Ted Burrows, St. Lucie Historical Society
A lot of bitter Arctic air penetrated through the Florida panhandle and down the peninsula. First, a series of slate-gray clouds brought stinging rain showers or freezing showers. Then came the deadly cold.
Snow fell as far south as Tampa and lingered on the ground for three days in Tallahassee. The icy breath of winter swept across the hills of central Florida, searching south across Lake Okeechobee.
For decades afterwards, Floridians would remember this simply as “The Great Freeze.” In fact, it came as two separate cold waves, nature’s wild one-two strokes in the winter of 1894-95. It changed life in Florida radically and permanently.
Florida Weather:How to handle frozen iguanas when the temperature drops to the 40s
Snow in Florida! What you need to know about the weather in Sunshine State
During the three decades following the Civil War, Florida had attracted thousands of new settlers, many of whom began growing citrus fruits for an expanding northern market. An agricultural magazine at the time said a hard-working farmer could earn “a neighbor’s income” from a 160-acre grove.
Until the early 1890s, most new groves lay in the northern and central regions. South Florida at the time was still sparsely populated. Well-kept rows of citrus trees sprouted between Gainesville and St. Augustine, and as far upstate as the outskirts of Jacksonville. Hopes were high as the trees matured. By all accounts, prosperity was on the way.
The big freeze changed everything.
On December 29, 1894, temperatures dropped to 14 degrees through most of northern Florida, destroying unharvested fruit and killing many young trees. But the new year brought better weather, an unusually warm and rainy January. Undamaged trees began to sprout new branches earlier than usual.
Then the second freeze hit. Trees full of rising sap and new growth began to crack as the mercury plunged to 11 degrees on February 7, 1895. The next two days were just as cold. Families worked to exhaustion and fed bonfires to warm the air near their affected trees. Nothing worked.
Whole groves froze to the ground and looked, as one writer said, “as if a terrible plague had swept through them.” In disgust, many growers simply cut their once productive trees for firewood. Others packed up and moved away. A few small citrus communities, such as Windsor, east of Gainesville, became virtual ghost towns.
Starved of citrus income, all business suffered. In Ocala, both banks failed. The damage to Florida’s economy amounted to more than $ 100 million, a staggering sum in 1895. The recovery was slow for the ravaged citrus industry. Six years later, in 1901, Florida harvested only 975,000 boxes of citrus, compared to five million boxes in 1894 before freezing.
Two hundred miles south of the former citrus heartland a few groves had already been planted along the Indian River. The Great Freeze of 1894-95 started a large-scale migration in this direction.
Aside from some coastal settlements, most of southern Florida was still a mosquito-infested wilderness. Fort Pierce, Stuart, Jensen and Vero were small villages. Miami had only 1,600 inhabitants and the Palm Beach 500.
Henry Flagler had just extended his new railroad to Palm Beach and apparently planned to make it to the end of the line. But beyond the Miami River, out of reach of the great freezer, Julia B. Tuttle saw the blossoming orange trees on her property and got an idea. She sent a twig of flowers to Flagler, who quickly recognized the commercial prospects. By 1896, his crew had left tracks all the way to Miami.
The combination of milder climate and rail transportation opened up southern Florida for expanded agriculture – not only for citrus fruits, but also for winter vegetable crops, shipped to the northern markets when their own farms were snow-bound. Citrus groves were planted throughout the Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin counties. By the 1940s, the fruit of the Indian River had become famous throughout the country.
Over the years, other freezes have strongly affected the fruits and vegetables of this area.
In 1957-58, two severe colds damaged fruit and vegetables throughout this region less than a month apart. Local temperatures of 27 in December and 24 in early January froze oranges on the trees and tomatoes in many fields. Snow fell as far south as Lakeland. A headline from the Fort Pierce News Tribune in December read: “Vegetable crop complete loss; additional cold due.”
Another freeze, in January 1977, brought a dusty snow to Fort Pierce and showers as far south as Miami. Temperatures dropped in the 20s again in most of the Indian River area. Agriculture officials estimated that damage to the entire country could exceed 15% of the citrus crop. Again, vegetable farms also suffered heavy losses.
A particularly destructive freeze struck in 1985. North of Orlando, across which State Road 50 intersects an east-west path across the peninsula, many citrus groves went out of operation.
A newspaper headline lamented: “For some growers, 1985 is the drop.” (Many former groves were sold for housing to the area’s rapidly growing population). An Associated Press report said “The freeze made oranges rock hard in groves as far south as Palm Beach. Along the Treasure Coast and inland towards Lake Okeechobee, temperatures in the 20s damaged citrus and ruined crops of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and squash.
Another bad freeze, 22.-26. December 1989, wiped out 30% of Florida’s citrus crop, and Governor Bob Martinez declared all 67 counties disaster areas. Parts of northern Florida received three inches of snow. Temperatures dropped to 8 degrees in High Springs, 21 degrees in St. Louis. Augustine and 30 degrees in Miami.
Many locals may no doubt remember other episodes of cold weather. After each catastrophic freeze, farmers and grove owners have tried to move further south in hopes of keeping their crops beyond the grip of winter. Yet there is always a risk. For more than a century, Florida’s periodic freezes have had a profound effect on our state’s agriculture.