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When Citrus Was King

Posted on Sunday, September 16, 2018 at 1:17 am

Ron Johnson, retired university professor and author, was the featured speaker at the September meeting of the South Lake County Historical Society. Mr. Johnson shared information about the history of the citrus industry in Lake County, “impact” freezes and the “Citrus Barons” he interviewed for a book he had hoped to write.
Citrus fruit is not native to Florida. It was the Spanish who brought the first orange trees to St. Augustine in the 1500s. Gradually orange trees could be seen all over the state, especially the farther south one traveled. It wasn’t until the 1700s that the French introduced grapefruit trees into our state. So, why do citrus trees normally do well in Florida, especially in South Lake County? There are several reasons. Citrus likes warm days & cool nights and does well in sandy soil on hill sides for good drainage. The ideal place for growing citrus trees is on the south side of a hill on water. Lake County has that to offer and then some.
With few exceptions, once oranges were introduced here they were thriving until the 1980s. Anyone who lived here then has vivid memories of what happened. 1981 started with a frost that resulted in minor damage to the trees & some fruit loss but nothing major. 1983 & 1985 were a different story. The December ’83 freeze came without warning resulting in some serious damage to trees requiring major pruning. Then in early ’85, just 13 months later when the trees were still recovering from that pruning, came another freeze that actually killed a lot of trees. People report hearing the trees cracking as their sap froze. These two freezes are together considered an “impact” freeze. Another “impact” freeze hit in late 1989 and that resulted in “catastrophic loss of trees” in a large area. That is the definition of an “impact” freeze.
Even major growers like the Bradshaw family could not survive. At one time this family was the largest citrus grower in the area with over 10,500 acres of trees 85% of which were in Lake County. They owned their own nursery, packing plant, fertilizer plant, and concentrate plant; a virtual monopoly. And they could not come back after the ‘80s. If they were impacted to that extent, imagine the devastation these freezes brought to the small growers who had 5 to 10 acres of groves. Lake County went from over 123,000 acres of citrus in 1979 to less than 9,000 in 2016 and each year we can see even more groves giving way to development.
Mr. Johnson shared a great deal more information in his talk and generously donated all his notes on his research to the Historical Society. If you would like to know more about what he learned, you can contact the Village Manager, Roxanne Brown, at 352-432-3496 and make arrangements to read his papers. If you are interested in history in general or the history of Lake County in particular, contact the South Lake County Historical Society by going to our website, ClermontVillage.org; by calling Roxanne at the number above; or by attending our membership meetings which are held on the second Monday of the month at 7:00 PM in the Train Depot in the Historic Village. The next meeting will be October 8. After touring the Village, please like us on Facebook.