The Lure of the Moon
In the 1960s, there could be no more exciting place on this Earth than Florida’s Space Coast. Seventy five miles of the state’s east central coastline, including Merritt Island, Mosquito Lagoon, and Cape Canaveral, the spot
from where human beings first left Earth, and walked on the Moon.
• SPACE LIFE (TABLE OF CONTENTS)
A woman shrieks at her young grandson as they both watch their first launch of a manned rocket from Cape Canaveral, just across the Indian River, toward Mosquito Lagoon. As the space shuttle Discovery’s main engines and two solid-fuel boosters light up the Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) and (launch) Pad 39A, the same spot from which Apollo 11’s historic voyage began. — (July 16, 1969)
Forty years later (2007), another group was being launched from the same spot, this time bound for the International Space Station, conducting scientific and commercial (mostly communications) missions … missions that two decades after the Challenger disaster, are taken for granted by so many, but never by anyone who’s witnessed the real thing.
Watch with this family, from the bank of the Indian River, in front of their recently purchased, 1880s, traditional Florida cottage, on the River Road in North Cocoa.
For decades, my chosen spot to witness so many of the most exciting moments in America’s Impressive history.
From May 5, 1961, when my mother, carrying my brother and holding my sister’s hand, led us all into our backyard in Rockledge to watch Alan Shepard’s launch, making him the first American in space … and after, like everyone else, watching Walter Cronkite describe the splashdown, just 15 minutes later.
Indian River Dreaming
• Merritt Island
At the south end of the Space Coast, between Melbourne and Fort Pierce, is Sebastian Inlet, one of Florida’s finest beaches.
For the Sand (palmetto and seagrape covered dunes, leading to the Atlantic Ocean)
For the Fish (from the jetty, joining the dolphins’ and sport fish feeding frenzy)
For the Surf (Of course. just south of the legendary Kelly Slater’s hometown, Cocoa Beach, Sebastian was an early proving ground.)
JOHN McPHEE (1966)
In the seventeen-seventies Londoners developed a craving for Jesse Fish oranges. They had thin skins and were difficult to peel, but the English found them incredibly juicy and sweet, and Jesse Fish oranges were preferred before all others in the making of shrub, a drink that called for alcoholic spirits, sugar, and the juice of an acid fruit — an ancestral whisky sour. More than sixty-five thousand Jesse Fish oranges and two casks of juice reached London in 1776, and sixteen hogsheads of juice arrived in 1778. It hardly mattered to the English who Jesse Fish was, and it didn’t seem to matter to Jesse Fish who his customers were. Fish was a Yankee, a native of New York and by sympathy a revolutionary. Decades before the Revolution, he had retreated to an island off St. Augustine to get away from a miserable marriage, and he had become Florida’s First Orange Baron.
There would have been others before him if Florida had not been Spanish for more than two hundred years. Andalusia and Valencia were golden with oranges, so the Spaniards hardly needed to start commercial groves on the far side of the ocean. They planted citrus fruit in remote places only for medical reasons
1492 — Columbus, under orders, carried with him the seeds of the first citrus trees to reach the New World, and he spread them throuigh the Antilles, where they grew and multiplied so vigorously that within thirty years some Caribbean islands were covered with them.
It is likely, Ponce de Leon introduced oranges to the North American mainland when he discovered Florida in 1513.
[The Florida Citrus Commission likes to promote him as a man who was trying to find the Fountain of Youth
but actually had brought it with him]
Hernando de Soto planted additional orange trees during his expedition to Florida in 1539. On all Spanish ships bound for America, in fact, each sailor was required by Spanish law to carry one hundred seeds with him, and later, because seeds tended to dry out, Spanish ships were required to carry young trees instead.
Sir Francis Drake leveled the orange trees of St. Augustine when he sacked the town in 1586, but the stumps put out new shoots and eventually bore fruit again. Nearly all were Bitter Oranges. Indians, carrying them away from the Spanish colony, inadvertently scattered seeds in the Florida wilderness, and Sour Oranges began to grow wild.
[The first oranges in California were planted around 1800 at a Spanish mission. The first commercial grove in California was established by a trapper from Kentucky in 1841, on the present site of the Southern Pacific railroad station in Los Angeles.]
England, which had acquired sovereignty over Florida in 1763, gave it back to the Spanish toward the end of the American Revolution, and the Florida citrus business did not increase significantly for nearly forty years, through the period that is known in Florida history as the Second Occupation.
After the territory became a possession of the United States, in 1821, orange groves expanded rapidly in the St. Augustine area and along the St. Johns River south of Jacksonville. There was also some planting, in a minor way, on the Indian River.
1834 — two and a half million oranges were shipped north from St. Augustine, but on February 8, 1835, the temperature dropped as low as eleven degrees, salt water froze in the bays, and fifty-six hours of unremitting freeze killed nearly every orange tree in Florida.
One grove remained undamaged. It had been planted in 1830 by Douglas Dummett, a young man in his twenties, whose father had moved to Flordia from New Haven, Connecticut, to establish a plantation of sugar cane. The site of young Dummett had picked for his orange grove was on Merritt Island, between Cape Canaveral and the mainland, with the warm tidal waters of the Indian River on one side and of the Banana River on the other. His ground was high, the soil was rich in shell marl, and he had used wild Sour Orange trees as root-stocks, budding the with sweet oranges from a grove about fifty miles to the north.
