Citrus Label Tour: Polk’s Sweet Heritage by Brenda Eggert Brader

Citrus Label Tour: Polk’s Sweet Heritage
By Brenda Eggert Brader

Crate labels, those colorful works of art, are once again advertising the Polk County citrus industry. Now a part of the Polk County Heritage Trail, anyone can take a car tour to view the crate labels while easily learning about the local citrus industry’s historic marketing.

A partnership among the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame, Visit Central Florida and the Polk County History Center’s History and Heritage Trail has inspired the creation of the Citrus Label Tour of Polk County. The history and heritage trail has been around about four years and now expands with the citrus label tour, started about 18 months ago.

The brainchild of the idea came from Harriet Rust of Davenport, who admired the “barn quilt trail in Ohio where painted quilt squares were placed on barns,” Rust says. “I kept thinking, what if we did our citrus labels like that, we could put them in permanent places by or near packing houses and have a tour like what we started in the Polk County Heritage Trail.”

The labels may be purchased by citrus companies or even individuals through an application process requesting the use of specific labels. The process includes going through a selection committee to earn consent. Florida Southern College has the rights to many of the labels and they choose what labels to use, Rust says.

“Most labels are copyrighted and some that the families have not released at all,” Rust adds.

Davenport selected the Holly Hill large colorful label. Labels will be placed in historic places or as close to the original packing house as possible. The Holly Hill label is located across the street from the original offices, Rust says.

“We have no idea how fast it will happen,” Rust says of the development of the label tour. “We are the original county (creating a label tour) and hope that others will pick up on this. If in the citrus business, you get it; we need to help (non-citrus) people to understand the history of labels. The labels are tied to community history, art and a lesson. We would love to have all the labels onsite, but that is not doable. Some of the processing sites don’t even exist anymore,” she says.

“As many label signs will be done as people apply for the labels to be made into signs,” Rust says. “The general desire is to have other counties come onboard and add their labels to their own tours. Orange County is looking into starting a program.”

The sponsors plan all outdoor signs with hardcopy tour guides, the first of which will be paid for by the Polk County Sports Marketing, Rust says.

All labels are to be selected for their historical significance to each site on the Polk County Heritage Trail, according to the application form. No duplications will be allowed and are selected on a first-come basis. History of the label, building, family, and site must accompany each label request. The label square must be prominent and properly maintained in order to remain on the tour.

Digitech of Lakeland is the creator of the label signs. They make the mounts desired and install them.

“The purpose and intention of the citrus label tour was to have it as an outdoor historical experience, but close to the intended location of the label. Intended as a driving tour, you can stop and view or just drive by and see them on the building or the site,” says Myrtice Young, historic preservation manager working for Polk County.

There will be no limit to signs, Young adds.

“Our desire and my hope and desire is that by the end of 12 to 18 months at least one citrus label will be on display in all the incorporated areas in Polk County that are supported by citrus crate labels,” Young says. “Only Polk County labels can be used and must be native to a certain area. An example is in Lake Wales –  only Lake Wales labels are there. Labels can’t be duplicated as that label is approved exclusive to that particular sponsor.”

“We have a prospective list contacted, are making recommendations, and that is really the way it has happened so far,” Young says. “We have several members of the citrus industry and those working in the industry seeking or working through sponsorship on the labels. Several labels are at different stages of selection and development.”

“Florida produces more than 180 billion boxes of fruit each year, out of that only 10 percent goes into packing houses,” says LuAnn Mims, research historian and genealogy librarian at the Polk County History Center and writer of the recently released You Tube No. 30 Citrus Label Tour video.

“There are approximately 45 currently active packing houses. Historically, this number reached into the hundreds,” Mims says. “Many packing houses in Polk County are no longer used and the few that remain have come through the ups and downs of the citrus business – freezes, diseases and pests.”

After the fruit is picked, then as now, it is washed, sorted into type, quality and size through a series of conveyors and workers. A citrus inspector certifies that the fruit to be packed meets the established guidelines for that particular shipment. The citrus then was packed into bags and loaded into wooden crates that sported the labels (before that, barrels were used).

