Gary R. Mormino: The enduring but endangered symbol of Florida - Simple Strategies For Finding Apartments In Temple Terrace FL
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Gary R. Mormino: The enduring but endangered symbol of Florida

Gary R. Mormino: The enduring but endangered symbol of Florida

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By Gary R. Mormino / Special to The Sun

Amidst tumult and change, one thing remains certain: a glass of freshly squeezed Florida orange juice is pure elixir, the proper drink for a dream state.

The orange has stirred the imagination of Franciscan friars, country fiddlers and multinational conglomerates. More than anything else, Florida’s signature fruit has defined the Sunshine State as the New Mediterranean.

Alas, the orange is in peril. A new culprit has arrived. In 2005, scientists discovered a single orange tree infected with citrus greening, a deadly and incurable disease.

The orange is so iconic and entwined in the Florida dream that this agricultural product is considered part of the “natural” landscape. After all, Florida boasts places named Orange City, Orange Lake and Orange Springs. The orange blossom is Florida’s official state flower, the orange the official state fruit and, since 1998, an orange has served as the emblem on state license plates.

In the decades that followed the Civil War, an orange rush occurred as groves sprang up along the Indian River, the St. Johns River and the Golden Triangle (Mount Dora, Eustis and Tavares).

Florida’s most celebrated grove owner was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who resided at Mandarin on the banks of the St. Johns River. “The orange-tree is, in our view,” she wrote in 1872, “the best worthy to represent the tree of life of any that grows on earth.”

Capitalizing on the nation’s changing diet and tastes, Florida helped create and popularize new markets. Generations of Americans first encountered Florida by peeling an orange under a Christmas tree.

If cotton was king of the Old South, the orange became the enduring and endearing symbol of Florida. The orange grove evoked images of the gardens of Cordoba, Nice and Palermo.

Alachua County figured prominently in the orange fever. So many groves were planted in Melrose, Gainesville and Hawthorne that Alachua County became a citrus powerhouse, producing a state-leading 817,767 boxes of oranges during the 1889-90 season.

In 1895, Alachua County grove owners produced no oranges. The Great Freeze of ’95 wiped away fortunes and dreams. Once a prosperous community on the shores of Newnans Lake, Windsor had become a ghost town by 1896.

Florida was touted as a poor man’s paradise. A 10-acre orange grove in Island Grove or Temple Terrace imagined Jeffersonian republicanism and democratic romanticism.

A dazzling variety of oranges took root in Florida, their names suggesting their romantic lineage: Hamlin, Temple, Murcott, Lue Gim Gong, Parson Brown, Sanford Bloods and Maltese Oval.

To sell the fruit, roadside fruit stands and packing houses proliferated along the orange belt, offering motorists sweet bliss and a free glass of orange juice.

Ben Hill Griffin Jr. embodied the homespun citrus baron. Raised in Frostproof, Griffin received a 10-acre orange grove as a wedding present in 1933. Taking a job in a fresh fruit packinghouse paying 15 cents an hour, Griffin resolved to make his fortune in citrus, learning every task of the business. He came to own the packing house where he once pushed a cart. At his death in 1990, he was one of the richest men in Florida, controlling a fortune worth $300 million, owning or controlling 200,000 acres of groves and ranch land.

In a story all-too-familiar, corporations have swallowed family groves and baronial estates. Beginning in the 1940s, corporations bet wildly and successfully on Florida grove land. Just as “Doc” Phillips and Ben Hill Griffin personified the gritty individualism of the men who built dynasties one grove at a time, Consolidated Citrus LP, Coca-Cola and Cutrale Juices U.S.A. came to signify a new corporate presence.

Historic freezes and the relentless development of grove land have pushed Florida’s orange belt southward. In 1950, the orange belt buckled together the state’s leading citrus counties: Orange, Polk, and Lake. Today, the belt droops southward.

In January 1981, Florida shivered as the first of the decade’s Alberta Clippers plunged statewide temperatures well below freezing. By the end of the decade, three more disastrous freezes had ravaged Florida’s groves, killing 90 percent of Lake County’s orange trees.

The real beneficiaries of the 1980s climatic woes were Brazil and real estate developers. The early 1980s marked a milestone in citrus history, a moment in time when Brazil replaced Florida as the world’s leading orange producer. Astonishingly, 100,000 acres of Lake County citrus was transformed into housing tracts, shopping centers and nurseries.

In song and jingle, on the crate and out of the can, the orange captivated Americans: “Breakfast without orange juice is like a day without sunshine!” “Come to the Florida Sunshine Tree!” and “Orange juice — It’s not just for breakfast anymore.” But in reality, more and more Americans are beginning their days without a glass of orange juice. OJ’s greatest threat may not even be citrus greening, but rather changing tastes.

Amidst tumult and change, one thing remains certain: a glass of freshly squeezed Florida orange juice is pure elixir, the proper drink for a dream state.

— Gary R. Mormino is professor emeritus of history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. In 2015 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in writing by the Florida Humanities Council. He will speak about Florida’s citrus heritage and Alachua County’s role at the Matheson History Museum on Thursday at 6 p.m. The talk is free and open to the public and is presented in connection with the Matheson’s new exhibition, “Liquid Gold: The Rise and Fall of Florida Citrus.”

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