Utt invented chili house dehydrator in 1905

by Juanita Lovret
Reprinted courtesy of the Tustin News

Chili peppers were once a significant agricultural crop in this area. At the industry’s peak in 1930, Orange County produced 9,433 tons of peppers, according to Chris Jepsen at the Orange County Archives.

Anaheim was the first to grow chili peppers. A farmer named Emilio Ortega brought chili pepper seeds to that settlement in the early 1900s, thus the name Anaheim Chili. Also called the California chili or Magdalena, they become chile seco del norte when dried. Long and green, the Anaheim chili pepper turns red as it matures. These large and mild peppers are widely used for chili rellenos and diced for used in sauces, soups and casseroles. Although Anaheim became known as a center for growing and curing chili peppers for market, farmers in Garden Grove, Huntington Beach and Tustin also grew chilies. E.C. Utt was one of the first to plant them as a crop in the Tustin area.

Pleased with his success in growing them on his Lemon Heights acreage along with grapes and peanuts, Utt proposed the idea of planting chili peppers as well as lima beans, peanuts and nursery stock between the rows of young walnut, orange and lemon trees growing on the San Joaquin Fruit Co. Ranch.

The San Joaquin Fruit Co. Ranch was an agricultural enterprise formed in 1906 when Utt went into partnership with Sherm Stevens, another Tustin entrepreneur, and negotiated a 10-year lease for 1,000 acres of land on the San Joaquin Ranch. James Irvine, owner of the land, joined Utt and Stevens as a third partner.

This extremely successful project encouraged Irvine to plant extensive citrus and walnut orchards on the Irvine Ranch. Eventually the San Joaquin Fruit Co. expanded outside Orange County to develop agricultural property in Ventura County.

Chilies were cured like walnuts by being spread out to dry in the sun until Utt invented the first chili house dehydrator around 1905. This variation of his earlier peanut dehydrator reinforced his reputation as one of Orange County’s most progressive agriculturists.

When Tustin growers lost interest in chili peppers sometime in the late ’30s, Utt bought several hundred acres of land close to Point Mugu, according to his grandson, Leigh Robertson. After the land was drained to rid it of the salt, Utt planted row crops including peppers.

Despite the increasing popularity of chili peppers nationally in southwestern cuisine, the only chili pepper crops found in Tustin today are in backyard gardens.



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