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‘Big Freeze’ brings economic disaster

Ocala, FL - November 12, 2011

Published in the Ocala Star-Banner on Saturday, November 12, 2011

After the freeze of Dec. 27-28, 1894, Marion County began to experience warm, sunny weather. There was some light rain, flowers began to reappear and the sap was rising in the surviving citrus trees. Conditions were perfect to encourage trees to put out green sprouts.

The heavy plantings of lemon trees had been destroyed by the freezing weather. There was some damage to orange and grapefruit trees. Growers were optimistic that most of the trees would survive, with some pruning.

Then, sometime between midnight and daylight on the morning of Feb. 8, 1895, the temperature began to drop again. Down, down, down it went; nobody was sure just how low it actually got since there were different reports from various parts of the county.

Someone said the temperature dropped to 8 degrees in his grove.

It was so sudden, so unexpected, that few grove owners had made any preparations. There was no stopping the rising sap in the trees from freezing.

Trees simply began to explode.

One grove owner said it sounded like a shooting war in his grove at Citra as the trees split from the ice inside them. Groves all over the county looked like they had been hit by exploding bombs.

Total disaster
Until the freezes in late December and early February, Marion County had been one of the leading counties in the shipment of citrus fruit. The first freeze had destroyed some crops, but the second freeze spelled total disaster.

The effects of the freezes were statewide, but were felt strongest in Marion County because of its northerly location in what some called “the citrus belt.”

The economic losses in Marion County were devastating. They came at a time when business already had slowed down, and the nation itself was slipping into another of those regular economic depressions.

The price of phosphate had dropped, and some of the mines around the county were being closed. Tons of rock sat on railroad sidings, never loaded on rail cars because it was too expensive to ship. Also, a better quality of rock was being mined elsewhere.

Bank closes its doors for good
Banks that had over-extended themselves with investments in both citrus plantings and phosphate speculation found themselves in trouble. In less than two months after the second freeze, E.W. Agnew’s First National Bank at the corner of Magnolia and Broadway closed its doors for good.

There were a variety of reasons for the bank’s failure, including fraud; eventually, Agnew would go to jail for his role.

John Dunn’s Merchants National, at the corner of Main and Broadway, was seriously wounded, mostly because of Dunn’s speculation in phosphate. Dunn had died unexpectedly, but the bank seemed to be in sound hands — or so the public thought. Merchants Bank would last only two more years.

Agnew’s First National had been a major investor in building the cigar-making industry in West Ocala, an area that named itself Marti City. One manufacturer even put Agnew’s name on one of his popular-selling cigars that was sold nationwide, to honor the man who had seen the possibilities of the cigar industry.

With John Dunn dead, and Agnew in serious financial trouble, the cigar manufacturers no longer had the financial support they needed to import Cuban tobacco, pay workers and transport their products all over the county.

Slowly, one by one, the cigar factories at Marti City began to close, and Cuban exiles began to move southwest to Tampa and new cigar-making jobs at Ybor City. In less than three years, Marti City had grown into a thriving town; now it was slowly becoming a ghost town.

Freeze not only thing to blame
Eloise Ott, writing in “Ocali Country,” said the big freeze alone was not responsible for bringing economic disaster to Marion County.

“Economic isolation contributed in large measure to the Depression, the effects of which were to last many years,” she wrote.

She noted that Henry B. Plant had built a rail line from Jacksonville to Tampa, by way of Orlando, and Henry M. Flagler had extended his Florida East Coast Railroad south toward Miami, with Key West as his eventual goal. Both railroads bypassed Marion County.

The resulting promotion and land development from the Plant and Flagler moves “caused the main currents of Northern money ... to flow elsewhere.” At one time, all eyes were on Marion County’s economic success; now they looked for opportunity elsewhere in Florida.

Of course, Plant later would buy the Florida Southern, which passed through Ocala, and also take possession of the Silver Springs, Ocala and Gulf Railroad.

Ocala makes a comeback
Plant would make a significant investment in Ocala’s future. But these things were in the future. Ocala needed economic help now, and it wasn’t getting it.

The citrus industry would come back. New plantings in areas more suitable for groves would yield future crops and make a significant contribution to Marion County’s economic health. There would be other freezes, but growers fought back, struggling against nature, with a series of inventions designed to keep groves from freezing.

There would be frequent announcements of some new way to keep groves from freezing, from smudge pots to sprinkler systems. But Marion County would never regain its ascendant position in the state.

The focus of the citrus industry would move south, away from freezes.

New banks would open, and they would become landmarks of stability and economic success over the years. The Commercial Bank would replace Agnew’s old bank, occupying the same building. Munroe and Chambliss would move into the quarters of the Merchants National.

Ocala would even get a new railroad line to Silver Springs, but it would never amount to much. That work was begun before 1895 was over, but it would take almost two years to get it running.

Citra residents gather in a frozen orange grove after the January 1895 freeze that wiped out
the citrus industry in Marion County. A freeze in December already had destroyed most of the fruit.

 


An avid Marion County historian, David Cook is a retired editor of the Star-Banner.


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