After 1835, orange growing in Florida was revived with buds from Dummett’s trees. From the Dummett grove came the oranges of the Indian River, whose reputation soon spread so far that czars of Russia sent ships to fetch them.
The Indian River is not acutally a river but a tidal lagoon, about two miles wide in most places and one hundred and twenty miles long, running between the Florida mailand and the Atlantic barrier beaches. Merritt Island is close to the Indian River’s northern end. Dummett used to go out to meet trading schooners in a thirty-foot sailing canoe, its gunwales riding near the waterline under a load of oranges packed in barrels between layers of dried Spanish moss. He had made the canoe from a single log of cypress iwth the help of another orange grower, Captain Mills Olcott Burnham, a Vermonter who had moved to Florida for his health. Burnham had regained his strenght so dramtically that he could lift two fifty-poiund kegs, one in each hand, and hold them wide apart.
After Congress passed the Armed Occupation Act — giving a hundred and sixty acres of Florida land to anyone who could fight off the Seminoles and hold his ground for seven years — Burnham, in 1842, led an unlikely group on an expedition south from Merritt Island, opening up the Indian River and establishing a community near the present site of Fort Pierce.
Florida was the only wilderness in the world that attracted middle-aged pioneers. The young ones were already on their way west toward California. The suptropics may actually have been fiercer than the plains, in that both areas had hostile Indians but Florida alone had its stupendous reptiles. Florida, even then, appealed to aging doctors, retired brokers, and consumptives; examples of each of these categories went bravely down the Indian River with Captain Burnham. The Indians liked Burnham so much that they hung around his house and passed the time of day with him when he was there, helping him with his work and cooking their meals in his pots and pans, but Burnham was in Charleston selling turtles to English importers when the Seminoles killed the settlement storekeeper, who had been cheating them. Word spread that the Indians were massing for a general slaughter, and the settlers prepared to escape, by sea.
Indians were running up the beach as the escape boat pulled away. Marjor Russell, one of the settlement’s leaders, was standing up in the boat like Washington crossing the Delaware. The Indians hated Russell and always had. One of them fired at him and nicked him in the arm. Feeling pain that night, Russell went into the boat’s cabin and groped in the dark for a bottle of salve. Picking up a bottle of black ink by mistake, he poured it over his arm. When the sun came up, he thought he had gangrene. The others knew that it was ink, but they thought even less of Russell than the Indians did, and they said nothing.
None of them could have imagined what would happen. After the group reached St. Augustine and dispersed, Russell went to a doctor and told him to cut off his arm. The doctor said that the arm would get bette, but Russell kept insisting, until the doctor did it. Russell died in Orlando thirty-one years later, presumably unaware of the actual truth about his gangrene.
Captain Burnham, who had missed the evacuation of the settlement, happened to encounter his family in St. Augustine on his way home from Charleston. He took them back to the Indian River, but only as far south as Merritt Island, where he developed his orange grove and also became, for the rest of his life, the keeper of the lighthouse at Cape Canaveral.
After the Civil War, the grove of Douglas Dummet became increasingly celebrated. Not only was it the oldest in the state, but it also continued to be the largest.
In New York, Dummett oranges were worth one dollar more per box than oranges from any other grove. Dummett didn’t work particularly hard to achieve this kingship. Most of the time he was fishing, or hunting wildcats on the mainland with his pack of dogs. He was the fastest canoe on the Indian River, and in the Seminole Indian War he had led a company of militia so courageously that he was remembered for it. For a number of years he was a member of the Florida House of Representatives.
At home, he lived in a small log cabin, and his children and their mother lived in another cabin two hundred feet away. Dummett ate along out in the grove or in the cabin. His wife had left him years earlier, and the woman who had mothered his son and three daughters was a Negro. The son, Charles, shot himself when he was sixteen. His death was called an accident, but some people on Merritt Island thought he had done it because of the shame he was made to feel for having Negro blood. Dummett himself died in 1873 and is buried in an unmarked grave in an Indian River grove called “FAIRYLAND.”
• ALL ABOUT THE MANDARIN / “TANGERINE”
New orange growers who arrived after the Civil War tended at first to settle north of the Indian River region along the St. Johns River. The Great Freeze of 1835 had been dismissed as a fluke. It was thought that the freeze had been caused by a mountainous iceberg lying somewhere off St. Augustine, and that another one was unlikely to come. The growers, for econominc reasons, wanted to be near the port of Jacksonville. One of the newcomers was HARRIET BEECHER STOWE, bought about thirty acres in the village of MANDARIN, in 1868. Florida accepted her warmly, partly because she was quoted in the Northern press, soon after her arrival, as having said that people in Florida were “no more inclined to resist the laws or foster the spirit of rebellion” than people in a state like Vermont. An article in the St. Augustine Examiner expressed satisfaction “that Mrs. Stowe has done this little to reparir the world of evil for which she is responsible in the production of “UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.” She taught Sunday school for Negro children in Mandarin, and taught them to read as well, and for seventeen yars she ran a successful orange grove — apparently with very little help from her husband. The Professor had a white, airy beard that started on the crown of his head, made an island of his face, and stuck out a foot from his chin. He wore a small skullcap of flaming crimson, and he spent nearly all of his time reading books on the veranda of the Stowe house overlooking the St. Johns.