“Crates became the standard due to ease of loading and stacking,” Mims says. “In the late 1880s though 1900s California citrus produced the most fruit for fresh market sales. Florida became a competitor in the fresh fruit market with the advancements made in refrigeration and railroad transportation. The largest markets in the north have been New York, Indiana, and Illinois, which are closer geographically to Florida than California.”

For marketing, a large warehouse was the final destination for the crated citrus before shipment. Stacked to the ceiling in a dark warehouse, buyers found crates marked with only a burnished logo on one end of the crate, similar to what you would find to identify cattle.

“Following a lead from the California market, the idea of placing a colorful label (9” by 9” square) at the end of the crate would present the buyer with more information and better identification to develop product loyalty and branding,” Mims says. “Showing Florida with warmer weather and flowering winters – would foster interest in the winter buyers in Northern markets – an alternative to the cold and snow.”

Creating labels for the packing crates came about simply out of necessity to be able to identify what was in each crate since they were stacked hundreds and hundreds in warehouses awaiting purchase and shipment.

“A lot of the packing houses worked in close conjunction with printers for the design implement as there were not many choice designs for Florida fruit labels,” Mims says. “As each Florida packing house had its fruit, then each packing house had an idea and what it wanted on the label. The Matador in Davenport was in place to recognize the Spanish bringing citrus in the beginning to Florida in the 1500s when Spanish explorers carried oranges onboard their ships to ward off scurvy.”

“The period of 1880-1900 began to distinguish the outside of the box for quality of the product inside by adhering a colorful label to the crate,” Young says.

“All the labels had to be certified through the citrus commission that came into being in 1935,” Mims adds. “All the ones before that were certified as unique to that packing house. A blue background or reference to blue was used for the grades of oranges (as were the colors red, yellow, green and black). Each orange was selected according to color and size. Many (packing houses) used stock labels they could print out quickly and not hold up fruit production. Florida Grower Press in Tampa printed most all of the labels for Florida citrus.”

Florida packing houses tried to update labels.

“An example is Lake Wales, which had the royalty series of a king, followed by the prince,” Young says. “The Lakeland Highlands had the Detroit Tigers (baseball spring training team) and used a tiger in the label and it appeared on the packing house. They had the tigress and the tiger cubs and formed that as a series. Buyers in the Northern market would look for the tiger and tiger theme and to make it interesting, derivatives of the original. Florida flora and fauna and pictures of sunsets and ladies brought thoughts of how nice to be in Florida this time of year (winter).”

The golden age of the crate label is considered 1900-1920 with most fruit shipped in crates with the distinguishable labels.

“Many themes evolved that would attract the typically male buyer,” Mims adds through her research. “Prominent themes included Native Americans (Savage label); wildlife, hunting (Lucky Day); fishing, adventure (Holly Roger), and beautiful girls (Truckin.)”

This, too, was the era for the King series from Lake Wales and the Lakeland Tiger series.

“In the decades from 1920 to 1940, labels progressed as printing processes improved to include a variety of colors and more printer options such as photo offset, which allowed for personalizing to include photographs of children (Eversweet), family, pets, and the packing houses (Maxcy, Florence Villa, Golden Holly and Alturas),” Mims says in doing research for the video.

“Post and prewar years featured automobiles and airplanes (Speed King, NC-4),” Mims continues. “The 1940-1960 labels continued to depict Florida through a variety of themes such as nostalgic Southern romance (Cracker Girl), religious connections (Roe and Sons), historic sites (Fort), and the arts (Fiddler). On most people’s minds was the U.S. involvement with the World War (Bugle and Florence Villa). The first priority for labels was marketing citrus and the second was marketing Florida.”

“We are excited about this project and it is a very important part of Polk history,” Young adds.

A retail line to support the interest and enjoyment of the label tours has developed from the project, including notecards in boxed sets of six or seven labels on the trail, as well as some canvas bags sporting labels. Those are now available at the Polk County History Center and will be available later at other locations.

For updated tour information, call the Polk County History Center, 100 E. Main St., Bartow, at 863-534-4386.

As the tour project develops and the labels are installed, pamphlets containing the tour route and history of those labels on the tour will be available at the Polk County Visitors Center in Davenport, the Polk County History Center, and in area museums. View the Polk County Heritage Trail Series No.30 Citrus Label Tour video.