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Knowles and Company, Leesburg, FL
Sign sponsored by the Knowles Family
Fortunately, we have an excellent history for this leading Leesburg family. It is fascinating and thank the Knowles family for putting together their story.
Knowles & Co.
Growers and Shippers of Citrus fruits, watermelons, vegetables
William G. “WG” Knowles and his wife Mary moved to Lake County in the mid-1930s initially staying at the Lakeview Hotel in Leesburg. His business desire was to broker watermelons. Leesburg was the closest town to Okahumpka considered the watermelon capital of Florida. His background was in potato and produce brokering. He would soon have an opportunity to expand his business into a fresh fruit brokering market. This would permit him to pack citrus fruit for the northern U.S. markets. In November 1937 he purchased a citrus packing house including the field box and storage building in Leesburg from the Exchange Packing Company. The building was located on Highway 441 next to Minute Maid/ Cutrale on one side and Romac Lumber on the other side. There were several railroad spurs by the building to accommodate railroad cars to be loaded. Thus began Knowles & Co. citrus packing. Knowles & Co. was incorporated as a Florida Corporation in 1936.
WG Knowles’ journey to Leesburg to start Knowles & Co. had taken 52 years. He was born in Owensville Indiana in 1884. Farming was the main profession during those days and is where he got his first exposure to agriculture. Travel was by horse and buggy. When he started school there was no school house. His home was heated by a pot belly stove that burned coal. There was no running water, no television, no radio, no cars, and no telephones. People lived most of their lives on the farm. WG Knowles discovered that brokering potatoes and produce could help him become more of a successful business man. By the 1920s he was married with 3 children living in Fargo North Dakota working as a produce broker. The Great Depression hit in 1929 and overnight would devastate him financially. He was left with not much more than a Model A Ford. Commenting to his wife he said,” Mary, we don’t have any money and we’re moving to Florida. We might starve to death in Florida but we’re not going to freeze to death in North Dakota.” Mary packed up what she could and then swept and dusted the house. She wanted the next visitors to the house to know she was a good housekeeper. WG was 45 years old and would have to start over in business. They first chose to start off in Live Oak Florida where they lived in a rented home. His business was a swap shop, where he traded and sold used sewing machines, shot guns, and produce. It would be an important first step to pick up from the financial devastation of the depression. When WG was asked what he attributed his business ability and insight to, he replied it was his education, and what he learned in 8th grade. “Those were the best 3 years of my schooling”, he joked, because that’s where his schooling had ended. WG commented about the early days of buying Florida property during the depression. At that time, a dollar went a long way. “A dollar was as big as a bed sheet”.
Knowles & Co. would become a family business. WG & Mary had 3 sons—Tim, Hal, and Joe. Each son would have an opportunity to become a minority stockholder in the company. Tim and Joe worked for the company. Hal was a medical doctor and did not work for the company. The bookkeeper was I. B. English and he too had stock in the company. By 1941 John B. Cancelmo would form a financial partnership with Knowles & Co and become a stockholder in the company. The agreement permitted Knowles & Co. to buy property, plant and maintain orange groves in the Yalaha and Okahumpka area. Local banks were not making agricultural loans at the time. John B. Cancelmo Company was a carlot distributor of fruits and vegetables located on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Mr. Cancelmo brokered much of the Knowles & Co. fruit over the years. Produce would be shipped to the Philadelphia and Boston area. Citrus fruit would be picked, shipped by train rail and marketed in the northern markets. Each segment of that journey had risks and cost factors that would either make or break a profit. Citrus tree killing freezes would also be costly and take time to replant. A family member described the profits for the company as some years making money, some years losing money while some years fortunate enough to break even. During the 1950s and 1960s grove irrigation was not available. This would create problems during times of summer droughts and winter freezes. The Knowles & Co. stockholders would be paid dividends each year if the company made a profit. There were no cell phones or company two way radios during that time. Communicating with other companies occurred by a Knowles & Co. office phone or a public pay telephone located in a community area. Much of the important communications was handled by letter and was conveyed on company letterhead stationary. The business letterhead of the time was rather fancy and included information that filled the top third section of a letter.
WG Knowles untimely death occurred in 1956. He was 72 years old. WG and Mary had just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary that year. He had been very active in the company’s business leading up to his death. This left a big void for his wife, sons and business associates. It was decided that Tim Knowles would become President of the company, Joe Knowles became Vice President and I.B. English became Secretary. Under the terms of the Will the company would be operated for the benefit of his wife Mary. The company was managed by Tim and Joe Knowles who would insure that this would occur. Mary Knowles was called Mawmaw by her grandchildren. She died in 1974. Knowles & Co. would close later in the 1970s. Mr. Cancelmo was repaid for the loans he had made and relinquished his stock in the company.