“His red skullcap served mariners as a sort of daytime lighthouse,” Mrs. Stowe wrote in an article in the Christian Union. In Northern markets, there was considerable demand for fruit boxes stenciled with the words
“ORANGES FROM HARRIET BEECHER STOWE — MANDARIN, FLA.”
Mandarin had been called San Antonio under the Spanish, but the Americans had, more appropriately, renamed it, for a citrus fruit. The word “mandarin” is thought by many people to be synonym for “tangerine.” But tangerines are actually only a variety of mandarin that happened to originate in Tangier. All mandarins — including the Satsuma, the Clementine, the Cleopatra, the Emperor, and the King of the Mandarins, the Tangor — have the so-called zipper skin that grows around the segments of the fruit like a loose-fitting glove.
The plantation society of the St. Johns was fairly metropolitan in contrast to life on the Indian River. Families had settled along the Indian River, but even twenty years after the Civil War there were few enough so that when the they saw a sail miles away they could usually tell by the cut of it who was approaching. At night, a family would go out in a small boat, light a lantern, talk, drift, and in thiry minutes catch enough fish to feed them for a week. On trips for supplies in sailboats, they would sometimes see ahead of them a darkness formed on the water’s surface by five hundred acres of ducks. As a boat approached, the ducks would rise with a sound of rolling thunder, leaving on the water five hundred acres of down. Everyone slept on down pillows and down mattresses.
The river was full of oysters. The shores were full of cabbage palms, whose hearts, boiled, were delicious. Currency was almost unknown. The nearest bank was in Jacksonville. When families put up Northerners who came for part of the winter, payment was often made by check at the end of a visit. For months these checks would go up and down the Indian River as currency, until they had so many endorsements on them that they looked like petitions.
In Titusville, near Merritt Island at the north end of the river, there was a group called The Sons of Rest. Any member who was seen with perspiration on his face was fined twentyfive cents. At the end of each month, the money was used to buy a pair of overalls for the member who had worked the least. A man named Cuddyback won four pairs of overalls in a row and the organization disbanded.There was one lawyer on the river. He raised oranges because his practice was so small.
In 1881, Hamilton Disston, a maker of saws from Philadelphia, bought four million acres from the State of Florida in tracts that went almost from coast to coast. He sold off two million acres to a Britich land company and smaller amounts to other land companies in the United States, keeping some to promote on his own. Tantalizing prooganda began to come out of the state. The early circulars that reached Norther cities and farms usuall told the approximat truth, saying for example, that “many men on the Indian River live entirely upon returns of a few large trees, spending the whole year in hunting and fishing — doing no work.” In the Horticulturist (magazine) there had been a straight-faced report that an expert named Al Fresco, who had eaten oranges from Europe, the Azores, the West Indies, Australia, and Melanesia, had found none to compare with the oranges of Florida. After the Disston purchase, new stories like that one came out of the state every day. Pamphlets said that if a person put about eighteen hundred dollars into a new grove, he expect that it would soon be worth thirty thousand. New England farmers read these things and hurried to Florida to share the new paradise with farmers from Georgia and the Carolinas, against whom they had been fighting less than twenty years before. “there is nothing to prevent the establishment in Florida of a race of rich ment who will rank with the plantation princes of the old South,” the Atlanta Constitution decided. Land was ceded to railroads, and hundreds of miles of track were put down within a few years — reaching from Jacksonville wouth to Orlando and west to Gainesville, and continuing down the spine of Florida to open up the Ridge. “Orange growing,” wrote a promoter-in-residence at the Silver Springs Land Company, “is no dead level of monotonous exertion, but one that affords scope for the development of an ingenious mind.” Englishmen in particular found this sort of argument irresistible, and one of the curiosities of the ORANGE FEVER of the eighteen-eighties is that a high proportion of the people it attracted were English. A writer named Iza Duffus Hardy noted that they were “bronzed, hearty, helthy-looking young fellows, high-booted, broad-hatted, with their cheery English voices and jovial laughs, who ride over — sometimes on half-broken Texan ponies — from their respective ‘places,’ many a mile away, to spend a social hour in town, and report their progress for the benefit and encouragement of those who have not yet ‘settled.’ This one a year or two ago was a doctor in London, this an artist, that a barrister.”
THE DUMMETT GROVE ON METTITT ISLAND BECAME THE SETTING FOR AN ABSURD CHARADE.
Dummett had died in 1873, and in 1881 his place was bought by a fake Italian duke and a fake Italian duchess. He called himself the Duc di Catellucio, and he hurled himself into the orange business. His wife contributed prose to the Jacksonville Union and the Titusville Florida Star.
