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The story of a dynamic industry that dominated Lake County for more than 125 years
Mentor, friend, business partner and one of finest persons in my life. Not long after I started my tenure as County Agent I decided to put out my first ‘field trial’. Growers were talking about using planes and helicopters to apply pesticides to control certain pests. Aerial applications were common in many crops and there was a big push to get citrus growers to use this lower cost per acre application method. I decided to go to Golden Gem for help with the trial. I had visited the office a few times and felt really comfortable with the entire grove management team. John Kennedy was the head guy and Dixie Royal, Ed Faryna, Joe McRee, Harold Straker and Bob Klingbeil were the assistants. The needed so many assistants because the coop managed around 15,000 acres! In 1968 this was most likely the largest acreage managed by one organization. Most of the groves were small to medium size (20 to maybe 200 acres). Bob was in charge of pest control and Joe was his assistant. Therefore Bob was my key person to get my field trial in place. Much to my pleasure he agreed to put out the test. Thus began my mentoring and friendship. Together we selected all the necessary components for the trial; target pest, method to control (plane for us), chemical to use, rate to apply, evaluation procedure and groves to use. We spent many hours on the trial. I would travel with Bob many days learning all I could about citrus. We might leave his office at 8 am and spend the day in the field while using only an hour to work on the spray trial (check out a grove to see how we would spray it, where would our control (the unsprayed part) be located, etc.)
Bob and I became friends instantly. He was a quiet easy going gentleman. I could tell immediately that all his tractor drivers respected him and enjoyed being part of his team. He always had time to everybody and knew each one as a friend. How any children they had by name, what problems existed at home (someone sick or trying to find a job, etc.), what their hobbies were and as much as you know about your best friend.
Bob and his family lived in an old large house just north of Altoona. He had a grove next to the house and a small rental cottage with barn in the grove. Bob’s wife Georgia was a perfect fit. A warm engaging lady that immediately made me feel like part of the family. They had four children; Ann, Suzie, Georgia and Bobby. Ann married Zeb Osbourn. Not sure about the other three. Somewhere in my ramblings you will find a story on ‘the sprayer’. Bobby was intimately involved in that story as is Bob. The sprayer was our business partnership. J&K Grove Service was a duly registered corporation thanks to Zeb, a fresh out of law school soon to be son-in-law who drew up the papers (we might have been his first client!). The business was just another excuse for me to spend time with Bob.
I can relate many stories about Bob. I guess that this will be an ongoing topic as I have something that will trigger another story. Let me just cover a few.
Many days around noon I would get a tap on my office window. Bob wanted to go to lunch. Off we went. Many times to Harvey’s Hoffbriaugh on new Hwy 441 in Mt. Dora. The restaurant has been sold many times and for a while was Anne’s employer, Captain Appleby’s. Bob liked the food, plus he would be delivering tomatoes! Yes Bob was a man of many talents and his hydroponic garden produced more tomatoes than the family could consume so he had a few customers to whom he delivered nice large vine ripe tomatoes.
For many years Bob was the Boy Scout master for the troop in Altoona. For many years to Altoona troop had the highest percent of boys in the program becoming Eagle Scouts. In order to reach the rank of Eagle Scout a young man must be motivated AND have tons of support/encouragement/patience from an adult. In most cases the adult(s) were the Scout Master and parents. Bob motivated, encouraged and worked with all his scouts for he truly cared for each one as deeply as he loved his family.
Many of those scouts would work for Bob in the summer when they turned 16 or 17. Each summer Bob would need to put extra spray crews in the field to apply the Summer Oil Spray. Bob would place 3 or 4 high school or college boys with one of his spray team tractor operators to hand treat young trees. Some more experienced young men may have driven supply trucks. Many, many men in the Umatilla area got their first job working for Mr. Klingbeil at Golden Gem. A lot of those young men returned to work in the citrus industry as executives or accountants or attorneys or engineers or other areas. Bob kept up with all of them.
Talking about young men working for Golden Gem brings up the topic of firing groves. This term refers to lighting heaters that were used to protect the groves from freezing temperatures. Groves were fired with around 70 heaters per acre and they had to be lit within a relatively short time period. Golden Gem had as many as 40,000 heaters to light on a cold night. Most of the actual lighting was done by high school boys! The word would be announced at school that all those that signed up to light heaters needed to be at Golden Gem at the designated hour. The management team had some folks riding the area checking temperatures. I would be up at my office and in touch with Golden Gem and many other growers as well sharing information. When to decision was make to light the heaters the small army of high school boys and crew leaders took off to get all 40,000 burning as quick as possible. Bob said his greatest concern was to leave someone in the field. It was his goal to have every boy that left to light heaters come back to the office and head home. Each boy has an excused absence from school! I have been told that many showed up covered in soot just to ‘show off’ that they were big guys and spent all night working. By the way, the real work took place the next day when all 40,000 heaters had to be refueled in case the freeze lasted two or more nights. One freeze night a photographer from National Geographic was there for the ‘event’. Bob told me this guy was everywhere. Climbing on files, tables, etc. get the ‘right’ picture. This was well before digital pictures. Bob said this guy went through film faster than an automatic rifle. After it was all over and the article on Central Florida showed up in National Geographic the only picture from Golden Gem showed Bob and a wad of boys in the office getting ready to leave. Bob was now the ‘picture boy’ of Golden Gem.
