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The story of a dynamic industry that dominated Lake County for more than 125 years
Simpson Fruit Company, Mount Dora, Florida
Sign sponsor– Simpson Fruit Company
On August 10, 1874 David and Mary Vann Simpson took possession of 160-acre homestead on the East side of Lake Dora. The next year David’s dad, Milton, filed for another 160-acre homestead not far from his son’s. On May 31, 1878 the first white male child born in Mount Dora arrives – James Warren Simpson.
The family is involved in agriculture, especially citrus. James loved growing citrus. He worked for Col Norton in his nursery and became familiar with growers, especially nursery owners, in California.
When he was just 16 years old Florida experienced a disastrous freeze. Critical temperatures on Dec 1894 and Feb 1895 killed most of the citrus trees in Lake County including those on the Simpson property in Mount Dora. David Simpson decided it was time to make a change and he opened a sawmill. James did not loose his love for and confidence in citrus. He traveled to California and purchased budwood from his contacts and returned to Mount Dora determined to be successful in citrus. In 1900 he purchased a grove care business from G. N. Patterson.
His first packing operation took place in a tent across the street from his house at the corner of Donnelly and 8th Street. He once again traveled to California to study the handling and packing of citrus. He returned to Mount Dora with packing equipment purchased there. He constructed a packing house at 3rd Ave and Donnelly at the railroad.
James W. Simpson was a highly successful grower, caretaker of groves, fresh fruit packer, innovator in the industry, and respected citrus leader. How he found time to be a City Councilman, have a dairy, serve on the Public School board in Mount Dora, have a newspaper, help start the Chamber of Commerce, be a Mason, Shriner and Kiwanian.
He was also a banker! This article is from a publication on the top ten architectural buildings in Mount Dora. “This building (original bank) was built for the Mount Dora Bank and Trust Co. James Simpson, the president of the bank, purchased the lot from the Whitneys and their daughter Edna Cowles. Their house was moved to McDonald and 12th Avenue, and was just torn down in the 1980’s. Mr. Simpson started the bank in September 1925 in one story building immediately south of the two-story brick building. The small building still exists although it is obscured. The bank building was constructed from July 1925 to March 1926 under the supervision of Mr. Simpson. The famous Florida Architect Gamble Rodgers was the architect. The building cost $30,000 to build, excluding the cost of the land. The interior featured a 22 foot high ceiling and a marble wainscoting with a marble floor. The business counter and partitions were of Alabama marble. The tellers’ cages were bronze with grilles. A staircase in the rear lead to the mezzanine that contained the directors’ room had a mahogany base, chair rail and doors. Ladies had a private room to do their banking in, and a reception room done in marble with a glass topped marble desk. The New York Safe and Lock Co. vault contained 300 safe deposit boxes and hexogon tile floor. James Simpson was president, L.R. Heim, a ball bearing manufacturer from Danbury, Conn., and the developer of Sylvan Shores was a vice-president. Al Rehbaum, Sr. owner of Rehbaum and Crane furniture store and the hardware store, and president of the Chamber of Commerce, was also a vice-president. In 1927 the bank was permitted to convert from a state bank into a national bank and changed its name to the First National Bank of Mount Dora. George White, Sr., an officer at the Federal Reserve Bank in Jacksonville came to serve as executive vice-president that year. He became president in 1936 and served continuously until his son George White, Jr., became president.
Mr. Simpson and G. N. Patterson had an ice company to keep Mount Dora cool. In his history of Mount Dora, Dick Edgerton noted the Simpson's built a house at Donnelly Street and the old Eustis Rode. He also relates several stories and memories about ‘Jimmy”. Dick’s dad and Jimmy were friends. Simpson looked after the Edgerton groves. They decided to install an irrigation system.
“Together father and Jimmy Simpson made a good pair. On one occasion they cooked up an irrigation system for our grove. A vertical Coatesville boiler, steam engine and pump were shipped down from Pennsylvania and set up in a pump house at the lake’s edge. I was present at the tryouts and can still see Jimmy, in my mind’s eye, running toward us through streams of man-made rain, laughing and shouting like a schoolboy – ‘Oh Charles, it works, it works!’ – and it did work beautifully. Father Edgerton had designed a special sprinkler head which was very efficient. Father used brass to withstand corrosion but he forgot that galvanized iron piping was not immune to rust. On one cold night the next winter, Jimmy rushed out to start the sprinklers, working on the premise that warm lake water sprayed on the trees might prevent some freezing. In a heart broken little note, Jimmy advised my father that the sand and rust plugged every sprinkler head and the system was useless! For father the sad story had a happy ending. The first World War came along and the price of used pipe became stratospheric. Father sold the pipe and equipment for enough to turn a handsome profit on the deal!”
It should be noted that during the freeze of 1962 growers tried to protect their trees with sprinklers, like Jimmy wanted to do. The result was a tremendous build up so much ice the trees broke apart and were killed! Jimmy was fortunate he could not turn on the system!! Also, it should be noted that Jimmy’s great grandson spent many hours cleaning sprinklers that were on galvanized pipe for the Simpsons installed sprinkler irrigation systems in their groves. It was not a job young Mr. Simpson enjoyed!
Bob Simpson, grandson of James Warren commented that his grandfather loved to work in the 'groves'. If the weather allowed, Mr. Jimmy would be hoeing trees early in the morning and later in the afternoon. Bob says his grandfather wore an old Stetson had with a 3 inch sweat stain as he worked. Dixie Royal, long time grower from Umatilla remembers stopping by to visit with Mr. Jimmy on a hot summer afternoon. Mr. Simpson told Dixie the hoe was his golf club! He would rather be in the grove than on the golf course. One other note from Bob. He says his grandfather wrote the Mount Dora city charter and the hand written copy hung in the city clerk's office for many years. We are trying to track it down and will have a copy on the site when we do.
Simpson Fruit Company still operates in Mount Dora. Mr. Jim passed the business to his son Howard James Simpson that ran the company for many years. His son, H. James Simpson, Jr. returned from getting his degree at the University of Florida in Citrus Production in 1964 and worked side by side with his father. To learn more about H. James Simpson, Jr. check out his story from the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame website as he is a member! By then the packinghouse was gone and the Simpson’s looked after a few groves beside their own. The acreage grew to around 700 acres in the Mount Dora area. New Hwy 441 went through the middle of their groves north of town.
The freezes of 1983, ‘85 and ’89 did serious damage to the Simpson’s groves. Howard and Jim made some difficult decisions. They sold some of the property which was now in a very desirable location as the City of Mount Dora ‘moved’ northward. They were then able to replant the existing grove land in Mount Dora and purchase additional acreage south of Howey, west of Eustis and south of Tavares. Jim put together a temporary citrus nursery and grew many of the trees he used to replant damaged groves.
Most of the groves are still in place even though a disease, ‘greening’ is making it a challenge to grow citrus profitably. The 5th generation Simpson, H. James, III is now president of Simpson Fruit Company. His mom, Anita, Uncle Bob and sister Lisa are still in the citrus business. James Warren is wondering how long they can hang in there!! It has been 140 years that the Simpsons have been growing citrus in Mount Dora. What a legacy!
Other Simpson Fruit Company Labels
View the Jerry Chicone collection
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.
The Packing House
Located at 3rd Ave and Donnelly Street by railroad.
To learn more about Lake County citrus click here
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