Of Orchards, Smudge Pots, And Friends


If you lived near fruit groves in California or Florida way back when, you probably remember smudge pots and smudging. I believe the practice fell out of favor in the 1970s, but for any of us who grew up around orchards in the 50s, smudging was a part of our cold weather experience.

It was a simple solution that saved fruit trees from being damaged when temperatures fell below 29 degrees Fahrenheit. The smudge pot had a circular, metal base with a chimney rising from its center. When weather reports indicated a freeze was imminent, the pots were placed between trees in an orchard, and oil was poured into the base. After they were lit, heat was created, along with dense, black smoke, which became a blanket around the trees, protecting them from frost.

There were some issues that came with saving the fruit trees. The heavy blanket of black smoke that hung over orchards knew no boundaries. It permeated and contaminated everything. Clothes left on the line outside? Black by morning. A practically invisible cobweb in the corner of any ceiling? It became a dark Hallowe’en prop overnight. And try to brush it, or wipe if off by any means known to man? All efforts merely smeared black, grimy oil onto the ceiling or painted wall. Furniture, carpet, linoleum, sinks; anything exposed to air inside or outside the home was covered with that black, oily residue which seemed to get worse the more one tried to wash it away.

Those were minor problems, however, to kids in elementary school who lived near an orchard. And, since my entire world was bordered by orchards, there was no escaping the challenge those smudge pots posed to me every single year. One’s social standing could be seriously impacted, and it required extreme skill and fortitude to out-maneuver and conquer the black mark of ridicule. Smudge Pot Nose.

Yes. When they were smudging, everyone who lived near an orchard woke up in the morning with black oil in their noses and around their nostrils. Washing vigorously, which meant until your skin was raw, helped clean it off; but even then, one was left with rather greyish tinted skin all day. And the dreaded bike ride to school ensured each orchard kid would arrive with Smudge Pot Nose all over again; a poor nose already scrubbed so raw, there barely was any skin left to wash.

One late winter morning, when I was in fourth grade, I thought the problem was solved. There had been smudging the night before, and I was ready. I sneaked one of my mother’s knit scarves she had left lying overnight on her chest of drawers, and setting off to school on my bicycle, I stopped at the end of our street, and carefully wrapped it around my face from beneath my eyes to below my chin. There! Even if I pedaled really fast, I would get to school clean as a whistle. I was certain there would be no more black nose for me!

I felt so clever as I rode into the playground, and parked my bike with all the others alongside the chain link fence. Since the scarf would have protected my nose, there was no need to run straight into the restroom for emergency washing. I took my time, and walked to my classroom. It was almost time for the bell to ring, so many of my friends and classmates were lining up along the wall in preparation for our teacher to lead us inside.

When I got in line behind a boy I had known since Kindergarten, he turned to see who was there. To this day, I do not believe I have seen such a look of shock on anyone’s face as I saw register on his when he saw me. This boy always had small, almost lidless slits for eyes, and at that moment they popped into huge, round orbs, seemingly unable to blink or fathom what they were seeing. His mouth dropped open, and he raised a hand, pointing at my face. I was dumbstruck, not knowing what was wrong.

Once he was able to draw breath, the laughter began. Which, of course, drew the attention of all the other kids in line. They turned, and followed his accusing finger-pointing right to my puzzled face. More laughter. A lot more laughter. Finally, he clued me in on the joke. “SMUDGE POT FACE!! SMUDGE POT FACE!!”

Oh no. I lowered my head, and ran as fast as I could, with all the kids’ laughter filling my ears and head, straight to the girls’ restroom. Breathless, I dared to look into the mirrors over a line of sinks, and there it was. Smudge Pot Face. Oh no. How could this have happened? How?

From my bottom eyelids down to my chin, there was a smear of black, oily, smudgy residue. I opened my mouth and saw white teeth and a pink tongue; everything else was black. I still am not sure exactly what happened, but evidently my mom’s scarf not only had been covered with smudge as it lay on her chest of drawers overnight, when I wrapped it around my face, and then pedaled my bike to school, smudge still in the air permeated her porous knit scarf, and mixed with my body heat, all of it sort of melting and smearing down my face.

I was too traumatized at my appearance to go to class. As fast as I could, I rode my bike back home, and tore into the house, swearing I was never going to school again. It took a while, but the smudge was cleaned off my face, and I did finally see some humor in it. Later in the day, there were some jokes made about me bobbing for apples in ink, and National Geographic wanting to come photograph me for a Freaks of Nature edition; just lame teasing kids in a family inflict upon each other.

