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Old Citrus Packing House

A chapter on abandoned places in Florida would not be complete without including something about the state’s citrus history, but an abandoned orange grove just doesn’t have a good story and besides, most old citrus groves have been turned into residential developments and shopping centers. However, one day as I was driving down U. S. 17 near Deleon Springs, I discovered the rusting remains of an old citrus packinghouse. With a little research, I learned that this place has sat vacant since the early fifties when citrus growing began fading out north of Orlando.

In the 1870s, this area from Deland along the St. Johns River to Palatka was where Florida’s citrus industry really got its start. Early pioneer orange growers compared it to Florida’s gold rush, gold as in the color of oranges. Everybody was catching the “orange fever” and making good money shipping their fruit to the Northern states. Then devastating back-to-back freezes of 1895-96 wiped out the growers. This is why you do not see many orange groves until you get south and west of Orlando. However, a few groves and packinghouses north of Orlando did hang-on until late in the game, one of those was the one I found in DeLeon Springs, probably the last complete intact citrus packinghouse in this part of the state.

This was the Strawn Citrus Packinghouse, a complex of about ten buildings, where oranges were washed, sorted, and packed for northbound shipment. When Theodore and Candace Strawn visited Deland, Florida in 1898 they caught the “orange fever.” The big freeze had left a lot of vacant grove lands, and while other growers had given up, Theodore Strawn in 1904 began buying up the vacated grove lands for re-planting orange trees. By 1913 he had several hundred acres of citrus groves in production. He built a large wooden packinghouse north of Deleon Springs next to the Atlantic Coastline Railroad tracks and went into the citrus shipping business. Strawn, one of the last big growers in this region of Florida, grew and shipped under his own label called the “Bob White Brand.”

Strawn’s success as a grower was not without problems; he was faced with fighting insect infestation of his trees, periodic freezes, over-production in the citrus market, and in 1921 suffered a great loss when his packinghouse burned to the ground. He rebuilt using metal buildings, which, along with a few of the original wooden structures can still be seen. From the highway, the Strawn packinghouse resembles a ghost town. There is a water tower, some old gas pumps, several small buildings and the big warehouse size packinghouse, which is still stacked with wooden crates. The most modern, and last structure to be built, is the cinder-block office building. It has been so long since there were any orange groves in this part of the state, that the old packinghouse looks out of place, but it stands as a reminder of when citrus was king all the way to Palatka. Today this part of the state is famous for its “non-edible” crops, the leather-leaf and asparagus ferns grown for the florist market. Checking around, I learned that the Strawn Packinghouse, which is not open to the public, has now been listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There is an effort underway to preserve this piece of history.

Weird Florida

 

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