Knowles & Co. registered 4 labels for fresh citrus shipping with the Florida Citrus Commission. The labels would be attached to the outside end of the packed citrus boxes to be shipped. Those labels were Kay-Cee, Irish Castle, Seven Thirty, and Sun Fish. Sun Fish was a USDA grade No. 2 fruit while the other labels were for USDA grade No. 1. The Irish Castle label was the most attractive and the company ordered 25,000 6 ¼ by 6 ¼ labels from Florida Grower Press in 1965. But the Irish Castle was not the most popular label the company had. The company ordered 100,000 Kay-Cee labels in 1961. Mary Knowles was fond of Irish Castles and the label was designed with the help of her son Joe. This was while he was at Rollins College in the early 1940s and prior to his enlistment in the Army Air Corp during WW II. Later revisions were made when a new printing company was selected. A Leesburg resident reported that as a US Military GI during WW II, he traveled through a port city in Belgium. While in Belgium he saw at the wharf a number of pallets of Knowles & Co. citrus with those labels on the end of each box.
A processing agreement with Minute Maid Corporation showed that Knowles & Co. would deliver 25,000 boxes of early and mid season fruit and 10,000 boxes of valencias in 1954. During the last 9 years (1965-1973) of Knowles & Co. the company contracted with Golden Gem Growers to deliver fruit. The numbers ranged from 68,500 boxes in 1967 to a high of 115,000 boxes in 1968. The contract agreement promised varieties of early and midseason oranges, Valencia oranges, tangerines, grapefruit and temple oranges. When a packing house got a really big order it might ask a neighbor packinghouse to help complete an order. Naturally if they asked for help packing their fruit, they wanted their label on the box. Not a problem. They would send a case of their labels to Knowles & Company. Over the course of thirty or forty years Knowles & Company may have had labels from half of the packing houses in Florida in addition to their own. During the 1960s economics of scale closed many of the old packing houses, including one doing a million cases per year. In 1968 Knowles & Co. would close their packinghouse. Joe Knowles asked his oldest son to sweep out the packing house and throw away all the old labels, two pickup trucks of old labels. They were worthless then. If only we had known then what we know today about citrus label collecting and values.
Over the years Knowles & Co. sold juice fruit to Minute Maid, Grand Island Citrus Cooperative and Golden Gem Growers. Local business partners at the time were Tweedle Oil Company, Leesburg Tire & Battery, Prescott Tractor, Foremost Fertilizer, Inland Equipment Company, Mid-Florida Gas Company, Florida Grower Press, Atlantic Coast Line Railroad and Leesburg Welding & Machine. Each of these companies had a number of employees that benefited from the work generated by the citrus industry.
During the time Knowles & Co. existed they had several hundred employees. 1967 records showed 56 people worked for the packing house. Some employees worked their entire career for the company and retired. While others worked there until they were able to locate a better job when one was available. WG Knowles’ grandson worked for a local bank in the 1980s. He came into contact with a number of people connected to the Knowles & Co. packing house. They would share stories of their history with the company. These folks were a cross section of the local community and had either been employed there themselves or had a relative that worked there. Working in the citrus industry was hard work with hot summer days. Some of them had known WG Knowles while others knew Tim & Joe Knowles as the “Packinghouse Knowles”. One man came in with a social security card that had Knowles & Co printed on it. It was customary to put the name of the company a person worked for when the card was issued. This person went on to get a better job in the community and eventually served on a local bank board.
When the Knowles & Company packinghouse was closed the huge old growth pine beams were taken down and sawed into smaller lumber. The saw mill had not seen wood like this for 75 years. They made Joe Knowles guarantee the saw blade before they would cut the wood . The old growth pine was much harder than the wood grown today. Knowles & Company’s packing house never had a fire. It completely disappeared into new marvelous old growth pine lumber.
Other Knowles and Company Labels
View the Jim Ellis collection
Most packers had several labels they could use. The primary color of the label indicated the grade of the citrus in the box. Blue was US #1, the best quality from the packer. Red was US #2, a step down and occasionally another color was used for fruit not making US#1 or US #2. It should be noted that almost all the Florida fruit that did not meet US#1 standard was due to external appearance. The internal quality was the same! Florida conditions, namely a hot wet summer, produced a large number of pests that would damage the surface of the fruit. The primary one is very small mite, specifically the rust mite. This pest can produce a dark brown or russet blemish on the surface of the fruit. Several fungal organisms also can cause damage to the peal. Melanose produces small raised spots producing a fine “sand paper’ feel. When heavy these lesions can cover a large portion of the fruit surface as well. Windy conditions during spring when the fruit are small cause surface damage as well (this is known as wind scar – the small fruit would rub against leaves producing a superficial blemish to the peel).
Florida growers have to deal with these superficial blemishes because the consumer is looking for a perfect looking piece of fruit. Sugar content can not be determined by looking the fruit, so don’t be quick to decide that if an orange is not perfect on the outside that does not mean it will not taste good. Florida citrus might not be the prettiest in the bin, but they can not be beat for taste.
Other Packing Houses in the City
Lake County Citrus Sales
To learn more about Lake County citrus click here
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