Nothing was as foully incongruous as smudge pots belching smoke amidst oranges in Southern California. From the 1910s through the 1940s, the proximity of citrus groves to oil wells and refineries encouraged widespread use of crude for orchard heating (“smudging”) during nighttime winter freezes. The resulting air pollution could obscure the mountains, halt ship traffic in the port of Los Angeles, cause car and trolley accidents, ruin household linen and draperies, and exacerbate respiratory ailments. Residents of the Citrus Belt dreaded the possibility of a black Christmas.
As the citrus industry largely abandoned Southern California for the Central Valley, the once-hated smudge pots became, through the alchemy of nostalgia, collectible bits of heritage. Today, rusty heaters can be seen in yards and on porches throughout the former Citrus Belt.
But the primary association is football. In the 1950s the high school teams of Redlands and San Bernardino played for the smudge pot trophy, a chromed short-stack orchard heater. In 1972 the mayors of San Dimas and La Verne initiated their own rivalry with their own decommissioned pot. The annual Smudge Pot Bowl has become one of the most intense sports competitions in the state. Hoping to replicate this success of the collegiate level, the University of Redlands and California Lutheran University in 2012 inaugurated the Smudge Pot rivalry, an annual game that celebrates the citrus heritage of San Bernardino and Ventura counties, respectively.
(For a detailed history of smudging in Southern California, see chapter 6 of my book Trees in Paradise.)