During our many travels and evaluation of spray trials I learned how to check for ‘bugs’ ( is use this general term for the many creatures, good as well as bad) that live in citrus groves. Bob was always making sure the bad guys were not getting out of hand. I picked up little techniques he used to make me better at this valuable practice. Bob had a special magnifying glass that attached to his glasses (I am sure you have seen doctors using a version of a microscope they wear like glasses. Bob got his from a jeweler! When he entered a grove he would flip it down and remove a fruit or leave for a tree and scan it for pests. If there was rust mite in the grove Bob found it. He had a feel for pests! He could sample 10 or 20 fruit and know when it would be time to spray. Remarkable.
One of many many lessons Bob taught me regarded my job in general. Bob was the number two guy in charge of managing thousands of acres of groves. He have many offers to become the head guy with other companies. Yet he never left. He loved his job and was pleased to be number 2. It allowed him to interact with a lot of people such as growers, tractor drivers, county agents, etc. and not have the administrative responsibility that can bog one down. He was content to stay in a job he enjoyed and allowed him to support his family. That did not mean he lacked ambition, just he that he found his place and felt no need to move. Bob and visited growers all the time. As you can imagine there were many in Golden Gem. I remember one day we were in the Deland area and Bob made plans to visit a grower. We pulled up and were warmly greeted. It was as if Bob and the grower grew up together and were best friends. The first thing the grower said was “Bob you have got to see my new fly rod. Try it out and see how smooth it is!”. Soon Bob and the grower were admiring this split bamboo fly rod (the Ferrari of fly rods). Next Bob asked the grower to show me his remarkable set of Parker shotguns. With a large smile on his face, the grower says “sure” and heads upstairs to retrieve them. I am no expert on shotguns, but Bob knew how much the grower liked to show them off. He brought three cases and inside each was a magnificent Parker shotgun. There was a 12 gauge, 16 gauge and a 410, all simply stunning. Bob and the grower talked for a while and we stayed for lunch. Not much citrus was discussed. This was a fun visit with a little public relations tossed in once in a while. What a day. On the way back to Umatilla Bob gave some background on the grower. Seems his wife was the daughter of a large manufacture of batteries (I believe it was Burgess Batteries). Anyway she was very wealthy and the grove and beautiful home just a small part of her holdings. Do not remember what the grower’s vocation was! He married money and was a real nice and fun guy.
Bob loved to take pictures and frequently had his camera. I do not remember any special pictures except the one of Anne sitting on the hood of a car. I must track it down and add it to this document. Hope I can find it. She was around 3 years old if the picture happens to turn up sometime.
We had several episodes that involved vehicles. One year we attended the Florida State Horticultural Society meeting in Miami Beach. We drove the old Mercedes. This was before diesel was in most stations. We left with a full tank and had a heck of a time finding diesel on Miami Beach. Bob never got riled up, he was always so calm. Then was the time when Bob had been given a new company car – a big Ford Crown Victoria. He really did not want it, but management thought it would not be as rough a ride as his Bronco (by this time the word was out that Bob had be diagnosed with cancer). He had to pick up some pesticides for a special task. We stopped at Dixie Ag Chemical in Eustis to grab the materials. One was a gallon of Malathion in a GLASS container. Of course the smooth Crown did not do so well when Bob hit a small wash out and soon we could smell the Malathion. The trunk was saturated. No matter how hard the guys at the shop tried, they could not completely get rid of the odor! Bob insisted he have his Bronco back! No idea who got the Crown Vic, but rest assured the car would never have aphids (small insect that in controlled by Malathion).
Bob and I went on a hunting trip. Neither of us were big hunters, but Zeb Osborne put our names into the drawing for a hunt on St. Vincent’s Island. This federal park is located off Apalachicola. The island was privately owned by a wealthy outdoorsman that introduced animals to the island. I believe he brought Russian boars (hogs) that got in the caretakers hog pen and soon the island was overrun with Russian/American hogs!! A spotted deer (Sambar) was also introduced and evidently liked the island as they multiplied to the point control was needed. Well guess what? Our names were drawn for the hunt in late November. We made plans and started getting ready. By the way it was an archery hunt and Bob was not an archer. He was going because he wanted to take his sail boat. Now Bob was a sailor. Kept his boat at Neff Seabreze house on Lake Door. We would pull the boat behind my little Datsun pick up.
