The Indian River region of Florida’s east coast is internationally known for its citrus products. The citrus industry in the region dates back to before the Civil War, when Douglas Dummett planted the region’s first orange grove. He later acquired property on the Indian River, across from present-day Titusville. The warmer climate and rich soil of the Indian River area proved to be exceptionally well suited to orange cultivation. Dummett continually expanded his orange groves and also contributed to the area’s citrus development by selling budwood to other local growers.
The first settlers moved to Rockledge, about 20 miles south of Titusville, shortly after the Civil War and began cultivating citrus. The Whaley family moved to north Merritt Island in the late 1800s, where they had large swaths of land for growing oranges. They moved to Rockledge when the bridge across the Indian River was built in 1917, settling on Rockledge Drive near the Cocoa border. There, they opened a small fruit stand. In 1889, local growers helped to form the Florida Fruit Growers Association, which set prices and standards for orange shipments and promoted better citrus agricultural practices. Steamboats and railroads greatly simplified shipping to northern markets when they arrived in the 1880s and 1890s. Indian River oranges became famous nationwide and sold for between fifty cents and a dollar more per box than any other Florida orange. Rockledge became one of the leading citrus-producing communities in the state. The Indian River region produced 60,000 boxes of citrus in 1890, 50,000 of them from Rockledge groves.
The extension of the Florida East Coast Railroad, with its direct rail connections to the northeast, and to Rockledge in 1893, promised to spark an even greater period of expansion in the local citrus industry. However, the Great Freeze of 1894-1895 devastated local orange groves and other crops that were the economic lifeblood of the community. Most of the groves in North Florida were destroyed. Although the Indian River region suffered less than communities further north, nevertheless, citrus production in the area was severely damaged. Because of the lack of fruit, thousands of railroad workers and shippers also lost their jobs. Many small grove owners were ruined and forced to leave by the turn of the 20th century, unlike the larger growers who had ample capital to weather the lean years.
With the commercial citrus industry in North Florida decimated, many growers from that region moved farther south to the Indian River area. By 1900, Brevard County had once again become one of the leading citrus-producing counties in Florida. During the early decades of the 20th century, several large citrus packing plants were constructed in the Cocoa-Rockledge area. Among them were the E.P. Porcher Citrus Packing House, the Rockledge-Cocoa Packing House, and the Cocoa Merritt Island Citrus Association Packing House (none of these are extant). The success of the citrus industry throughout the 1920s proved to be an added incentive for those seeking property in the area. However, the collapse of the land boom in 1926, seriously dampened the industry’s prospects. The ensuing depression in the Florida economy hampered investment in the industry. During that period of economic instability, many of the local packing houses went bankrupt and were forced to close.
The Marion S. Whaley Citrus Packing House was constructed in 1928 by Marion S. Whaley Sr., a prominent local citrus grower. In his groves near Rockledge, he had developed a unique Red Tangelo. To facilitate shipping his product to northern markets, Whaley selected a site between U.S. Highway 1 and the Florida East Coast Railway to process and pack his fruit. From this location, the fruit could be easily transported by truck or train and could also be marketed to passing tourists. The fruit originally carried the “M.S. Whaley” label. The one and one-half story wood frame vernacular industrial building is constructed of heart of pine lumber known locally as “Merritt Island mahogany.” The various segments of the building serve specific functions. The gable roof extension at the south end was used as a gift shop. An office was to the rear of this extension. A loading bay to the rear of the office was used to market wholesale fruit. The main block was used to sort, grade, and pack fruit. It is connected by a conveyer to a two-story crib at the rear of the building.
The center of activity of the packing house is the main block. The interior walls of this portion of the building are unfinished with exposed studs and ceiling rafters. The flooring is unfinished pine. The sorting, grading, and packing of fruit takes place in this portion of the complex. Fruit is transported from area groves by truck to the packing plant, where it is unloaded and stored in large crates. From there, the fruit is loaded onto a conveyor which leads to a stripping machine that eliminates all extraneous branches and other foreign matter. The fruit then travels through a series of machines where it is washed, dried, buffed, and waxed. Next, it goes through a separation process. Here workers cull rotten fruit and sort the remaining into two categories: Number 1 grade, which is sold loose at a higher price in the gift shop or transported for sale at supermarkets, and Number 2 grade, which is sold at a lesser price to juice plants, canneries, and food chains. After separation, the fruit is stamped and sized according to industry specifications. Finally, it is boxed in cardboard cartons for shipment. Much of the machinery used in this process was original and remained until the building was demolished.
