Exploring Florida citrus history at the Winter Garden Heritage Museum

The museum shows original equipment used in harvesting and shipping citrus. Here there’s a “crate jig” for assembling the fruit shipping crates in a packing house, and a bag used by workers in the groves to harvest oranges.

In growing a grove of fruit trees, I am carrying on a long tradition. I love learning about that long cultural practice, especially the history of the citrus industry here in Florida.

One place you can learn about that citrus history is the Winter Garden Heritage Museum in Winter Garden, Florida (just west of Orlando). I recently visited there, and had fun expanding my knowledge of the backstory of this region and its fruit culture.

The walls of the citrus room at the museum are covered with early to mid twentieth century art, the beautiful labels affixed to citrus crates to create brand loyalty. You can sit and watch a video presentation on the history of the citrus industry in the area.

The Museum is very small, with just a few rooms, but it packs a lot into that space. A variety of aspects of local history are featured, but my favorite (of course) is the room devoted to the local citrus industry.

Up until the devastating freezes of the 1980s, the area around Orlando was the center of the citrus industry in Florida, with thousands of acres covered in orange groves. Winter Garden was at the heart of this agricultural business.

Some of the vintage citrus crate labels at the museum.

On display at the museum are the bags that workers would use to harvest oranges – the bag has a single strap, worn over the shoulder, and has a ring holding the top of the bag open, freeing up both of the worker’s hands to pick fruits and drop them into the bag. (I need to get one of those for harvesting my tangerines!)

Once harvested, the oranges went from the groves to packing houses, where workers sorted them into different grades, and placed them into wooden packing crates for shipping. The crates then traveled by rail to wholesale markets in big cities in the north, where buyers placed bids on the various produce on offer.

To aid in marketing their fruit in these wholesale markets, and to achieve name recognition for their particular brand, citrus growers placed colorful labels on the ends of the crates. Hundreds of growers had artists design their own distinctive brand labels, and walls of the citrus room at the museum are covered with dozens of these beautiful vintage citrus crate labels.

On frosty winter nights, growers would place among their trees smudge pots, a metal contraption filled with oil, and let them burn all night to keep the trees warm.

The museum has several old-time wooden citrus crates. The display also features an original “crate jig” for assembling these wooden boxes – the crates were delivered to the citrus packing houses in flattened form, and workers used the crate jig to assemble the crates into three dimensional shape.

To protect their citrus trees from occasional winter freezes, growers used oil-burning grove heaters, also called smudge pots, metal devices placed out in the groves in winter. On sub-freezing nights, they would light fires in these heaters and keep the fires going all night to hopefully radiate out enough heat to protect the neighboring trees. Additionally, all those grove heaters would produce a cloud of smoke hanging over the groves that would help block loss of heat through radiational cooling to the sky. The display features a couple of different styles of smudge pots.

The Winter Garden Heritage Museum is small, so it’s best considered as part of a visit to downtown Winter Garden. One part I thought was especially fun: seeing the vintage crate label for “Clock Tower Brand” citrus in the Museum, then stepping out to see the actual Clock Tower featured on the label from almost a hundred years ago, still standing in downtown Winter Garden. I didn’t realize till after I took these photos that the clock was at almost exactly the same time.

Expect to spend about 30 minutes at the Winter Garden Heritage Museum – this is a teeny, tiny museum. Probably not worth traveling to as its own destination, but it’s great as part of a visit to downtown Winter Garden, which has been restored in the last few years into a thriving walkable business district, with stores, restaurants, a brewery, outdoor sitting areas, and sometimes live musicians. There’s also a small railroad museum, a restored rail car, and a History Research and Education Center, which houses an extensive archive documenting the area’s past.

The Winter Garden Heritage Museum is located at:

One North Main Street
Winter Garden, FL 34787

Admission is free, but contributions to the donation box are greatly appreciated.

#placestovisit #citrus #history


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