“The Neapolitans say ‘Naples is a bit of paradise fallen from above,’” wrote the Duchess. “If this saying is true, certainly a bit of the same paradise has fallen on Indian River.” The Duke and Duchess built an octagonal wooden palace that is still standing. Nearly all the rooms were octagonal, too, but some of them became irregular hexagons after the Duke and Duchess quarreled so bitterly that they had a partition bult precisely through the middle of the house and never spoke to one another again. While they were fighting, their oranges were flourishing, and the Dummett grove remained the largest in the state. The origns of the Duke remain obscure, but the Duchess was Jenny Anheuser, daughter of the St. Louis brewer.
Out on the river, meanwhile, stern-wheelers called the Ina, the Ibis, and the Indian River had begun to operate on regular routes, carrying hundreds of tourists and more settlers on every trip. ROCKLEDGE, just south of Cocoa, was for a time the wealthiest winter resor in the United States, and the travel writer C. Vickerstaff Hine called the Indian River “this occidental Adriatic.” More and bigger stern-wheelers began to crowd its channels, until, in 1893, they suddenly became obsolete.
HENRY M. FLAGLER’s EAST COAST RAILWAY HAD REACHED THE RIVER, and soon paralleled the length of it on the way to Miami.
To orange growers who had chosen reasonably good land, it appeared that almost anything any promoter had ever written was true. No one worried much about freezes. For one thing, it was an era of scientific advances in which triumph over nature seemed not only possible but inevitable.
Then came the most destructive freeze of the nineteenth century in Florida.
THE GREAT FREEZE OF 1895 actually happened in two stages — a crippling one in December, 1894, then a killing one on February 8, 1895, that sent freezing temperatures all the way to the Florida Keys. Tens of thousands of trees were killed to the bud union, and thousands more were killed to the ground. More than a billion oranges had been shipped out of Florida in 1894. The freeze reduced that figure the following year by 97 per cent.
Many immigrant growers went back to Europe, and American citizens left the state. Some of those who stayed sold palmetto fronds to European buyers for conversion into artificial palm trees. Others planted vegetables in the middle in their groves while they waited for scions and new trees to grow. The state’s orange crop regained its 1894 level in 1910, after more groves had been planted on the Ridge. The norther plantations of the nineteenth century, in the area of Jacksonville, were permanently abandoned. The population of Orlando was ten thousand in 1890 and two thousand in 1900. Not until the twenties did it reach ten thousand again.
THE DUMMETT GROVE SURVIVED THE 1895 FREEZE
Most of its trees have since been replaced or rebudded, but six of the original ones that were set out by Douglas Dummett in 1830 are still alive. Each has the girth of a middle linebacker on a professional football team.
The reputation Indian River oranges established in the nineteenth century has never flagged. In the eighteen-nineties, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine said, “The Indian River orange is not to be metioned in the same breath with ordinary oranges. It is delicacy by itself, hitherto unknown in the world, and which Spain need never attempt to rival.” By the nineteen-twenties, the term “Indian River” had taken on such a ring of unquestioned quality that cities seventy-five miles inland apparently decided they were seaports. The Ridge, for a while, became the west bank of the Indian River, and the words “Indian River” appeared on orange crates going out of all parts of Florida. This eventually led to a cease-and-desist order issued in 1930 by the Federal Trade Comission and to the formation, the following year, of the Indian River Citrus League, a governors’ dedicated to keeping the fame of Indian River citrus unimpeachable and the name parochial. An official Indian River area was established in 1941.
It begins about ten miles north of DAYTONA BEACH and continues south through:
The western demarcation line runs along about fifteen miles inland, farther in the south.
OVER THE PAST DECADE [1955-1965] or so, the River has grown about one-tenth the number of oranges grown on the Ridge. Each Indian River orange shipped North carries the words “Indian River” on its skin, and has helped to foster tha false belief that the words signify a distinct type of orange rather than the area from which it comes. The same varieties are grown on the River as elsewhere — about fifty per cent VALENCEIAS, thirty per cent PINEAPPLES, the rest HAMLINS, PARSON BROWNS, and so on, but Indian River oranges have about twenty-five per cent more sugar in them than oranges grown on the Ridge, and they contain more juice as well.
The Sensimilla of Citrus
For a long time, people believe that salt airs coming off the Gulf Stream were somehow responsible for the quality of the Indian River orange, and many older groves still feel and will express a mysterious debt to the sea. Pomologists say that the sal-air theory is nonsense. Indian River soil is “heavy,” as Floridians put it. That means, as one grower said to me, that “if you let it run through your fingers you can actually get your hands a little dirty.” There is no dobut it is richer than the deep sand on the Ridge; it hold nutrients and moisture better, and it grows a better tree. But the main reason Indian River oranges can be so good is that, until recently at least, most of them have been grown on Sour Orange rootstock. Sour Orange does poorly in the deep sands of the Ridge, and the vigorously foraging Rough Lemon is used there. But Sour Orange does well in the soil near the river. Experiments in Indian River groves have shown that a tree on Sour Orange rootstock will not produce as much fruit as a tree next to it that hasbeen planted on Rough Lemon, but the fruit it does produce will be sweeter and juicier.