In 1929, a serious fruit fly infestation occurred, affecting nearly three-quarters of Florida’s citrus trees and destroying much of the local crop. An embargo was placed on fruit-infested areas and all trees that showed evidence of the fruit fly were burned. Production levels fell sharply, and the number of citrus farms fell from a boom-time high of 24,500 to 19,800 in 1930. State and federal agricultural agencies spent millions of dollars to eradicate the pest and the quarantine on Florida fruit was finally lifted in November 1930. The reputation of fruit from the Indian River region was such that orange crates from all parts of Florida carried the words “Indian River.” To stop this deceitful practice, a cease-and-desist order was issued by the Federal Trade Commission in 1930. To further protect the name and reputation of true Indian River region products, a grower’s organization called the Indian River Citrus League was formed in 1931.
The Florida citrus industry was able to rebound from the Depression years and the fruit fly infestation through the aid of New Deal agricultural programs. An aggressive marketing and advertising campaign was undertaken by the state government in 1935 to further enhance the reputation of Florida fruit in northern cities. The greatest boost to the citrus industry came after the United States entered World War II. Between 1942 and 1945 the federal government encouraged greater production and requisitioned all canned and processed fruits for military and lend-lease purposes. The military’s needs also spurred the development of a frozen concentrate process that proved to be a major boost for the citrus industry.
The old Victory Groves packing house was enlarged, and new machinery was added to meet the federal government’s demand for fruit during World War II. The name of the packing house was also changed to “Victory Groves” to reflect the patriotic part the plant played in the war effort. After the close of a successful season in May 1947, management entertained the employees with a fish fry at the plant. The fish fry was attended by 36 people. Served with the fish were “hush puppies”, the like of which had never been seen, along with salads, coffee, pies, and cakes. Sadly, this would be Marion Whaley, Sr.’s last season, after fighting an illness he died six months later. The Whaley family continued operating the Victory Groves packing house until 1960 when it was purchased by the Sullivan brothers, whose packing house in what is now Cocoa Village burned down the previous year. They would rename it the Sullivan Victory Groves Packing House and be responsible for expanding the building several times.
A very unlikely source first rang the death knell for Brevard County’s orange industry – the United States government. When NASA arrived in Brevard, many of the 9,000 acres the government needed as a buffer for the Kennedy Space Center included some of the best citrus lands in the country. The original owners were bought out, and then the property was leased back to them for nearly a decade. The Sullivans leased back 850 acres to continue growing oranges. After the Department of the Interior took over the grounds, they informed the farmers that only native plants would be tolerated. Since citrus did not arrive until the 1400s, the farmers were forced to get rid of non-native plants. Among the groves doomed was the old Dummett grove, which had saved the citrus industry with its seeds and cuttings after the 1835 freeze killed off most of the trees except for Dummett’s, which survived thanks to the warm waters of the Indian River encircling them.
The Sullivan brothers’ business had survived arson, hard times, government intrusion, and transportation issues, but it could not survive back-to-back-to-back freezes in 1983, 1985, and 1989, when the temperature dropped to 17 degrees in Brevard County. This was the beginning of the end for the Sullivan Victory Groves packing house as sales continued to decline. Today, Sullivan Victory Groves still operates as a mail-in gift fruit business. The old Whaley Packing House was permanently closed in 1991. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 8, 1993.
According to the Brevard County Property Appraiser’s website, the packing house sold for $749,000 in March 1998. The property fell into foreclosure and was seized by the bank in 2001. Shortly after, Dr. Benjamin Kohn who owns Redi LLC purchased it from the bank in the hopes of finding a suitor for the historic building. Without a buyer, the property continued to deteriorate. In 2018, city inspectors declared the building unsafe and subject to fines for code violations. Two years later, demolition began on July 16, 2020. The old Whaley Citrus Packing House was removed from the NRHP in 2021.
The center of Florida’s citrus industry remains in the central and south portion of the state. Since the 1940s the industry has evolved from small family farms to large corporate operations. The Marion S. Whaley Citrus Packing House was the oldest continually operating citrus packing plant in the Indian River region and had important associations to the growth of the citrus industry around Cocoa, Rockledge, and Titusville during the 1930s and 1940s. Today, over 75% of Florida’s orange crop is made into frozen concentrate. The cultivation, processing and sale of citrus products continues to play a major role in the state’s economy.
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All of that heart pine… I suppose it’s the lesser of two evils that it was demolished (hopefully selectively), because arson would have otherwise caused it to go up in one spectacular inferno.