Murals Memorialize Florida’s Roots in Ag
by PAUL CATALA
Throughout much of Florida’s history, agriculture has played an integral part in the state’s economy and the prosperity and day-to-day lives of its residents.
In recent years, the ag industry’s visibility has shifted somewhat as more people crowd into the state and tourism, construction, and development have grown.
Still, scenes of Central and South-Central Florida’s agrarian past are preserved in murals throughout the state and serve as a reminder of Florida’s roots to visitors and residents alike.
From Orlando down through the Lake Placid, ag-themed murals adorn buildings, mostly older historic structures themselves.
Florida Dairy Farmers, the promotion organization representing the state’s dairy farmers, seized the opportunity to sponsor two murals — one in Orlando and one in DeLand — to honor the history of the area’s dairy heritage and dairy farmers. There are about 80 dairy farms in the state.
Avery LeFils, senior manager of industry relations and communications for Florida Dairy Farmers (FDF), says the first dairy-related mural was painted in 2019 on the historic T.G. Lee Dairy plant, which has been the dairy producer’s main processing headquarters since it was founded in 1925. That building was on the site of the TG Lee family dairy, an area that is now called the “Milk District” of Orlando. The mural is the largest of its kind in Orlando, spanning more than 200 feet long.
Even longtime Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan joined in the work and helped paint the “Milk District” design.
Four Orlando-based artists who are part of Red Tape Orlando, a multidisciplinary full-service art studio, are the creative forces behind the masterpiece. To complete the work, artists Chris Jones, Peterson Guerrier, Catalina Penagos, and Michael Caban visited a nearby Okeechobee dairy farm, Milking R Dairy. They sketched throughout the day and learned about the work and commitment that goes into dairy farming.
LeFils, who is in her fourth year with FDF and lives in DeLand, says the second FDF mural is on the T.G. Lee Dairy plant in Orange City near DeLand and was completed in 2021. It features a pastoral field of grazing cattle.
She says the primary focus of the FDF sponsoring the murals was to “bring the farm back to the urban areas” and says the T.G. Lee buildings are large and in prominent locations. That, in turn, helps bring back attention to today’s farmers who are “working hard every day to make sure milk can make it to Floridians everywhere and to create a thinking, ‘Hey, milk comes from cows, not the grocery store!’”
In fact, LeFils says, TG Lee actually redesigned their product label to show the main cow on the mural and a few of their distribution semi-trailers even bear the image, as well.
“So many people have gotten away from the farm and the farming mentality that we wanted to bring the farm back to them and help illustrate the story of where their milk actually comes from,” she says. “It made perfect sense for us to use those spaces as billboards to pay homage to all of the state’s hardworking dairy farmers.”
LeFils says currently there aren’t any plans for future FDF-sponsored agriculture-related murals.
Outside of Orlando and across the United States, cities, towns and communities are beginning to cover building walls with murals depicting their or other communities’ agricultural histories.
Farther south, the Town of Lake Placid has been known for its collection of downtown murals for more than 30 years.
Jennifer Bush is the executive director of the Greater Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce. For the past three years, she has been president of the Lake Placid Mural Society. The town has a total of 51 murals dating to 1993, when Thomas Freeman painted on the Caladiums Arts & Crafts Cooperative building. More recently, two soldiers were painted on the American Legion building in September in honor of veterans.
Bush, who lives in Lake Placid, says the murals are devoted to the town’s history and about 40 percent of those relate to agriculture.
“Our history is in citrus and agriculture,” she says. “So we like to pay tribute to those families, ranchers and anybody that’s involved in the citrus or agricultural businesses that have helped make Lake Placid what it is today.”
One of the artists who helped create downtown Lake Placid’s mural tribute to agriculture is Keith Goodson of Auburndale. Now in his 30th year as a professional artist, he painted the Cracker Trail Cattle Drive mural in 1995 and Richard Archbold & Archbold Biological Station mural in 2007. The 175-feet by 30-feet Cracker Trail mural depicts a cattle drive that would’ve occurred just north of Lake Placid in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Goodson, 52, a native of Cocoa Beach, has painted murals across Florida and works as an artist for Universal Studios and Disney World. He’s also done citrus- and fish-related murals, the first of which was completed in 1994. He says the mural society asked him to do the cattle drive piece and he was commissioned to paint it, painting it similar to how a computer printer prints from the left side down. It took him five months to complete it.
“Agriculture is one of Florida’s big industries. We paint in that approach, paint things that are relevant in our counties here. These bring an awareness that these (agriculture) industries are the backbone of society for financial stability in our region,” he says.
“It’s been a sustaining income for people in these communities. These murals are a constant reminder of how important the ag industry is in this region.”