Off we went on the hunting trip to St. Vincent’s Island. Arrived at Apalachicola, launched the boat. Bob deftly sailed down the channel and we were off to the island. He thought we could sleep in the boat, we had a jon boat to travel from the sail boat to shore. I believe we finally decided to set up a tent on land and left the boat anchored off shore. The island was a buzz for the famous archer/hunter Fred Bear was part of the hunt!! His ‘camp’ was somewhat isolated, but one could venture down to it. I never was able to meet him, but did see him in camp. The first morning I was in a tree stand (borrowed one from Bill Harding that lived down the road on the lake). It was starting to get cold and the wind was blowing. I did not see a deer or hog. Next morning back in the stand. Not sure what Bob did while I hunted. Same results on day two. That night the park rangers came by to tell us a huge cold front was rapidly approaching and we should leave in the morning! The next day everyone was packing up and by noon most had headed back to Apalachicola in their motor boats. We woke up to find the sail boat grounded! !t was cold and waves building. The wind had ‘pushed’ water out of the bay and the sail boat was not floating. What we to do? Bob had a plan. We got to the boat and he took the rope attached to the sail that went through the pulley on top of the mast. I got in the water and got as far away from the boat as the line would let me. It was off the sail and in my hand. I then pulled the mast down to get the keel off the bottom. Meanwhile Bob had tossed the anchor toward open water. Once the keel was off the bottom Bob could pull the boat to the anchor. We spent several hours until the boat would float. Now we had to bring camp to the boat! We finally had everything loaded in the boat and the jon boat.
At last we were ready to leave, but Bob decided it would be too dark to see the channel at the ramp (with a sail boat you can’t just drive to the dock – must work with the wind). So we wrapped up in all the warm gear we could find. We had the tree stand, my hunting boots and other items in the jon boat. It was cold and wind was howling from the Northwest. Bob has us anchored and ready to head out as soon it was light. Bob kept getting up during the night to check on everything. We had a thermometer outside. Around 4 am Bob woke me up and said “we have to go, the wind is pushing to open sea. It will be a little cool, the temperature is 13F”. He then proceeded to set the sail in such a way that only ½ was up (I think they called – reefing), this way we would not be subject to a big gust turning us over. We had plenty of wind, blowing right into our face!! This was bad news as it meant we could not just head to Apalachicola! Bob would get us fairly close to shore (I could see the cars headed down the road! Off we go into the bay as we ‘tacked’ up and down the bay getting closer and closer to the entrance channel. Of course we had a few other items to deal with during our journey to shore. The jon boat took on water and eventually went under. Tree stand to the bottom and I remember seeing my new boats floating out to sea! We got it floating and off we went. After spending all morning getting to shore, then heading out again to start all over again we finally were ready to head down the channel. I had the air horn to let anyone in channel to get out of our way – we had no breaks on the boat and very little room to head into the wind. Bob lined up perfectly and I only had to use the horn twice. Everyone watched in awe as Bob sailed down the middle of channel and suddenly dropped the sail and we coasted to the dock!! What a hunting trip. We loaded the boat and managed to get all gear stowed away. Now it was my turn to drive and off we went headed back to Altoona with a story to tell.
I experienced the death of a family member and friends before. Bob was not feeling well and started the process of finding out what was going on. The further he got in the journey I could see his level of concern increase. I think he finally realized it was a serious problem and tried to hide his concern from me. The day he received the news he had brain cancer arrived! I did know the results of the final test and went to see Bob at home. There were a number of cars at the house. Bob came out to meet me. He said ,“Have you heard the news?”. I replied I had not. He then told me the most catastrophic news I had ever heard. He was his normal composed person and reassured me he was going to fight it and trust his Lord to carry him through the ordeal. I do not remember much about the next couple of days. I know I could not go into the house to see his family. I cried and Bob held me. It took some time for me to deal with Bob as my friend, not someone I felt sorry for because he had a serious disease. Our friendship was even stronger. We did talk about his situation and he always demonstrated his strong faith in God and that no matter what happened he (Bob) would be taken care of. Do not know how long I was able to enjoy Bob before the day arrived for him to travel to his eternal home. I was asked to join the family for the graveside service. Simply overwhelmed with grief and Georgia was so comforting to me. The Memorial Service at the Umatilla Presbyterian Church was filled with all those folks Bob touched. His tractor drivers, young men that worked for him in the summer or fired groves, fellow employees at Golden Gem, growers, his church, pesticide salesmen and the list goes on. I can remember trying to sing the hymns as the tears streamed down my cheeks. I could close my eyes and ‘see’ him smiling at me and knew he was telling me he was in good hands. As one of my favorite quotes by Rumi says, “Goodbyes are only for those that love with their eyes. Because for those that love with their heart and soul there is no separation."
So true, I carry Bob with me in my heart. The lessons he taught by example, the good times we shared, the love of others he expressed and the special friendship we had that started with a field trial. Everyone should be as fortunate as I to have a Bob Klingbeil in their life.
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