Early Beginnings of the Pinellas Citrus Story
Citrus production has been one of the leading industries in Florida since the first Europeans migrated to the New World, and Pinellas County has always played a prominent role in its history.
Odet Philippe, the first permanent settler in Pinellas County, came to the peninsula in the early 1830s and is credited with introducing citrus to the area. The first grapefruit grove was planted at Philippe’s plantation in what is now Safety Harbor.
As an industry, citrus growing in Pinellas County began soon after the Civil War ended in 1865, drawing settlers from other states and the British Isles.
Heritage Village Link – the Moore Grove House
The Moore family, who lived in the Moore Grove House beginning in 1879, were among the first in the area to grow oranges and grapefruit.
Imagine the view from their farm house and others like it in the area, looking out to see rows and rows of trees full of ripe orange and yellow fruit! Citrus farming families depended heavily on the income they would receive from the harvest and marketing of this valuable agricultural product.
Find the Moore Grove House, also referred to as the Moore House, in the northeast corner of the park.
Go to the Moore Grove House link below to learn more!
What do you think?
Q - In an effort to promote the rapidly growing citrus industry, elected officials passed an ordinance in 1884 prohibiting the growth of cotton. How would eliminating the growth of cotton promote the growth of citrus?
A - Eliminating the growth of cotton did two things. It excluded a potential competing crop as well as made sure additional land was available for citrus farming.
Heritage Village Link – nearby Dansville and the Walsingham House
As you can imagine, caring for a citrus grove was a lot of work and took a lot of people! One role that was especially important to the harvest were workers who picked the fruit - an experienced citrus picker could pick up to 200 boxes a day!
Many grove workers were African Americans who came to the area between 1910 and 1915 seeking available work in the groves. With Largo having many citrus groves, a good number of these workers settled into a small African American community known as Dansville, an area near where Heritage Village is located today.
Jesse Walsingham, owner of the Walsingham House now located at Heritage Village, operated a citrus grove near the outskirts of Dansville and employed several residents in its operations.
Mr. Lloyd Henry, a Dansville resident, began his own citrus groves located right in that community, operating them well into the 1960s.
Find the Walsingham House in the northwest section of the park.
Go to the Walsingham House link below to learn more!
Transportation Was Key
Once citrus was harvested, the next stop was the packing house. Some very large groves had their own facilities, but the harvest of many groves was transported by wagon to an independently owned and managed packing house business.
To get them there, the fruit was carefully and tightly packed into field crates, protecting them from moving around and bruising.
At the packing house, oranges and grapefruits were sorted by size, shape and quality, and packed for the next step of their journey.
The citrus was often carefully wrapped in paper by hand to cushion and protect it. Large groves often had wrapping paper with advertisement on it to note their company name. Fruit was once again carefully placed into wooden crates, which were sealed with a lid that was nailed and strapped down.
Initially, produce was transported to market by wagon and boat. By either means, the time required to reach market often caused a deterioration of the produce. As time went on, some packing houses were located right next to railroad or water transportation.
With the construction of the Orange Belt Railroad in 1889 and the Atlantic Coastline and Seaboard Railroads in 1902 and 1903, there became a link to the citrus belt in Pinellas, allowing a steady and reliable way to send citrus to market. The citrus boom was on!
Go to the middle west of the park (just north of the main parking lot) to find the Sulphur Springs Depot and wagons typical of ones used to transport citrus to rail transportation.
Go to the Sulphur Springs Depot link below to learn more!
Growers in Pinellas County often played prominent roles on the Florida Citrus Exchange. Formed in 1909, the Exchange worked to organize Florida growers in a partnership of cooperation. Goals were to:
By 1929 Pinellas was second in the state in grapefruit production.
What do you think?
Q - Do you think the goals of the Florida Citrus Exchange were accomplished?
A - Considering the growth of Pinellas citrus production to become second in the nation, it appears that the goals were met!
Citrus for Sale
With so many different groves competing for business, owners had to work towards finding a way to identify and market themselves and their products. Though the advertising approach was much more basic then, growers got very creative, branding their products using colorful orange crate labels.
Crops of many different growers were shipped on the same trains, so growers needed to find a way to make their brand stand out. Attaching brightly printed labels to the ends of the wooden slatted citrus crates was their solution.
Many different styles and themes were developed, choosing to depict plentiful sunshine, wildlife, the beaches and bountiful harvest. From people enjoying the area’s natural wonders, sunbathers at the beach, and treasure chests filled with citrus gold, they also promoted Florida’s natural beauty and mild climate.
In addition to marketing, the background colors of labels often served the purpose of defining different grades of fruit as required by the Department of Agriculture. Blue was Grade A, red Grade B, and yellow or green backgrounds denoted Grade C.
Eventually the wooden crates got replaced by cardboard boxes with preprinted exteriors and the use of colorful labels became a thing of the past. Fortunately, some citrus labels were preserved and collected.
Find the Roy Helms Gallery just off the breezeway at the parking lot park entrance to see orange crate label designs and more information about the Pinellas County citrus industry.
John S. Taylor built his first packinghouse in 1902 which became the center of Largo’s economy. He also originated the Black Diamond Brand in 1910.
What do you think?
Between 1950 and 1986, the number of groves in Pinellas County greatly diminished.
Q - Why do you think so many groves closed?
A - Growing citrus is challenging. From weather to disease to insects, many factors could negatively impact the ability to make a living from citrus farming.
As the area grew and became more developed, land was needed for building housing and businesses. And because land was in demand, citrus growers could sell for a decent price that could help them secure their financial future in a far greater way than depending on income from a good harvest.
In 1956 citrus was grown on 13,000 acres; in 1986, just 30 years later, that figure had dropped to only 394 acres!