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November 6, 2012 > History: The Dillon Family & Four Winds Growers

History: The Dillon Family & Four Winds Growers

Four Winds Growers [Four Winds] is one of the oldest continuously operating nurseries in Alameda County. In 1948, Floyd Dillon's dream of "dwarf citrus tree with edible fruit" started in Carmel, CA and "took root" in Piru, CA. an article written by Floyd in 1949 on how to optimize citrus production (i.e. espalier) appeared in Sunset Magazine. Soon thereafter, Sunset featured colorful pictures of 28 varieties of Four Winds citrus trees. Walter Doty, Editor of Sunset, described dwarf trees as "Functional, Form, Foliage, Flowers, Fragrance, Fruit, Flavor, Four Seasons." Portable plants grown in containers, was a new concept to the expanding nursery Industry.

Floyd and Mildred's son, Don Sr. joined the Navy during WWII, returning at age 25, as Captain of Destroyer Escort USS Peiffer DE-588. In 1951, he was called from the reserves during the Korean Conflict; Don Jr. was only five days old. After two years of duty, he returned to find Floyd gravely ill and decided to help his parents' nursery business (he continued to participate in the Navy reserve, retiring after 22 1/2 years as a Commander).

California, with an adaptable climate and outdoor living, encouraged dwarf citrus as a "desirable and entertaining" part of a "Sunny California lifestyle." An orange-shaped tag with a weathervane silhouetted in black symbolized "Four Winds, TRUE DWARF CITRUS."

In 1954, Floyd, Mildred, Don Dillon Sr. and daughter-in-law Mary Ann with three young children along with Fred and Barbara Real and their two young children left the town of Piru in Ventura County and traveled to Palm Avenue in Mission San Jose [MSJ]. Motivation for the move was the spread of "Quick Decline" citrus virus (QD) in Southern California, killing citrus trees in orchards and home gardens.

Floyd sought a community free of citrus diseases with moderate temperatures, good water, close to growing markets of homeowners with small gardens. He was welcomed by Bob Gallegos, a pioneer orchardist, in his 80's, who told Floyd and Don Sr. "I have a small lime orchard. You can use my place, if you help me care for it." Hal and Lilian Tibbets, who operated a small retail nursery, rented part of their land on Palm Avenue to Four Winds Growers.

In 1956, the Dillons were able buy a 5 acre parcel, part of the original Palmdale Estates, owned by Emil and Margaret Cernich, next door to Hal and Lillian Tibbets. They cleared an apricot orchard, restored the barn, and built a propagation greenhouse with automatic mist system. Floyd, Don Sr. and Fred were among the founders of the Western Region Chapter of International Plant Propagators Society (IPPS) with a motto, "Seek and Share."

In 1956, five towns of the Washington Township were incorporated into the City of Fremont. Don Sr. and Floyd were involved in MSJ Chamber of Commerce; Floyd was chairman of the citizen-based committee to create a master plan for development of the newly-formed City. Floyd's knowledge of plants, trees, history, and architecture resulted in a plan that retained the Mission area's character, but allowed for development, emphasizing "natural elements" to enhance "Spanish and Mexican cultural elements."

When a freeway was projected to cut through MSJ, Floyd and Don Sr. convinced the City to make Olive Avenue a divided street, preserving the ancient existing olive trees. Floyd suggested a community-based Historic Architectural Review Board which was created in 1959. Under Floyd's chairmanship, the MSJ Committee introduced ideas to fit the sloping site with a tall gym on the lower slope and classrooms higher up the slope, incorporating a "Mission style" with tile roofs and stucco walls. Don Sr. suggested an amphitheater patterned after Frost at Stanford.

Mary Ann, in addition to office work at Four Winds, worked with other mothers to start 18 Girl Scout Troops in MSJ and Irvington. She was a founding member of the League of Women Voters of Fremont, encouraging women to become involved in elections and voter registration. In 2007, she was honored for 50 years of service. Floyd saved the MSJ Postmark by mobilizing community leaders and architect Norm Hale, to contact Congressmen and Senators. The historic MSJ postmark began in 1850 and was restored on June 1, 1961.

Don Sr. was elected to the City Council in 1962. Floyd passed away in 1963, but Don Sr., with the assistance and support of Mildred, Mary Ann, Fred and Barbara, continued Floyd's vision for Four Winds. Nila Simmons joined as Office Manger and has worked at the company for over 40 years. All the Dillon and Real children - Mary, Helen, Debbie, Don Jr., Connie and Robert - have worked part-time at the nursery.

As Mayor of Fremont from 1963-67, Don Sr. was determined to implement a General Plan to create a dream city including elements such as Lake Elizabeth. Re-elected three more times, he said, "The real thing about it is, in so many instances, you have directly participated in a pretty heavy way in something that is tangible. You can see it! Take Lake Elizabeth, in the center of the City, as an example of seeing the city's plan for development evolve."

