An Agricultural History
Memorabilia of Winter Garden’s agricultural ancestry is strewn around the city, from old crate labels mosaicked into the downtown water fountain to the citrusy titled street signs. Despite Winter Garden’s infamous citrus industry, their farming culture began with more than orange trees. Produce farmers, from cabbage to strawberry growers, took advantage of the fertile soil surrounding Lake Apopka. Today, the City’s everlasting allure continues to draw families and visitors in; however, instead of commercial farmers, small-scale gardeners and food-passionate people are popping up everywhere!
For thousands of years, the fertile ground around Lake Apopka sustained Native Americans and later Spanish explorers. It is no surprise that when Northerners began to flock to Florida, they too cultivated the same fields. Their crops included strawberries, cantaloupes, watermelons, peaches, bananas, cucumbers, bell peppers, celery, lettuce, escarole, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, string beans, eggplant and corn.
Mabel Grimes, the daughter of founding farmer James L. Dillard, recalls in a 1977 interview when her father “bought a wide span of land from Plant Street to Lake Apopka for $3 to $5 an acre,” where he grew vegetables and fruit. The fruit was then packed in a small community packing house, similar to another local facility owned by the Britt Family. The poultry and dairy businesses were also quite lucrative. Produce production thrived due to the demand in the North. Most of the goods were shipped to states like New York and Pennsylvania. Especially in 1887 when the Orange Belt Railway arrived, farming transitioned to citrus monocultures and became more systematized.
Crop diversity declined as farmers converted to citrus, eventually claiming the biggest citrus port in the 1920’s and 30’s. One of the pioneering citrus families, the Tilden’s, purchased 561 acres for $9 per acre to develop their orange groves. An innovative, cooperative packing house was shared by many grove owners by the names of Roper, Chicone, Britt, Keene, Irrgang, Tilden, McKinnon, Hall, Austin, Heller, McMillan, Burch, Sadler, Freeman, Ross, and Battaglia. Despite the plight of fruit flies, freezes, droughts, and canker, citrus has remained an important part of Winter Garden’s economy, even with the development around Disney.
A Modern Food Focus
Several severe freezes in the 80’s put quite a dent in the citrus industry, but something richer than the soil continues to cultivate an agrarian community in Winter Garden. In a vintage flyer attracting Northerners, the City boasts a “citizenry that is of the very best, a people among whom living is a pleasure.” There was and remains a quaint charm to the town—perfect breeding grounds for community gardens and a weekly Farmers Market.
The local food movement is building up behind business doors also. Atop a downtown building, Green Sky Growers farms tilapia and produce using nutrients from the fish’s wastewater. You will find their produce among 90 other tables at the Saturday Winter Garden Farmers Market, at Orlando’s Homegrown Co-op and stuffed in the sandwiches at Axum Coffee. A restaurant in downtown Winter Garden, Al Fresco, and an organic food store, Seeds Natural Market, are also connecting the consumer to their farmers and food producers by offering seasonal and local ingredients. You can meet these and more local farmers, restauranteurs and entrepreneurs at the Winter Garden Harvest Festival!
*For more information on Winter Garden’s agricultural heritage, visit the Winter Garden Heritage Foundation.