When I returned to school the next day, my friend was waiting by the gate as I rode my bike inside the playground to park it. Always shy and quiet, I could not remember a time he had ever spoken just to me, alone. But that morning, he was on a mission. There was a sincere apology for pointing and laughing, and a solemn promise never to do it again. Then he stuck his hand out, and asked if we could shake on it. Of course we could. And we did. After our reconciliation was complete, he said, “Okay, we’re good; I’ll see you later.” That was it. He turned, ran off to where the boys were playing four square, and we never spoke of it again.

Yesterday, I saw my friend’s name in my hometown newspaper. He had a heart attack, and is gone, now. I think and write often of those long ago days in my little valley town. We had such a good life; orchards were kingdoms in which we played; school was where we learned how to be a community, safe, supported, nurtured; we were taught to resolve our conflict with words and a handshake, forgive, and move forward as we grew into our better selves; and we had friends, unswerving, steadfast, forever friends. It is with a profound sense of gratitude and affection that I remember it all, and believe in the hope of my friend’s words, “We’re good; I’ll see you later.”



37 thoughts on “Of Orchards, Smudge Pots, And Friends

  1. Good story well told. I never lived anywhere near orchards and never heard of smudge pots until I read this, but I grew up in the northeast and winters were almost always below 29 degrees from late November through mid-March, so even apple orchards were barren during the winters. Do you know how scary leafless apple trees look late on a cold, moonless night?


  2. Well told tale and beautiful tribute to your “we’re good; I’ll see you later” friend. Your last paragraph is a super sum up of your kingdom in the orchards.

    I’ve never been around smudge pots or their black oily residue but your description explains why some smears are called smudges.


    1. Thank you! There’s even a kind of eye makeup dubbed smudge pots. However, the smudges we experienced were not a pretty sight. Now I believe wind turbines are used to protect orchards from frost. Agriculture is such a vulnerable business!


  3. A most touching anecdote Valley Grail. I live amidst the orchards here in Somerset, England, and know people who have grown cider apples all their lives. There seems to be no such technique used here in the past, but then being more or less at sea level it is more temperate perhaps, and frosts somewhat rarer.


  4. Well done and said. Memories are more than sights, they are smells, etc. It is not ironic that we find things that were done for years actually solved one problem, but caused others. To me, this is a good example of looking at the cost/ benefit of everything with a lens toward what will it do to us long term. Most often, we discount the future health impact, when we should no longer.


  5. This is a great piece! It filled me with so many nostalgic memories! Thanks for sharing. This kind of reminds me of stories I used to read in ‘Reader’s Digest’. Now, I think it would be great for one of the’Chicken Soup for the Soul’ books. Feeling lucky that I found your blog!


  6. That is an incredible story with interesting history that spans such a long time. I loved it! I’d never heard of smudging before and was interested reading about it. Then when I got to the part where you were teased, I was pleased to see an apology ensued the next day. The ending caught me by surprise and I can imagine you as well which brought back the memories. I so love your blog.


  7. Lovely story, and yes I remember smudge pots in the orchards around Placerville. I worked in the fruit orchards for several years. I never managed to get smudge nose however. Nice tribute to your friend. –Curt


  8. You write so well and remember so many things I have long forgotten. It is good to revisit your site again to remember why I followed your blog in the first place. Yes, I remember the orchards and the efforts to save the fruits too.


  9. That was so beautifully written. Ah, the angst involved in growing up. I was so interested in the smudge pots. We don’t have anything like that in Kentucky! We have not lost friends yet, but many have been through cancer and other serious life situations. I look in the mirror and am always surprised to see this older woman look back at me! The memories of youth are so much more precious as we get older.


  10. I remember these things over 50 years ago. There was farmland S and W of Miami(all roads, buildings and strip malls now). But it rarely gets so cold anymore and there a fewer and fewer days of it. Have I witnessed global warming within my own lifetime ?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Wonderfully sweet! My dear father in law grew up surrounded by the orange orchards of Yorba Linda. He’s now a lively 88 years old, and I’ll bet he’ll remember this, too! I’ll share it with him. 🙂


  12. I share this experience with you and so enjoyed reading your memories of it. To this day the smell of melting tar gives me a profound sense of anxiety. I associate it with my father being woken in the middle of the night by highly anxious men speaking in low voices about the citrus groves being in danger. All the men would go out and light smudge pots. We lived in Yucaipa and, in those days, the entire valley was fruit and nut groves.


  13. Yes! I’m from South Georgia and if we ever need to keep warm and are out of wood we pull up the Smudge pot to keep warm outside and sit around and talk for hours. But of course, we have to shower as soon as we go in because we are covered in Smudge by the end of the night! Thank you for this!


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