Don Sr. facilitated the relocation of the School for the Blind and the School for the Deaf to Fremont in 1975. He represented Fremont on the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) for 16 years serving as president from 1972-74 and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission for eight years. He contributed to a climate of collaboration among businesses, cities, and counties and was instrumental in extending AC bus service to Fremont.

Don Dillon Jr. and Fred Real's son-in-law, Mike Andrade joined Four Winds Growers in 1973. Don Jr. returned from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo after majoring in Landscape Horticulture. Mike completed two tours of duty in the Pacific as US Navy Operations Specialist. Both were mentored by Fred and Don Sr.

A 14-acre parcel behind the Tibbets and Dillon property was purchased by Don Sr. and Mary Ann. Later the parcel was sold to Don Jr. and his wife Donna. They designed and built a passive solar home with harmonious architectural and landscaping styles. Don Jr., Mike and the Four Winds crew prepared the land for more citrus trees.

Donna served the children of Fremont as an Economics teacher and tennis coach at American High School from 1987 until 2002. By the 1980's, Mike and Don Jr. were increasingly taking the reins of the Four Winds operation. Mike became the Propagation and Production Manager. He and Don Jr. both worked in Sales. They became members of the California Association of Nurserymen and Garden Centers (CANGC) and IPPS. In 1983 Barbara passed away and Fred continued in the business until his death in 1993.

Connie (Real) Andrade opened Village Treasures in MSJ in 1997. Active in the MSJ Chamber of Commerce, she has served as its president and promoted local services in the historic community.

Four Winds was running out of room for new plants. Don Sr. sent Debbie Dillon, (second daughter who worked as a Child Nutrition Consultant for the State) to look for property to the north based on Floyd's temperature and location research. An old orange and apricot orchard was found on Sackett Lane above Lake Solano Park near Winters in Solano County.

Mary Helen Dillon Seeger and her husband, John "Cedar" Seeger brought their two children, Toby and Galena from their small homestead in Siskiyou County in 1988.They have built and managed a successful nursery with adaptations for pumping creek water, high winds, and colder winter temperatures. John served as President of the Superior Chapter of the CANGC 1997 and 1998. Don Jr. served from 2000 until 2003 as the Executive Grower Director on the Board of CANGC and Chairman in 2005. Don Jr. coordinated efforts by nurseries and the State to deal with the effects of Sudden Oak Death Virus related to shipping plants into other states.

In 2002, Aaron Dillon, son of Don Jr., came to learn the ropes at Four Winds in Fremont. He developed a new product line of other desirable edibles that could be grown in small yards. To continue sharing knowledge of citrus, Mary Helen and Don Jr. served as President of the California Citrus Nursery Society in different years. Aaron was made President in 2008 and continues to serve on the Board, sharing Floyd's vision to focus on producing "clean stock" for healthy plants. Aaron is completing a Master of Arts degree in Geography, concentrating on Environmental Planning and Resource Management, at San Francisco State University. His thesis focuses on changes to the form and function of Bay Area Nurseries since WWII.

In 2010, an insect called Asian Citrus Psyllid created a problem for citrus orchardists in Southern California. Four Winds and the Dillons had to adapt again. Don Jr. and Aaron looked for property in an area suitable for citrus propagation under fine mesh screening, in compliance with the new California and federal regulations. Property was found near Watsonville that Aaron will manage. Lexa, his sister, has joined the team following service with the Peace Corps in Guinea, West Africa and studies in Greenhouse Management. Aaron and Lexa became the fourth generation in the "life of FWG" and along with the employees, share the realization of the "California dream of dwarf citrus" and other edible fruits with gardeners.

On Don Sr.'s 90th birthday he invited Mary Ann, Don Jr. Mary Helen and Debbie to lunch at the Niles-Fremont Rotary Club. Don Sr. told Rotarians and guests how proud and honored he was to be among them for 48 years. "The motto 'Service above self' was one I do my life, by" said Don Sr. He made a Paul Harris Fellowship gift for each of them to assist Rotary International Foundation medical teams around the world to eradicate polio.

In the summer 2012, improvements to an existing greenhouse were completed at the Watsonville property. By December 2012, the entire propagation of citrus by Four Winds will be located in Watsonville. The entrance to Four Winds will be moved to Palm Avenue and rented by the City of Fremont, Park and Recreation Department. A small citrus orchard will memorialize Four Winds Growers.

Led by Don Dillon Sr., the Dillons, Seegers, Mike Andrade and employees of Four Winds Growers continue the tradition of growing citrus trees and sharing their beauty with others.

The Museum of Local History is hosting a Memory Lane Reception in honor of the Don Dillon Family. The public is invited. At the reception, Don Dillon, Sr., will share his memories and exhibits featuring the Dillon Family history and Four Winds Growers will be on display.

Memory Lane Reception
Saturday, Nov 10
1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Museum of Local History
190 Anza Street, Fremont
(510) 623-7907
Free, donations welcome

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