To tell the truth, I think the interior oranges, as Ridge oranges are sometimes called, have a little more spirit than oranges of the Indian River. I remember the first Indian River orange I ate when I went over there for a few days after several weeks on the Ridge. It was so sweet that it seemed just to melt away. It reminded me of a description I had read when I was hunting around in a ten-pound tome called Memoirs of the Faculty of Science and Agriculture, Taihoku Imperial University. Part of this volume summarizes the first book ever written on citrus fruit. Its author was a northerner who had gone to the south of China and had later rhapsodized in his book about the celebrated Milk Orand of WenChou. “When it is opened, a fragrant mist enchants the people,” he wrote. “It is called the Ju Kan, or Milk Orange, because of its resemblance to the taste of cream.”
Most tourist who go to Florida probably have no idea what or where the Indian River is, but when they stop to buy oranges they often ask for Indian River fruit. As a result, roadside stands all over the state have huge billboards on their roofes which say “INDIAN RIVER ORANGES.” Nearly all of these stands are legitimate. They have trucked-in fruit of the Indian River to satisfy the tourist demand. I remember a stand on the Ridge with a billboard that said, “PULITZER GROVES — PRIZE INDIAN RIVER CITRUS.”
The ubiquitous appearances of the term have sometimes misled even regular winter-residents, some of whom think that “Indian River” signifies a type of orange rather than an area from which oranges come. One day in a restaurant in a central Florida town, I got into a conversation with a man who said he had spent the last twelve winters in Naples. He told me that few oranges were grown down there, but they were as fine as any grown anywhere because they were Indian River oranges. Naples is two hundred miles from the Indian River.
Tourists who stop at roadside stands and order a shipment of Indian River oranges almost always get what they order. The stands are merely sho showcases, and much of the fruit they show is plastic. The order slips are mailed to a packinghouse on the Indian River. For that matter, if a tourst orders Ridge fruit from a stand on the Ridge, the slip is mailed to a packinghouse. Two packinghouses take care of most orders from roadside stands — and department stores — in the state. A couple of years ago, the Indian River Citrus League found a number of roadside stands selling oranges from the Ridge across the counter in bags labeled “Indian River.” Not all these offenders were in remote parts of the state. One stand selling counterfeit Indian River oranges was on the east side of U.S. 1. A car veering into this stand might have knocked it into the Indian River.
ON MERRITT ISLAND, I MET AN ORANGE GROWER NAMED ROBERT HILL, who showed me a good many trees in his grove that had lived through the 1895 freeze. He said that they had been set out by his grandfather, and that other trees on his property had been set out by his father. Narrow roads wind through Merritt Island between high walls of orange trees, which are interspersed with numerous houses of growers. Their holdings can be as small as five acres. Robert Hill’s groves cover about fifty acres, and his house, one of the oldest on the island, is on a kind of high bank, perhaps thirty feet abo e the Indian River. Merritt Island was once covered with pines that yielded such fine lumber that it was known as Merritt Island mahogany. The pines still fringe the island in places, and they rise eighty feet or so above Hilll’s house. Pine needles cover the ground from the house to the water, and the trunks of the pines are two and a half feet thick. Among them, on Hill’s property, is a high Indian mound. Through the pines, the river looks more like an estuary in Maine than a tidal lagoon in Florida. On the day that I was there, a steady breeze was blowing through the trees (Sea Level), and it was not difficult to see what had brought Douglas Dummet, Captain Burnham, and Robert Hill’s grandfather to the Indian River.
Hill and I had lunch that day in a place called Ramon’s, in Cocoa Beach, and as we were driving there, he pointed out to me the gantries of Cape Kennedy across a few miles of open sand. Ramon’s was the sort of place that the eys take two or three minutes to adjust to. It was a cool as it was dark, despite the smoke and the crowd, which included a high proportion of unattached women. Several bartenders appeared to be tiring under the strain of their work, although it was a few minutes before noon. A number of men were wearing sports shirts, but most were in business suits. Hill, in work clothes, seemed a little incongruous to me in Ramon’s. He is a short, colloquial, and thoroughly unselfconscious man, and while we were drinking our second round of bourbon-and-water, he told me that places like Ramon’s were what Merritt Island had needed for a long time. “This is living,” he said.
THE NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION (NASA) has acquired three thousand acres of Merritt Island citrus groves. The trees have been leased back to their former owners, but the growers are not permitted to live in the rgroves or even to store equipment there. Hill’s grove is part of the six thousand acres of citrus that remain outside of the space reservation. Aerospace industries, residential housing, and places like Ramon’s are taking over so rapidly that in a few years there will be no citrus trees on the island, with the exception of those ownd by NASA.
Hill’s son has built a new house next to his father’s, and he will probably stay there even if the family grove is cut down. He works for R.C.A. No space-age Chekhov is going to write a play called “The Orange Grove” about the Hill family of Merritt Island.
