It was reported that early Spanish explorers began orange groves near St. Augustine between 1513 and 1565. Florida became known as a major source of the rich orange fruit and grapefruit in great demand in northern cities during the 20th century. Following the Civil War, Florida’s fruit production grew without apparent end growing to well over 200 million boxes of fruit.
In 1895 a big freeze hit Florida turning its rich orange groves into dead, dried trees.
An Illinois farmer and entrepreneur Mr. Theodore Strawn had the vision to turn a disaster into an opportunity. He had visited Florida in the early 1880s to visit his father and mother who had settled in DeLeon Sprints (then called Spring Garden) Theodore Strawn had faith in Florida agriculture. He operated a grain growing farm in Illinois and was familiar with farming.
He made a plan to buy up the frozen and damaged orange growing properties, replanting the citrus groves. He applied the latest scientific methods. Through careful fertilization and cultivation he brought his groves back into production, a model of citrus growth. His citrus packing operation began around 1909. He established his own “Bob White” Brand based around the Illinois quail he loved to hunt. Initially, he worked from a small tent moving from grove to grove boxing oranges for shipment. In 1912 he financed the construction of a two-story packing house near the Deleon Springs railroad depot. By 1915 Bob White was a major brand.
He cultivated nearly 100 acres of groves and shipped nearly 20,000 boxes of oranges annually.
Mules and wagons were used to transport oranges to his packing house. His Illinois farm sent feed grain to his granary located near the mule barn. A bell on top of another barn called workers to the barn for their daily assignments.
Between 1935 and 1941 new buildings were added including wood frame worker’s dwellings. The Bob White orange brand was now well known.
Florida citrus growers had always faced disease, freezes, and hurricanes, but the Strawn business prospered for almost 100 years. The modern packing and sorting house had the most advanced equipment, conveyors and sorters to feed the demand of Chicago and New York for the wonderful Bob White brand oranges.
John Strawn became active in the business in 1951. Some mules were still retained although the latest model tractors now moved the wagons, loaded with oranges to the packing house. The Strawn business offered employment to many local residents and also the seasonal pickers and workers who harvested and sorted the rich crops.
It ended on Christmas of 1983. A fierce Arctic freeze came into Florida. Temperatures fell and stayed well below the survival point for orange trees. The groves were dead. Soon growers decided to move to warmer Southern Florida where the risk of the freeze would be less. There were no longer oranges for the efficient Strawn packing house. The business, once a model for Florida Agriculture had to close. Buildings stood empty and were raided by vandals.
A news article in 2008 reported how John Strawn once threw the power switch for one last time to watch the belts whirr and pulleys move, and the conveyors move looking for their boxes of oranges that would never again come. He pulled the switch again and for the last time and an era was ended.
The Florida Agricultural Museum recognizing that these structures were a vanishing part of early Florida history applied for a grant to the Division of Historical Resources. The grant was to move, stabilize and preserve key historic structures of the Strawn complex. The buildings were donated to the museum by David Strawn of DeLeon Springs. Five structures were moved some 60 miles to the museum. They required much work by volunteers to stabilize, paint and restore to their original condition. Today they represent a saved piece of the early Florida Citrus Industry, a record of hard work and planning by an early pioneer of the vast industry in Florida today. Much research in paint colors, roofing and construction were made to keep the aura of this business. Now a pet donkey wanders the mule barn enclosing looking for handouts and keeping alive the names once are written on the barn walls of the mules that so long ago did their work here. Horses are still stabled in the still functional barn with its feeder shafts and water trough from the original Strawn complex. Much research and work were needed to restore these structures to their original operational condition. Labor was done by volunteer workers.
Walkthrough an era of Florida Agriculture 1918 – 1983
Begin at the worker’s cottage. A duplex built in the mid-1920s to house seasonal laborers. It is one and a half stories in height has a gable roof with an integrated front porch and brick chimney. There are knee braces in the gable ends and a small shed porch at the rear of the structure. The two main entrances at the front of the house define its duplex characters. The windows have double-hung sashes with 6/6 lights. This is “Florida style” construction and the same could be viewed on hundreds of farms throughout Florida’s growing districts. It is currently being used as an office by the Museum staff and also offers information on Museum tours and features.
The Second Duplex house is fitted with items from the 1920 era and shows what a seasonal laborer and his family may have viewed working on the Strawn farm.
See what life may have been like for the African American workers who worked with their families on this farm.
The Bell Barn contains the tools and equipment to keep the large farm running. It still holds much the same as the Museum uses it to restore and rebuild tractors and wagons.
The Bell Barn is a two-story structure with a gable roof covered with crimped metal sheeting. It has a short bell tower located near the gable end. An 1880 era bell is installed and is operational in the tower. Large sliding wood doors provide access to the interior. The bell once called workers to assemble at the barn at the beginning of each workday, and announced quitting time and day’s end to laborers in the surrounding fields. Often museum volunteers are at interesting work re-building tractors, wagons and farm equipment in this barn which in essence is being used for its original purpose.
The Mule Barn is a two and a half story structure with a large gable roof. The exterior walls feature vertical board-and-batten siding on the first story and drop siding on the walls above. Knee braces are found in the gable ends of the buildings and a large ventilator stands astride the roof ridge.
The fencing, and enclosures for animals are in agreement with those used on the original farm. Here the working mules were fed and cared for at the end of their workday in the orange production.
The feed delivery chutes are still functional for the animals that live in the mule barn keeping alive a long tradition of animal husbandry in the mule barn
In the tack room of the Mule Barn, you can still see the names of the long-vanished working mules of the farm. Kate is still clear in chalk. Tags give the names of the present residents of the barn.
The watering trough, fences, and other animal enclosures are those from the original Strawn farm and appear as they would have in the 1920 era when the working mules and horses occupy this barn and its yard.
The nearby Granary building is a small one-store barn with drop siding on the exterior walls and has a large ventilator on the roof ridge. The building has no windows but has louvered vents along the side elevations to provide interior ventilation.
Not corrected or approved by Ag Museum