Historic City Memories: The big freeze II

The Death of the citrus industry in Northeast Florida

Part II of a two-part series.

By Geoff Dobson

At one time, St. Johns County had a large and thriving citrus industry. The days of that citrus industry are recalled in names found in Northeast Florida: Orange Park, Mandarin, Satsuma, Orange Mills, Orange Springs, Orange Lake, Island Grove, Citra, and Fruit Cove.

Shortly after the founding of St. Augustine, Don Pedro Menendez reported to the King the planting of oranges in St. Augustine. During the British Period, Governor Grant commented on extensive citrus groves throughout Florida. Indeed, in the late 1700’s, Jessie Fish established on the Anastasia Island the first commercial citrus grove in Florida. From St. Augustine, Fish shipped his oranges to Savannah and from there to England. By the time of the Civil War, Col. Francis Dancey, an early mayor of St. Augustine, had established a citrus plantation near Hastings. It was on that plantation that the Dancey tangerine was discovered.

Prior to 1835, oranges were grown not only in Florida but in South Georgia and southeastern coastal South Carolina. Oranges were planted by the Spanish in the original capital of Florida, Santa Elena, in what is now South Carolina. In 1835, a freeze ended citrus in South Carolina and Georgia. On February 9, the freeze came to St. Augustine. According to D. J. Browne, prior to 1835, St. Augustine was producing between 2 to 2 1/2 million oranges a year. Colonel Dancey reported that trees a hundred years old were killed to the ground. Max Bloomfield described the scene:

“In January, 1766, the thermometer sank to 26° above zero. The only snow-storm remembered was during the winter of 1774; the inhabitants spoke and thought of it as the “white rain.” But the coldest weather ever known in Florida or St. Augustine was in February, 1835, when the thermometer sank to 7° above zero, and the St. John’s River froze several rods from the shore. This freeze proved a great injury to St. Augustine, for it killed every fruit tree in the city, and deprived the majority of the people of their only income. The older inhabitants still remark, that the freeze of 1835 cost most of them their all.”

But the groves were replanted. For the next fifty-one years, St. Augustine experienced a period of warm winters. St. Johns County and northeast Florida became the center of Florida’s citrus industry. By 1894, Florida was shipping over 5,000,000 crates of citrus northward. Before a frost warning service was established in Florida, warnings of coming frosts was giving by placing placards on south-bound trains and blowing the train whistles.

Christmas, 1894, was warm. In Orlando, it was in the 80’s. Four days later the train whistles blew. The orange crops had not yet been harvested and throughout Florida the crops were lost. In some places, the oranges which fell from the trees were two feet deep on the ground. Although the freeze had killed the crop, citrus growers looked forward to the following year. Following the freeze, there was a six-week warm spell, the sap began to rise in the trees, and new sprouts came forth giving promise of a good crop the next year. After all, in 1886 there had been a freeze, but the trees recovered and Northeast Florida was again producing record crops. On February 8, 1895, trains heading south in Florida again blew their whistles warning of a coming freeze.
In Jacksonville, the temperature fell to 16 degrees. In Orlando, it remained below freezing for thirty hours. The sap in the trees froze. The trunks of the trees were split. It froze as far south as Fort Myers. Throughout Florida, trees were killed down to the ground. Peach groves in north Florida were also killed. The next year, Florida shipped only slightly over 100,000 crates of oranges. Citrus growing areas such as Orlando lost population. Another freeze occurred in February 1899.

Although further to the south groves in Marion, Citrus, Lake and Orange Counties were replanted, the groves in North Florida were abandoned and agricultural areas were given over to crops such as potatoes and melons. In 1901 the Savannah News reported that production was only slightly over 1,000,000 crates as compared to the pre-freeze production of over 5,000,000 crates. It was not expected that production would exceed pre-freeze levels until 1906.

In February 1917, another freeze came and yet again in 1934. As a result of the latter freeze, the Federal Frost Warning Service was established. The groves were once again replanted. Southern Alachua County and northern Marion County once again became a center for citrus. In Cross Creek, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings owned an orange grove. Rawlings later moved to Crescent Beach. Because of freezes, the groves at Cross Creek and Island Grove are now gone. To give a flavor of the appearance of Rawlings’ home during her period of residency, the state has replanted citrus trees in the door yard. In 1940, another freeze hit, the coldest since 1899. St. Augustinian Wade Noda recalled a bedside glass of water freezing.

The groves around Citra were again replanted. In 1957, yet another freeze hit. Freezing weather hit even Longboat Key, Lido Key, and Anna Maria Island off Sarasota. More freezes came in 1977, 1983, 1985 and 1989. As a result, the Citrus Tower which formerly overlooked thousands of acres of citrus now overlooks a Publix shopping center. The bulk of commercial orange groves have moved even further south.

In front of Flagler College were beautiful bougainvilleas. They are gone now as are the casuarinas on Davis Shores, the orange groves along State Road 460 to the west of Umatilla, at Citrus Springs, and at Windsor. Windsor east of Gainesville, prior to 1895 was a major producer of oranges. Today it is a ghost town. The Citrus Tower near Clearmont at one time overlooked hills covered with thousands of acres of citrus groves. It now overlooks a Publix shopping center.

In the shortness of time, persons sometimes want to believe that periods of warmness, coolness, wetness or dryness are harbingers of a permanent condition. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, noted scientists such as Dr. V. T. Cooke and Dr. Ferndinand Hayden and Harvard’s Professor Jean Louis Rudolphe Agassiz predicted that man’s activities were producing a permanent change of climate which would eliminate the need for irrigation in large parts of the American West, Numerous settlers homesteaded in reliance on the predictions only to be visited by a devastating drought beginning in 1912 which led into the 1920’s and 30’s Dust Bowl.

But man has forgotten the earlier freezes. In St. Augustine, the queen palms are reappearing. The writer has two, along with two fishtail palms, a key lime tree, two bougainvilleas and a tangerine. In town, the writer has even spotted three coconut trees. But like the citrus groves in Orange Mills, Fruit Cove, Mandarin, and Orange Park, all sometime will undoubtedly freeze.

Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 32 years, is a western and Florida history writer. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at horse.creek.cowboy@gmail.com

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