With aerospace and realty interests prempting the norther shores of the Indian River, new plantings have been made in the south. Until 1959, all groves were within two or three miles of the ocean. They had to be, since most of the length of the river is paralleled, a couple of miles inland, by vast savannas, which are largely under water nine months of the year. Much of the west bank of the river is a kind of loaf of ground, described by Floridians as a “bluff” even when it rises only thirten feet above sea level. But it is high ground indeed compared to what lies beyond it. The savannas reach out to the western horizon, low and flat, filled with saw grass and cat-o’-nine-tails (Cattails/ Bobcat/ Panther), small cypress trees, and occasional hammocks covered with cabbage palms. Otter live in the savannas, and alligators, wildcat, quail, deer, rabbit, wild turkey, water moccasins, and rattlesnakes.
1959 — THE MINUTE MAID COMPANY went into the savannas with earth-moving machines and heaved up a great ten-foot wall of earth surrounding seven thousand acres of marsh. Then they pumped out the water, graded the sandy soil, and planted six hundred thousand orange trees. It was an impressive feat, and it emboldened many other companies and syndicates to do the same.
[THE OFFICIAL JUICE OF JESUS / CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIANS / ANITA BRYANT]
Minute Maid itself has since made an even larger reclamation, a mere part of which, not yet fully bearing, is the largest lemon grove in the world. Lemons are even more sensitive to cold than oranges, and the 1895 freeze killed all the lemon trees in Florida. The new Minute Maid grove, whcih apears to be far enough south to be safe, marks their return — in any appreciable quantity — to the state.
I went out into the savannas one day with Hugh Whelchel, the country agent of St. Lucie County, whose job is to be a kind of intelligence service, communicating to farmers and fruit growers information that derives from scientific and academic circles. Whelchel, a tall and bald man of about forty, was a citrus major in the Class of 1949 at Florida Southern College, and, like all Florida county agents, he is officially ranked as an associate professor of the University of Florida. Riding out into the march ountry with him, in his pickup truck, I asked him about the ten-inch laceless boots he was wearing, because I had noticed that nearly everyone who works in Florida orange groves wears them. “They keep the sand out,” he siad. “I like a loose-fitting boot like these better than a tight boot, because fangs can go through thes and not get to your let.”
“How often do you see a rattlesnake??” I asked.
“Oh, hell, I guess I kill ten or fifteen a year.”
“You keep a gun here in the truck?”
“No. I got a jack handle in the back there.”
We drove up a hill of dirt, over a dike, and down into the Minute Maid reclamation, where young trees had just come into bearing for the first time. The perfect geometry of the groves on the Ridge, with straight middles stretching for hundreds of yards, had always seemed remrkable to me. Some of the middles in this grove ran on for five miles.
The ground had been engineered and sculpted so that rainwater would run into furrows in the middles, then through swales and ditches into a perimeter canal, running all the way around the grove, inside the dike. The water is pumped over the dike into state flood-control canals. Whelchel said that the water managment is the chief concern of all citrus growers of the Indian River area, whether in the new reclamation land or in the older roves. The water table is often less than three feet down, and that is as far as roots can go. Sometimes, in a single day, enough rain falls to saturate the soil, and growers have to be prepared to drain off the excess or they will lose their trees. In spring, however, it is so dry that they have to pump the water back into the groves or the trees will die for lack of it.
[WATER MANAGEMENT] — PRE-DAWN, SUGAR TEST, DECIDING WHEN TO PICK
To be fully prepared for the dry season, Minute Maid left one square mile of savanna, in the center of each of its vast groves, untouched. The square mile acts as a reservoir. Since a tree’s branch structure is proportionate in size to its root structure, Indian River trees are set in raised beds, as they have been since the nineteenth century. In this way, more root structure can grow above the water table. Nonetheless, Indian River trees are smaller than trees of similar age on the Ridge
Nearly all of the new orange plantings in the reclaimed savannas are on Rough Lemon rootstock.. The trees grow faster, bear more fruit, and are less susceptible to virus diseases than they would be on Sour Ornage rootstock. Each individual orange is not up to the usual standard of the Indian River, but that hardly matters, since most oranges are now grown for concentrate plants — for THE FROZEN PEOPLE, as the makers of concentrate are often called in Florida — and a grower’s profits are determined more by volume than by quality.
[CORPORATE CONCENTRATE CONFLICT] — [FLORIDA TURNPIKE BILLBOARDS] Used Cows/ Vascectomy/ Pro-Life
The Rough Lemon rootstocks of the savanna plantations are disturbing to Whelches and to other county agencies and to many growers in the area. They feel that the rise of concentrate may be causing the end, in a sense, of the Indian River. The savanna plantations are officially part of the Indian River, and their owners could take advantage of the name if prices were high enough for them to want to market fresh oranges. Nearly all Indian River trees used to be on Sour Orange, but fifty percent of them are now on Rough Lemon. “Packinghouses can be expected to discriminate against Rough Lemon fruit,” Whelchel said. “But there is no guarantee of this. We can lose the golden name of the Indian River if we start shipping fresh fruit grown on Rough Lemon rootstock. A smart fresh-fruit advertiser would plug oranges grown strictly on Sour Orange.”
