Merritt Island pioneer saved citrus
An old orange tree thrives in the late 19th century at Douglas Dummett’s Merritt Island grove. Dummett, who is considered the “Father of Indian River Citrus,” is credited with saving the industry after the freeze of 1835.
Courtesy of Brevard County Historical Commission
Growing up in Brevard County, Michael Boonstra fondly remembers the heady fragrance that often would greet him during family outings.
“We would drive along U.S. 1 and I would roll down the windows to smell the orange blossoms, which were everywhere in Rockledge,” said Boonstra, a genealogy librarian/archivist at the Catherine Schweinsberg Rood Central Library and the Brevard Historical Commission.
Oranges once ruled Florida, and the sweet, sweet Indian River citrus was the supreme sovereign. Alas, those days of orange blossoms are long gone as the citrus industry, once a critical part of the county’s economy, has fallen prey to disease, development and competition from countries such as Brazil and China. Those two countries now lead the world in orange production.
Some of the packing houses still await dejectedly for the bulldozers since the once proud Space Coast orange industry is a shadow of its former self. In 1997, Florida produced more than 340 million boxes of oranges, each weighing a hefty 90 pounds or so. In the 2019-2020 season, Florida’s orange production is expected to total 72 million boxes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If accurate, it would represent a modest 2 to 3 percent increase from the previous year, but it is still far below the good, old days.
In Brevard, production has dropped by almost 90 percent. Things are extremely bad for local groves, but there is some consolation in the fact that growing oranges here never really was that easy, even in the good, old days.
Repeated freezes always have been problematic for growers. In 1835, when the temperature reached a low of 11 degrees and killed nearly every orange tree, Douglas Dummett, the “Father of Indian River Citrus,” saved the day with his grove. It was the first in the area and the only grove in the state that remained alive after the freeze.
His Merritt Island trees, sheltered by the warmer waters of the Indian River and strengthened by Dummett’s unique grafting techniques, survived the cold weather debacle. Seeds and cuttings from Dummett’s orange trees would be used to revive the orange industry in the rest of the state.
According to the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Dummett’s contribution to the industry did not stop with seeds and cuttings. He also invented “a new propagation technique by cutting wild sour orange trees down to a few feet from the ground and grafting buds of sweet orange trees onto the stumps.”
The technique accelerated the growing process and increased the hardiness of the trees.
Indian River citrus was so desirable that Russian czars ordered boxes of the liquid gold shipped to them. Eventually, growers from throughout Florida began borrowing the name as a marketing ploy. A lengthy legal battle ensued, with the result that the Indian River appellation is now only permitted for citrus grown in the thin 200-mile stretch between Daytona and West Palm Beach.
Like the grape growers in France’s champagne region, the Indian River citrus growers contend that the fruit of their labor cannot be found anywhere else.
Toward the end of his days, even Dummett seemed to have had his fill of the vagaries of growing citrus. The story goes that he said he “wouldn’t pick a damned orange if you give me two million dollars a minute.”
“While he may have been the “Father of Florida Citrus,” he apparently was pretty over it by the end of this life,” Boonstra said.