Citrus labels go on tour: Historic brands make a comeback in the region

MANY YEARS AGO, Florida citrus was sold in dimly lit warehouses around 3 or 4 a.m. It was packed in wooden crates with bright, colorful labels that attracted the buyers’ eyes and helped sell the fruit. “The label was the first thing they would see,” says Brenda Eubanks Burnette, executive director of Florida Citrus Hall of Fame at Florida Southern College in Lakeland. “If you had a quality image, it reflected more favorably on the fruit.”

From the 1880s through part of the 1960s, citrus was packaged in 85- to 90-pound crates ornamented by labels that not only helped market the fruit, but also revealed its quality and brand. The labels showed birds, beaches, and sometimes “funny, whimsical things,” she explains. “Back then, most of the fruit would be sold at auction to buyers, who would put it out at their stores,” she says.

The labels became “Florida’s first billboards,” Burnette explains. “They promoted the entire state of Florida, not just citrus,” she continues. “That is one of the reasons oranges have become synonymous with Florida.”

During World War II, wood and metal shortages contributed to the citrus industry switching to corrugated cardboard boxes. These boxes were lighter in weight, and the label designs were printed directly on the boxes, making them more economic. At the time of the switch, many labels were left to collect dust, recalls Jim Ellis, who was working for the now-defunct Lake Garfield Citrus Cooperative at the time.

His company’s labels were relegated to an upper room, so eventually Ellis — the cooperative’s general manager for 25 years — began collecting them. “No question the label was a beautiful piece of American artwork,” says the 81-year-old Bartow man, who now licenses and bonds citrus fruit dealers for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “A lot of them were hand worked.”

Today, with 1,000-plus labels in his collection archived with the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame, he is believed to be one of the largest collectors of Florida labels. “I have never bought a label,” he says. Some were given to him; others were traded. Some he’s given away.

The packing houses usually developed their labels after a certain theme, and each buyer had their own label they could promote as “the best,” Ellis shares. Because the labels were registered, they were proof of quality.

Although some labels were burned and others were relegated to archives and private collections like Ellis’, citrus crate labels are having a comeback. They are now part of the Citrus Label Tour of Polk County. Scanned and digitized labels have been magnified and printed as displays at historical sites around Polk County. “Our goal is to have these outdoors displays in every area of the county where there were packing houses,” says Myrtice Young, historic preservation manager at Polk County History Center in Bartow. “It’s a two- to three-year project to get it all completed.”

The project is a cooperative effort between the Citrus Hall of Fame, Visit Central Florida, and the Polk County History Center’s History and Heritage Trail, which was developed to stimulate interest in area history. The Citrus Label Tour is an enhancement of the History and Heritage Trail, which includes a separate driving tour brochure. “Our purpose, our mission, is preservation of history,” Young says. “We recognize this is a very important part of the history of Polk County.”

Another goal is to help educate the public, says Burnette, who authored two books on the subject with Jerry Chicone, Jr. “We can help educate the general public about this lost art form. This is a huge piece of the citrus industry that you don’t see anymore,” she adds.

The initial idea came from Harriet Rust, president of the Davenport Historical Society, who had enjoyed seeing the quilt squares painted on barns in North Carolina. She thought Polk County should do something more relevant to the area. “We’ve looked at them [the labels] for years,” Rust says. “They were truly the original art that promoted and marketed the citrus industry.”

Digitech Graphics Group of Lakeland is making the reproductions for municipalities and community-based organizations. After permission is obtained from the copyright holder, the label is scanned much like other fine art, explains Barbara Balingit, one of the firm’s owners. “We work with them to make sure they’re happy the way the colors are going to look,” she adds.

The magnified image is printed onto an adhesive vinyl and may be attached to an aluminum frame. Several designs are available at cost, which ranges from $125 for a boulevard banner to $2,300 for an aluminum bench sign.

The Haines City Citrus Growers Association has installed its Hill Top label at Railroad Park in downtown Haines City. The label, depicting Florida in the 1940s with water and palm trees, was one of their prettiest, says Dennis Broadaway, the association’s executive vice president and general manager. “It was [from] back when labels sold citrus in the auctions,” he explains. “I can see where it would have sold a lot of citrus.” The 107-year-old association was one of the founding organizations of the community. “It’s a good reminder … that we’re established and built by agriculture, and citrus in particular,” he adds.

The label tour also has another positive benefit. Kris Keprios, tourism sales and marketing manager for Visit Central Florida, the county’s visitor bureau, says the tour gives visitors more to do here. “We’re certainly helping to promote and market the trail. That’s our biggest role in the partnership.” Visit Central Florida plans to add a label to the Central Florida Visitor Information Center at Interstate 4 and U.S. Highway 27 in Davenport, which has some 55,000 visitors annually. “Our goal is to bring people inside from outside the county,” he says. “Once there are enough locations … we will also be creating a brochure.”


article by CHERYL ROGERS

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