[TRUTH IN ADVERTISING] — FROZEN CONCENTRATE/ TANG
A GOOD ORANGE IS GREEN
One day, I went into an Indian River packinghouse to watch the objects of all this concern being readied for market. Citrus packinghouses are much the same wherever they are. In a sense, they are more like beauty parlors than processing plants. To make their oranges marketably orange, packers can do two things, one of which is, loosely speaking, natural and the other wholly artificial. The first is a process that was once known as “gassing,” but the upleasant dconnotations of that workd have caused it to be generally suppressed, and most people now say “de-greening” instead. Green or partly green oranges are put into chambers where, for as much as four days, ethylene gas is circulated among them. The gas helps eliminate the chlorophyll in the flavedo, or outer skin, which is, in a sense, tiled with cells that contain both orange and green pigments. The orange ones are carotenoids, the green ones are chlorophylls, and the chlorophylls are so much more intense that, while they are there, the orange color will not show through. Both of thse pigments are floating around in a clear, colorless enzyme called chlorophyllase, which will destroy chlorophyll on contact but has no effect on anything else. The chlorophyll is protected from the enzyme by a thin membrane called a tonoplast. In chilly weather, the tonoplast loses its strength and breaks down, and the enzyme gets at the chlorophyll and destroys it. THE ORANGE BECOMES ORANGE.
It would seem to be simple enough to pick a green orange and put it in a refrigerator until it turns orange, but, unfortunately, the membrane that protects the chlorophyll from the enzyme will no longer react in the same way once an orange is picked. In the early years of this century, Californians noticed that oranges tended to become more orange in rooms where kerosene stoves were burning. Assuming that the heat was responsible, orange men on both coasts erected vast wooden ovens called “sweat rooms,” installed banks of kerosene stoves, and turned out vividly colored petroleum-smoked oranges. The more enthusiastic they got, the more stoves they put in. The emerging oranges were half dehydrated. And, with alarming frequency, whole packinghouses would burst into flame. That era closed when it was discovered that the ethylene gas produced in the combustion of the kerosene was the actual agen that was affecting the color of the oranges. Ethylen appears to anesthetize, or at least to relax, the membrane that protects the chlorophyll. All fruits take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide through their skins, and some fruits, interestingly enough, give off ethylene gas as well when they breath. A pile of green oranges will turn color if stored in a room with enough bananas. One McIntosh apple, puffing hard, can turn out enough ethylene to de-green a dozen oranges in a day or two.
Oranges are gassed in both California and Florida, often merely to improve an already good color. A once orange orange whcih ahs turned green again on the tree will not react to it. Neither will an orange that is not ripe.
The second method of affecting the color of oranges is more direct: they can be bathed, at times, in a dye whose chemical name is 1-(2, 5-dimethoxy-phenylazo)-2 napthol, popularly known as Citrus Red No.2. This is the only dye permitted by federal law. The use of it is against California law, and the law of Florida, as a kind of safeguard against criticism, requires that dyed oranges be labeled as such and that they contain ten percent more juice than the established minimum for undyed oranges, In practive this regulation affects only the Ridge, because Indian River packinghouses are, almost without exception, too proud to dy their oranges. Citrus Red No. 2 is an aggressive and unnerving pink, but, applied to the green and yellow-green and yellow-orange surfaces of oranges, it produces an acceptable color. How acceptable seems to differ with individuals, and, in a more remarkable way, with geography. Judging by sales figures, people in New England instinctively reject oranges that have the purple letters “COLOR ADDED” stamped on their skins. In the Middle West, though, color-added oranges are in demand. Stores have even put advertisments in Chicago newspapers announcing when color-added oranges were available. Distributors there say they could sell many more oranges if the packinghouses wolld intensify the dye. In Florida, citrus men sometimes say of Midwesterners, “These people don’t want oranges. They want tomatoes.”
In an average year, the color-add season only lasts for several weeks in the autumn. There is no need for dye in the winter. In the late spring, high-season Valencias may turn partly green again; the dye has an unsatisfactory effect on them, however, and is seldom used. In the couse of a Florida season, as one variety follows another, there is a general rise in the internal quallty of oranges, and high-season Valencias are, on the average, the best oranges available at any time in the year. They are often moottled with green, though, and many people pass them by.
[THE BEST ORANGE IS THE UGLY ONE]
The oranges in the Indian River packinghouse I visited had been gassed and were being washed in warm soapy water, brushed with palmetto-fiber brushes, and dried by foam-rubber squeegees and jets of hot air.
[AT THE SPA] — PAMPERED/ MADE TO LOOK PRETTY
Brushed again with nylon bristles to bring out their natural shine, they were coated with Johnson’s Wax until they glistened like cats’ eyes. The was, which is edible, replaces a natural wax that is lost when the oranges are cleaned. Apples, cherrries, and the rest of the pip and stone fruits look much the same when they enter a packing house as when they leave, but when oranges arrive they are covered with various things, from sooty mold to dust smeared by heavy dews. They have to be washed, but without their surface wax they would breathe very rapidly and begin to shrivel within hours. The natural was therefore has to be replaced. Packers replace it and then some — but if they apply too much was, the orange will suffocate and its flavor will become, at best, insipid.
