Triumphs are now far and few for Sullivan Victory Groves
Once one of the top citrus packing houses in Brevard County, the Sullivan Victory Groves building now sits abandoned.
Courtesy of Brevard County Historical Commission
Among oranges, Indian River citrus has long stood as the best in the state. Orange growers cherish the appellation with the same admiration that California wine makers bestow upon the grapes from Napa Valley.
In this crème de la crème part of the citrus industry, the name Sullivan stands among the owners of the top packing houses and citrus groves in Brevard County.
Now 83, Frank Sullivan remains deeply committed to the family business, although victories are now far and few for the once prominent Sullivan Victory Groves. In its heyday, the company sold thousands upon thousands of boxes of oranges both commercially to the orange juice plants as well as to the retail customers from around the world who wanted to taste the liquid gold harvested from the hundreds of acres the family owned, primarily on Merritt Island. Those days are long gone.
“Gift shipping is the only thing we do these days,” Sullivan said.
Cattle now graze on the remaining 20 acres Sullivan owns. The oranges the company ships come from Indian River County, not Brevard, because, well, there are just not that many orange trees left on the Space Coast. The Roberts family still farms a grove up at the northern edge of the county in Scottsmoor, but the other groves are, for the most part, gone.
The death knell for Brevard’s orange industry was first rung by an unlikely source — 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 land in the country.
“They bought out all the original owners and they let them lease it back for I think three or five years,” said Sullivan, whose family leased back 850 acres to continue growing oranges.
When the Department of the Interior eventually took over the grounds, they told growers that only native vegetation would be tolerated on government property.
“Citrus only came over in the 1400s, so they told us “we’re going to get rid of this, we don’t want this non-native plant,” Sullivan said.
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 trees except for Dummett’s, which survived thanks to the warm waters of the Indian River encircling them.
“It took about 50 years, but there’s not a tree up there,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan’s grandfather, Felix D’Albora, was a growers’ representative in New York, the liaison between the farmers and the buyers who would bid for oranges in fast-paced auctions. During the summers, when the fruit was ripening, D’Albora would lend the growers money to tie them over until harvest. With the Depression, D’Albora the lender found that many could only pay him in packing houses, which is why he ended up with three of these.
“He closed the one in Mims and another one near Sanford and kept the one in Cocoa,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan’s uncle, Jack D’Albora, moved to Brevard to work the business and Sullivan’s parents, Frank Jr. and Molly, followed in 1935. The family later acquired Victory Groves from the Whaley family, and thus the name Sullivan Victory Groves came to be.
The 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.
“That was the beginning of the end,” Sullivan said.
Canker, which rendered oranges unusable for eating but still viable for juice, plus greening, which prevented the fruit from ever ripening, added more obstacles.
In 1991, Sullivan Groves closed its Brevard packing house and turned to mail order sales. Yet, despite the setbacks, Sullivan still holds hope for orange blossoms to once again fill the air in Brevard with its intoxicating scent.