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1894 Freeze

After 1894 Freeze, Central Florida grove with all fruit dropped frozen to the ground. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/117876 (Louis Frisbie collection)

My wife and I rush to unpack storage bins of old blankets and afghans in our garage each time a frost threatens to ruin our hibiscus bushes, and for my young orange trees I drape a covering over them and wrap cloths muffler-like around their vulnerable slender trunks.  Here in Volusia we rightly panic when frigid weather comes uninvited, and I particularly remember one winter about 35 years ago when I was a teacher at Spruce Creek High School. The weather forecast predicted a freeze with a low temperature of about 20 degrees, and district school officials knew that if water pipes froze, there would be more than 2,000 students (enough to be a small city) with no usable restroom facilities. With this possibility, officials cancelled school–a “snow day” without snow.

The 1835 Freeze

Volusia’s worst freeze on record happened almost 150 years earlier on February 8, 1835–the day of freezing rivers that has never been matched again. For example, near what later became Jacksonville, the St. Johns River froze fifty feet or more out from the shore as the temperature descended to a mere 8 degrees above zero. Inland, at Ft. King (near what is now Ocala) it was 11 degrees–such a frigid cold front that from South Carolina through Georgia and into much of Florida fruit trees were “destroyed, roots and all” as far south as the twenty-eighth parallel, which today would include Tampa on the west coast and Palm Bay (40 miles south of Cape Canaveral) on the east coast (Fitzgerald 183, 185; O’Brien).

The Freeze of 1766

Seventy-five years earlier the “Father of American Botany” John Bartram and his son William came through Volusia, making a botanical and scientific tour of Florida in a dugout canoe just three years after England had obtained Florida from Spain. Of course, the Florida territory was a new British colony, and the Bartrams paddled along the western border of what is today Volusia County, and the father recorded in his diary on January 2, 1766, “The ground was froze [sic] an inch thick on the banks [of the St. Johns River]; this was the fatal night that destroyed the lime, citron, and banana trees in Augustine” (Fitzgerald 183-84; Parker).

The Volusia region was sparsely populated in 1766 with few Native Americans and only a handful of Europeans. By 1835 Volusia had many plantations growing sugar cane, but there are no records of specific temperatures here during the freeze of 1835. This bitter cold was during The Second Seminole Indian War, and before the end of the war all of Volusia’s plantations had been burned and European settlers had fled. There was no commercial citrus industry as yet in the territory of Florida, and it would be another ten years before Florida would become a state.  Records show that the earliest orange grove along the east coast was Dummit Grove, just south of today’s Volusia Count;, but because of the disastrous 1835 freeze, orange growers would locate in warmer southern areas, including Hillsborough, Manatee, and Polk counties (Fitzgerald 183; Townsend 23; O’Brien).

In 1857 another major freeze hit Volusia, but we still had few residents. In fact, three years earlier when Volusia County was officially formed from part of Mosquito County, our new county had only 25 families who farmed small acreages of cotton, corn, and vegetables, not oranges (Townsend 22).

After the Civil War, in 1866 in Oak Hill, J. D. Mitchell established what is considered to be Volusia’s first citrus grove, however Barney Dillard told Volusia’s agricultural agent T. R. Townsend that in 1866 when his family came to Volusia County (when he was only six), there were already small two- to four-acre orange groves along the St. Johns River at Lake George (near Pierson). The St. Johns River facilitated shipping the fruit for marketing outside the area, so agricultural production was showing promise, especially oranges (Townsend 23).

Seven years later, though, in 1873 Volusia experienced another severe freeze and then three more in 1876, 1879, and 1880. One of the freezes of the 1870’s killed the Holly Hill area orange grove of William Ross and Samuel Wimple, which stood along the Halifax River in what later became Holly Hill. This was near today’s Ross Point along Riverside Drive (“Birth”).

Orange growers continued to do battle with Volusia’s winters, but the onslaught of 1886 was one of the worst our county has had, and the destruction of orange trees once again swept as far south as the 28th parallel from Tampa to south of Cape Canaveral.  As historian T. E. Fitzgerald reports, this freeze “killed many of the younger [orange trees] and many of the older ones to the ground” (Fitzgerald 184).

The 1886 Freeze

Dr. John Milton Hawks, the founder of what later became Edgewater (south of New Smyrna Beach), wrote about this freeze: “On Saturday and Sunday, the 10th and 11 of January (1886) there was a strong wind from the Northwest–the wind that always brings our hardest frosts. On Sunday morning at Mosquito Inlet the mercury stood at 22, the lowest on record in that region. The crop of oranges remaining on the trees was frozen; some so solid that no juice flowed when they were cut open. Pieces of ice taken from a tub lay on the ground all day without melting. Fish of all kinds in the river were so chilled that they were left on the shores and sandbars as the tide went out, and died there, and cartloads of them lined the shores.” Unofficially, the temperature dropped to 18 degrees. The freeze was so severe that, according to Volusia historian Pleasant Donald Gold, “The cold came so suddenly that clouds of vapor arose from the river on account of the great difference in the temperature of the air and water. Large turtles became so numb with the cold that they floated on the surface of the water, and fish killed by the cold were washed ashore in such large numbers that they had to be buried by the inhabitants. All the leaves and fruit fell from the orange trees, the bark split and they were killed to the roots” (Fitzgerald 184; Gold 141).