Oranges are graded after they are waxed. Eight ladies stood beside a conveyor of rolling oranges, taking out the ones whose skins wre blemished by things like wind scars, oil blotches from petroleum sprays, hail damage, and excessive russeting on the blossom end. The oranges they eliminated would go to concentrate plants. Eliminations, as they are called, are something quite different from culls — split or rotting oranges that are taken out before the beautifying proces begins. The ladies who do the grading wear gloves, because a light pass of a fingernail over the surface of an orange can rupture oil cells, causing peel oil to well out onto the surface and not only discolor the orange but also nurture fungi that destroy it.
Oranges do not bruise one another the way apples sometimes do, and an orange, in fact, can absorb a blow that would finish an apple. Oranges can actually be bounced like rubber balls without damage, except that when they are dropped more than a foot they will start to breathe too rapidly. Truck drivers who bring them into the packinghouses from the groves wade along through rivers of oranges while they are emptying their trucks, taking care to slide their feet along the bottoms of the chutes, like trout fishermen moving upstream.
Government inspectors, who work every day all day in packinghouses and concentration plants, squeeze a standard boxful — an average of about two hundred oranges — from each truckload, and they order the entire lot destroyed if the sample is not about ten percent sugar and does not amount to at least four and a half gallons of juice.
Oranges that happen to be going to New York cross the Hudson River on barges and enter the city at Pier 28 at the western end of Canal Street, All fresh fruit of any kind that is shipped to New York City for auction is sold at Pier 28. The pier’s interior is like the inside of an aircraft hangar, and fruits from everywhere are stacked in lots in long, close rows — oranges and grapefruit from the Ridge, California oranges, apples, avocados, pears, plums, cherries, lemons, grapes, pomegranates, and so on.
Over at one side, separated by a wide area from all the other crates and boxes, is the fruit of the Indian River. A man from the Indian River is always there to look after it, and he has no counterpart elsewhere on the pier. Buyers walk around making notes, then they go upstairs into a room that could have been built as the auditorium of a nineteenth-century high school. The walls are made of tongue-and-groove boards and the wooden seats are set on frameworks of cast iron, which are bolted to the floor. The room seems to contain about ninety men and ninety lighted cigars. In London in the eighteenth century, oranges were auctioned “by the candle.” A pin was pushed through a candle not far from the top, and when the candle, and when the candle was lighted, the bidding began. When the pin dropped, the most recent bidder got the oranges. In New York in the present era, oranges appear to be auctioned by cigar. The air in the auction room gets so heavy with smoke that if anything as light as a pin were to drop, it would probably stop falling before it reached the floor.
THE INDIAN RIVER SITS NEXT TO HIM
WHEN HE AUCTIONS THE FRUIT OF THE INDIAN RIVER.
— John McPhee “Oranges”
At the southernmost tip of Merritt Island, Florida
Friday April 13, 2018
The remains of the concrete dragon that sculpture Lewis VanDercar created in 1971 are barely recognizable as they lay in a heap on the coquina rock peninsula jutting out between the Indian and Banana River Lagoons on the on the southern most tip of Merritt Island. Nicknamed Annie after the first landowner’s wife, the concrete dragon has guarded the the areas of Merritt Island near the Eau Gallie Causeway for over thirty years prior to being overcome by hurricanes Frances, Jeannine and Charley in 2005.
Legend has it that the dragon was the protector of the peaceful Indian tribes and provided a symbol of protection from enemies if it was seen rising out of the mist between the two bodies of water.
According to local sources, the property is held in an estate and the estate is in limbo at this time. Seems as if Brevard County, local authorities and the owner are in disagreement over rebuilding the structure and homestead on the narrow point.
Warren McFadden, who bought Dragon Point in 1981, hired VanDercar to add a long curved tail and four dragon hatchlings – christened Joy, Sunshine, Charity, and Freedom. He also asked VanDercar to construct caveman-type furniture for the inside of the dragon’s belly to make a play room for his son.
On the same piece of property is the remnants of a once beautiful home that was a perfect piece of architecture for the location. Presently it looks like an old haunted house in a story from Tom Sawyer’s Island or some adventure spot in a movie set. The homestead was magnificent and very unique and there is nothing quit like it anywhere in Florida.
The economic downturn after a couple of years of hurricane destruction has left many properties and estates in the Brevard County area looking similar and in disrepair. Only time will tell if Merritt Island’s south end will be graced with another version of Annie the Dragon or if the saltwater lagoon and mangroves will overwhelm this unique Florida property on east central Florida’s coastline.
Published by: Captain Richard Bradley of Lagooner Fishing Guides©
Harbortown Marina is a great place to fuel up before and after day of boating. It’s one of the safest harbors in the Brevard County area for storms and wind and offers wonderful food at their Nautical Spirits Bar & Grill.
On occasion I’ve slipped into the marina for shelter during a fishing charter and found the food and service to be clean, simple and remarkably tasty.
Florida Fishing Guide / Lagooner Fishing Guide Service
Merritt Island’s southern most peninsula is called Dragon Point and it is where the Banana River and Indian River Lagoons meet.
Last modified: October 28 2015 14:02:36.
Published by: Captain Richard Bradley of Lagooner Fishing Guides©
Indian River Lagoon blogger