PHOTO COURTESY FLORIDA MEMORY PROJECT
A HARD FREEZE — Frozen, inedible oranges litter the ground as men survey the damage to an orange grove after a particularly bad cold snap.

On the night of Dec. 28, 1894, cold winds swept into West Volusia from the northwest, blanketing the citrus groves with a deadly coating of hoarfrost that lasted for several days.

Karen Ryder
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of our feature Better Country Beyond, with excerpts from DeLandite Karen Ryder’s, pictured, book about the early days of the founding of the city of DeLand. The Beacon is indebted to Donna Jean Flood, a DeLand financial adviser with Edward Jones, for the idea for this series, part of our ongoing West Volusia Memories series by community writers.

Afterward, when the owners surveyed their groves, they saw that the leaves on every tree were blackened and dead.

There could be no doubt that this year’s entire citrus crop was lost.

But, since not all the wood had been destroyed, the perennial rallying cry of “wait until next year,” gave at least some hope of recovery. The December
freeze of 1894 was followed by unseasonably mild weather in January of 1895.

These warm temperatures caused the sap to rise into the branches of the surviving trees, and cheery white orange blossoms appeared along their
lengths, spreading hope in their wake.

But it was not to be.

The first ominous warnings came with a blaring train whistle on Feb. 8, 1895. Like steamboat whistles, train whistles were used to signal weather alerts.

This temperature drop would be confounding even to seasoned growers.

That night, the temperature fell to 16 degrees in some areas of Central Florida, an all-time record low that still stands to this day.

On Feb. 9, Jacksonville’s Florida Times-Union reported the tragic details of “Florida’s Hard Fate.” The paper stated that “hardly a section of the state has escaped damage by the freeze” and reported that the low temperature recorded at 6 a.m. had broken the previous record low of 1886 by 10 degrees.

For the next 48 hours, the record cold continued. The citrus trees were even more vulnerable than they had been in the December freeze, because the free flow of sap from the January thaw was coursing through the branches.

Like other liquids, sap expands when frozen. The expanding sap burst its woody confines with a sickening crack.

The sound would be echoed over and over again throughout the area.

DeLand folk historian Bill Dreggors remembered his grandfather telling him that “It sounded like guns shooting everywhere … as if a war was going on.”

Four days later, one West Volusia resident described the results in a letter to a cousin in Syracuse, New York.

“The beauty is all gone from Florida … and we think that everything is killed to the ground … Without doubt the coldest day in the history of Florida,” the resident wrote.

Ruination

Nighttime temperatures continued to fall below freezing for almost two weeks, during which even ice was reported in places along the banks of the
St. Johns River, resulting in a massive fish kill.

But it was in the citrus groves that the great tragedy would play out. Thousands of acres of the destroyed trees had to be cut down and burned.

A running tally of the number of boxes of oranges that are shipped annually from the state of Florida shows in concrete numbers just how drastically
productivity was slashed.

A crop that filled 5 million boxes the previous year filled only 150 thousand for 1896, the season following the freeze.

The entire state produced fewer oranges in 1896 than the city of DeLand alone had produced the year before.

PHOTO COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA AGRICULTURE EXTENSION OF VOLUSIA COUNTY
COLD SNAP, LITERALLY — Harsh cold does more than just kill citrus; it snaps the tree from the
inside. Pictured above in a red circle is a crack down the bark of an orange tree caused by frozen sap
unfreezing and expanding. The process can be sudden, causing a loud cracking sound as the tree internally breaks under the pressure of its own expanding sap.

Almost all of the Central Florida growers were ruined.

It was later said of that night: “Many a man went to bed well-to-do and woke up penniless.”

Having invested everything, and lost it all, there was nothing left to keep them in the area. Reports circulated that some did not even take the time to
clear the breakfast dishes from the table before catching the morning train north.

Properties dropped to a fifth of their previous value, and acres of land reverted to the county for uncollected taxes. Whole settlements turned into
ghost towns.

Those who stayed behind struggled greatly.

They were advised to plant vegetables and to augment these crops with the plentiful local fish to feed their families.

When the state fishing commissioner had 30 people arrested for obstructing the channel of the St. Johns with seines, a sympathetic local court let them off.

Ruben Marsh’s son, Joe, put the economic impact of this freeze on West Volusia into striking perspective when he stated, “Our folks didn’t suffer after the [Civil] war…suffering came after the freeze of 1894.”

While all the Orange Ridge growers suffered massive losses, Henry A. DeLand’s were the worst.

He had engaged in a prodigious marketing campaign to resell the huge amount of acreage he purchased here, but when the big freeze hit, his
damages were compounded by his endorsements of others’ enterprises.

Enamored as he had been with the area’s citrus prospects, he not only invested heavily in real estate, but also attached a bold promise to all the land he sold: If anyone who bought property from him was not satisfied for any reason, he would reimburse their money.

His great passion for marketing and sales — a trait that had served him well in the past — proved disastrous this time.

So many gave up on the citrus industry after the big freeze that Henry DeLand incurred a huge debt — nearly a quarter of a million dollars, a colossal figure in 1890s America.

However, through it all, his characteristic buoyant spirit never failed him.

“I am 61 years young, not old,” DeLand declared, “I can begin again.”

From that time onward, he stayed at home in Fairport, New York, where he went back into the baking-soda business once again.

Remarkably, there were some West Volusia growers who still held on to their faith in the citrus industry regardless of their losses, and a few of them actually managed to recover.

Among them were famous agriculturist Lue Gim Gong and Black entrepreneur James W. Wright.

Wright managed his money so well that, not too long after the big freeze, he was able to buy 5 acres of ruined citrus groves. Over time he acquired a total of 250 acres of land, most of which was planted in citrus and vegetables.

And so it was that, in a pattern repeated many times over in the course of this narrative, the DeLand townspeople had found their “better country beyond,” and would not let even a statewide economic disaster break their spirit.

Lessons

A hard lesson area residents learned from that fateful experience was to diversify what they produced so that a bad season for one enterprise would not strip them of their entire income.

From being essentially a two-pronged economy based on citrus and cattle, Central Florida was forced to turn to other resources.

West Volusians began planting other crops.

In a humorous metaphor, Helen DeLand noted that the citizens went on to raise “vegetables, strawberries, ferns and bulbs, tourists and subdivisions.”

Her insight would prove quite prescient, as it would be this latter “crop” that would ultimately replace citrus as the centerpiece of Central Florida’s later economic rebound.

— Ryder and her husband, Bob Wetton, live in DeLand and are active members of the West Volusia Historical Society. For information about obtaining a copy of her book Better Country Beyond, call the Historical Society at 386-740-6813, or email delandhouse@msn.com.

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