Volusia growers of that day were resilient, and they threw their shoulders into the work necessary to bring back the orange industry in the county, digging up dead trees and replanting, so that by 1893-94 they had surpassed Volusia’s greatest production records to that date (Townsend 24).

The 1894-95 Freeze

Then on December 27, 1894, icy air once again blasted Volusia, and for the next two days the entire Florida mainland was frozen–so cold that even Key West experienced frost, and it dropped to 20 degrees as far south as Titusville, killing young trees “to the ground” and also seriously damaging mature orange trees. Volusia historian T. E. Fitzgerald reports that in Volusia it was as low as 16 degrees (fully 10 degrees colder than the temperature that will kill mature trees). He describes it as a “blighting cold”, yet as bad as it was, historian P. D. Gold notes that it was not so bad as the 1886 freeze because although the orange trees had lost all their fruit and nearly all their leaves, the trees had not died, so there was still hope (Fitzgerald 184; Gold 141).

Although it was winter, after this disastrous freeze the days had begun to warm, and the orange trees then were sprouting tender green new growth from the limbs left barren of fruit that littered the ground all around the struggling trees. Then only five weeks later on February 7, 1895, the temperature began a “sudden drop,” and the warm afternoons gave way to colder and colder air being swept down the state into Volusia, lowering the temperature into the 30’s and then into the 20’s, a dangerous temperature that can kill an orange tree if the freeze lasts several hours  (Gold 141).

Mercilessly, the freeze grew colder, and in DeLand it was recorded at a low of 17 degrees, and in New Smyrna it hit 16 degrees, spelling doom to Volusia’s orange groves. Historian P. D. Gold reports, “The sap in the fruit trees froze, splitting them open and again they were killed to the roots” (Gold 141).

The freeze continued through the next day, and the next, and the next, so that on February 10, Volusia had suffered the most devastating freeze on record for orange groves and property (Fitzgerald 184).

Turtles and fish died, and even bees died, as Gold notes, “Many of the bees in the colonies around Hawks Park [Edgewater] starved from lack of food from the orange blossoms(Gold 141).

These freezes of 1894-95 were so destructive that they caused Astor (just across the St. Johns River from Volusia) to be abandoned as nearly a ghost town (“Astor”).

By 1894 there had been 11,580 groves in Volusia County, but because of the freeze 1,600 of them were financially ruined and were gone by 1900. The impact on Volusia was disastrous (Townsend 24).

The 1894-95 freeze forced many orange growers to move to the very sparsely populated southern counties in Florida, forever changing the citrus industry. Florida’s citrus production had been five million boxes per year, but it took two decades of recovery before that production level was achieved again (Florida Memory Blog).

In 1898 the temperature plummeted 60 degrees from 78 to 18 degrees, and the following year a four-day freeze between February 13  and February 16 again killed off many groves in Volusia. The temperature the next year in an 1899 freeze slid to 16 at New Smyrna (Fitzgerald 185). Over the next 17 years, though, no major freeze hit Volusia, and although the temperature plummeted 46 degrees from 82 to 36 during the third week of March in 1916, “little damage was done.” Overall, five major freezes destroyed Volusia’s orange groves between 1800 and the 1930’s (Fitzgerald 185).

The Major Freezes after 1960

When my family moved to Volusia in 1960, Volusia was officially a leader among Florida’s orange industry, and during my years here I have experienced the freezes of 1962, 1983, and 1985 which were very costly to our county, but the grove-killing freeze in December 1989 changed Volusia, possibly forever, because it killed off so many mature trees in our county that Volusia is now no longer recognized as one of the major producers of oranges in Florida (O’Brien).

To write this I used these sources:

“Astor, Florida, History.” Astor, Florida, Website. <http://www.astorflorida.com/history.htm> 4 Mar. 2014.

Fitzgerald, T. E. Volusia County, Past and Present. Daytona Beach, Florida: The Observer Press, 1937.

Florida Memory Blog. <http://floridamemory.com/blog/2012/12/18/the-great-freeze/>18 Dec. 2012. 4 Mar. 2014.

Gold, Pleasant Daniel.  History of Volusia County, Florida. DeLand, Florida: E. O. Painter Printing, 1927.

“Birth of a Settlement, The.” City of Holly Hill website. <http://www.hollyhillfl.org/about/history>  2011. 4 Mar. 2014.

O’Brien, James J. “Global Climate Change in Florida?” PowerPoint <http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=13&ved=0CDEQFjACOAo&url=http%3A%2F%2Fcoaps.fsu.edu%2Fpub%2Fzierden%2FCrawford%2FClimatechange.ppt&ei=60wVU9yzIbH_yQH6poDIBg&usg=AFQjCNGn7eoNbkp-Pc7ACDl4lC87c3htZQ&bvm=bv.62286460,d.aWc> 3 Mar. 2014

Parker, Susan R. “John Bartram Recorded the Ups and Downs of December Weather in 1765.” St. Augustine Record. 20 December 2009. <http://staugustine.com/news/local-news/2009-12-20/john-bartram-recorded-ups-and-downs-december-weather-1765#.UxiZp4Wqmtc>. 6 Mar. 2014.

Townsend, T. R. “The Great Agricultural Advancement.” In Centennial History of Volusia County Florida, 1854-1954. Ed. Ianthe Bond Hebel. Daytona Beach, Florida: College Book Publishing, 1955.