By the time he was 16 in 1936, Sam Perricone was picking and packing lemons in Corona and Riverside and then hauling them to Los Angeles in his small pickup truck to sell at the Grand Central Market.

Perricone, who became a giant of the citrus industry, died of congestive heart failure July 8 at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, said his daughter Lucy Perricone. He was 91.

A resident of the Orange County community of Sunset Beach, Perricone owned or was a partner in approximately 25 businesses related to agriculture.

That included owning some 500 acres of avocados in Pauma Valley in San Diego County and numerous orange groves in California and Arizona. He also was a partner in a company that grows Cuties brand mandarins and owned packinghouses in California and Arizona.

For many years beginning in 1960, Perricone oversaw management of the Sunkist Citrus House on Main Street in Disneyland — as well as a second location in Adventureland — where his children and grandchildren worked over the years.

Perricone was one of the largest independent growers for Sunkist and was one of the first exporters of citrus to the Asian market.

"My dad also was the first person to package oranges in plastic bags for retail consumption," said Perricone's son Joe, recalling family excursions to his father's groves in Redlands to pick and bag oranges to be sold in retail stores in the late 1950s.

"He'd have us all go down there; there might be two or three carloads of us on a Sunday," he said.

He said his father joined in picking, too — as did his grandmother and aunts.

To say his father loved the citrus business, Joe Perricone said, "is an understatement. It was more an avocation than a vocation. It was his life."

The oldest of four children, Perricone was born Jan. 8, 1920, in Pueblo, Colo., where his parents ran a neighborhood grocery store.

His father died when Perricone was 13, and the family moved to Los Angeles in 1935 after a family vacation in Long Beach.

Perricone stopped going to school after the eighth grade and went to work to help support his family.

When Perricone began selling lemons at the Grand Central Market in the 1930s, son Joe said, "most of the people with the stands were Japanese."

When Japanese Americans were put in internment camps during World War II, he said, "my dad and my uncle Tony took over two of the stands and managed them until the war was over and gave them back to the original owners. That's the kind of person he was."

In the late 1940s, Perricone launched the Sam Perricone Citrus Co. Inc. of Los Angeles, which became one of the nation's largest wholesale distributors of oranges, lemons, tangerines and grapefruit.

In 1967, he helped form American Produce, a general wholesale produce company,

Perricone continued working until he was hospitalized last week, showing up at his office in the Los Angeles Wholesale Produce Market at 6 a.m. every weekday.

"He'd actually walk the market before he went to his office at 6," said his son. "He's an icon there."

Bob Witt, one of Perricone's many business partners, agreed.

"He helped many people get started in business, and he was an outstanding partner to all of them," said Witt, adding that "Sam was one of the driving forces to get the new Wholesale Produce Market built." It opened in 1986.

Perricone, Witt said, "was also very, very charitable. One quote I'll never forget. In the '70s, we were starting to raise money for the City of Hope in the Wholesale Produce Market. I was having a discussion with him about it, and he made a comment. He said, 'Well, if we don't do it, who will?'"

He died 15 years to the day after his wife, Mary.

His son Sam's wife, Kathy, is the daughter of Daryl F. Gates, the former Los Angeles Police Department chief who died in 2010.

In addition to his children, Lucy, Joe and Sam, Perricone is survived by a sister, Mary Santoro; a brother, Tony Perricone; 18 grandchildren; 34 great-grandchildren; and two great-great grandchildren.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com