lucrative roadside businesses. Travel was becoming a popular pastime for many people. Compared to our modern vehicles today with air conditioning, television, radio, satellite maps and all kinds of luxuries, travel in those earlier days in the hot, dusty valley could be a tiring exercise in having fun.

In 1926, Frank Pohl and his wife opened their first stand shaped like a giant orange on the north side of 11th Street, near E Street in Tracy (Highway 50) and named it the Giant Orange. The first one only had one serving window and later was modified to three windows to serve more patrons at a time in the growing business.

The business did well enough that he soon opened a second stand in nearby Banta near Highway 50 and Grant Line Road and yet another in Tracy near the Southern Pacific train tracks.  Business was so good that he franchised the Giant Orange name and by the 1930s, Giant Orange stands were scattered for miles around, including Highways 99 and 40.  So what does all this have to do with Vacaville and Dixon?

Well, Pohl had to have the stands constructed somewhere. Prior to 1929, Frank purchased the orange structures from a blacksmith shop owned by Tom McCadden on Mason Street in Vacaville. They were made of steel and plaster and were manufactured by Bunny Power, the Nut Tree Restaurant founder. According to a 1973 article in The Reporter, Ed Power estimated that somewhere between 15 and 18 of the original Giant Orange stands were built there.

After 16 years of successful Giant Orange business, Pohl decided to retire in 1944. But the family stayed in the business. Prior to retiring, Pohl assisted his daughter Burnette and her husband, Arnet F. Ballenger’s, to get into the business.  In 1940, Arnet and Burnette began erecting the brilliant orange globes in the Sacramento-to-Dixon area.

The new Giant Orange stands cost an average of $1,000 to $1,500. They were 10 feet high, with a base of redwood that sat on 4-by-4 redwood skids so they could be easily moved. The curved ribs of the structure were sawn from one-inch pine, and then spliced together to form the rounded shape. The interior was plaster over metal lathing. Cement was poured on the redwood base and a drain installed in the center. Finishing touches to the exterior included hard stucco followed by the brilliant orange paint. Inside, construction of a countertop and shelves, a hinged entry door at the back of the structure and three windows completed the booth. Covers were built to cover the serving windows when the business was closed.

One of the stands was placed on North Adams Street in Dixon, which at the time was Highway 40. Business remained good until Highway 40 was rerouted north of town.

In 1947, Arnet, with help from Frank Pohl constructed two more booths and placed them on each side of the new highway. That way, they were able to entice travelers driving in both directions. They also added new Giant Orange drive-ins in Folsom and Placerville.

At various points over the years, Frank’s son, Arnet and other Pohl family members continued to establish Giant Orange stands in the Northern California area that remained under their complete ownership and operation. The business reached its peak in the 1950s with at least 16 stands. The familiar globes were placed in Bakersfield, Tulare, Madera, Chowchilla, Merced, Turlock, Galt, Redding, Tracy, Roseville, Dixon, Sacramento, Placerville and El Dorado.

During the 1950s, the Ballengers’ two stands at Dixon were using 12,000 oranges a week. Just one stand required 40 boxes of oranges a week, and even more on weekends and holidays. Hundreds of discarded orange rinds originally were hauled away to a garbage dump and burned. Later, the peels were used as feed for cattle and hogs.

At the Ballengers’ stands, the fruit was juiced by hand on a Sunkist extractor and orange juice was the favorite choice. The stands included other citrus juices, carbonated drinks and a simple menu offered snack foods and “frankfurters,” as hot dogs were known.

After the 1950s, business began to decline at many Giant Orange sites and many closed because the old frontage highways gradually became “freeways” with endless fences and high speeds. It just became a little too inconvenient to get to the refreshments. Add air conditioning to the newer autos and there was also less reason to slake a thirst from the awful dust and heat of the valley.

After closing their orange booths, the Ballengers put their orange booth that had been on the north side of the highway into storage in a barn near Dixon. Later it was moved outside of Lodi, where it was in use for a couple of years under new ownership. Eventually, it disappeared and was either torn down or moved to another site.

The unit on the south side of today’s I-80 near Dixon, was the Giant Orange to hold the dubious honor of being the last stand to remain in business.  Ultimately, this final orange drive-in was closed for good on July 15, 1973, due to the Tremont Road exit being cut off by further upgrading of the freeway.

The final obituary to this American classic was written in The Reporter on July 9, 1973, when then 68-year-old Arnet Ballenger stated sadly: “There’s no way to continue. Nobody’s going to get off the freeway and drive down an access road a mile for a glass of orange juice ... There are just a lot of people who like fresh orange juice and they won’t be able to get it any more ... We make it fresh when they ordered it and when we’re closed there won’t be anyone else I know still doing it.”

Lucky for history buffs, the stand is still alive and well although it no longer serves the orange delights it once did. Today, it shows loving care taken by the owners of the Mexican restaurant on Dixon Road and a nearby tall wind-battered sign that beckons the I-80 traveler to “George’s Orange.”