The Great Freezes and the Collapse of the Florida Citrus Industry

The devastating winter of 1894 and 1895 dashed the dreams and fortunes of many new Florida settlers. Decades would pass before the state fully recovered.

Florida farmers surveying damage after the great freezes (1894–95)

When pioneers began to settle Florida they found wild oranges among the palm trees. They didn’t realize it at the time, but they were seeing the remains of a tragic clash of cultures: Spanish explorers and the Native Floridians.

During the 16th century the Spanish made several ill-fated attempts to settle Florida. Although most Native Americans resisted Spanish control and incursions onto their lands, they likely obtained sour orange seeds from the Spanish.

By the 17th century the Native American population in Florida had completely collapsed. Most succumbed to conflict, slavery and disease. Remaining bands of Creeks were pushed further and further south by the incursion of English settlements. Later they joined with former slaves to become the Seminole tribe.

Native Americans being enslaved by the Spanish

Over time Florida settlers bred sweeter oranges more suitable to the mass market. Groves began to spring up in rural communities and farmers began to see the value of orange production. Then in 1835 a massive freeze hit, killing all the citrus in the Southeast. The temperature was so low the St. Johns River froze and people could walk a distance from the shore.

Temperatures bottomed out at seven degrees in Jacksonville. This freeze was far worse than the “great freezes” to come, but its impact actually did more to cultivate the Florida orange boom. It ended attempts to grow citrus in southern Georgia and southeast South Carolina, pushing more growers south to Florida and its warmer weather.

Florida Postcard showing railroad/orange grove

By the 1870’s “Orange Fever” had taken over Florida. With the completed railroad, farmers now had the ability to ship citrus to other parts of the country. As it turned out, shipping oranges to the northern states was big business! Farmers and investors from the north flocked to Florida looking for opportunity.

Receipt from the Brock House, Enterprise, Fl for an orange shipment (1882)

Henry Deland, owner of a baking soda empire from New York, purchased a large tract of land in Volusia County. Impressed with citrus production in Orange City, he wanted to build a culture-driven town. This investment would later give birth to Deland, Florida.

Profit from the Florida “Gold” Rush was so sweet it became the primary industry in the state. Orange growing skyrocketed and entire towns sprung out around its production.

Then on December 29th, 1894 the course of Florida’s history changed forever. Another massive cold front moved through the state. Temperatures logged in Orlando reached an all-time low of 18F and a frosty 24F in West Palm Beach. The bitter cold turned the oranges black on the trees and destroyed most of the crop for the year.

San Juan Hotel, Orlando, FL (Demolished in 1980)

Karl Abbott, whose parents owned the San Juan Hotel in Orlando at the time, recalls a boyhood memory:

“By 2pm., the San Juan was in an uproar. Prices had dropped to ‘no sale’ commission merchants were frantically trying to get out of options, and heated debates and fistfights started in the lobby.
About 9 that night, a fine looking grey-haired man in a black frock coat and Stetson hat walked up the street in front of the hotel and looked at the thermometer, groaned, ‘Oh, my God!’ and shot himself through the head.
For three days icy winds blew over a dead world. The gloom in the San Juan was something you could touch and feel.”

Yet, the worst was still to come. Although the freeze destroyed many young trees, most of the mature trees survived. The next month was warm and wet, which encouraged recovery and new growth. Farmers began to hope, and it was enough incentive for many to dig their heels in and keep trying.

Yet, on February 7th, just six weeks after the first freeze, another devastating front moved through the state. Temperatures fell to 17 degrees in some places.

Remaining trees, filled with sap from the months of recovery, froze solid. Some recall what sounded like gunshots; whole trees split from trunk to root. In one day the entire orange industry in Florida was destroyed, along with the dreams of its ill-fated architects.

After the fall of orange industry farmers were unable to pay their mortgages. Entire homesteads were left abandoned, and land values bottomed out in citrus growing areas. This allowed those left with money to pick the bones of the Florida market, buying up huge portions of land. But the freezes destroyed more than homesteads. Stores and packing houses closed down and with them entire towns vanished.

Wildlife was also affected by the freeze. Turtles and fish died due the cold weather. Whole colonies of bees starved without the orange blossoms from which to feed.

Before the freezes Florida produced more than six million boxes of fruit per year, but afterwards that number dropped below 100,000. The freezes damaged the Florida citrus industry so much it took decades for it to recover.

Other historic freezes have come and gone in the years since, but their impact has paled in comparison. The great freezes marked the end of eras, fortunes and communities. It cast a forbidding legacy, warning Florida agriculturalists to never again invest all their hopes on a single industry.

Sources:

Andrews, Mark. “Devastating Great Freeze Of 1894–95 Put Squeeze On New Citrus Industry.” Orlando Sentinel Website, Orlando Sentinel, December 25th, 1994, http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/1994-12-25/news/9412220310_1_great-freeze-citrus-industry-orange-county

Bowden, Denny. “Florida’s Worst Freezes.” The Florida History Network, 2014, http://www.floridahistorynetwork.com/blog---floridas-worst-freezes.html

Clark, J. C. (2013). Orlando, Florida: a brief history. Charleston, SC: The History Press.

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