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St. John's Orange Groves

A Town in the Orange Groves

In springtime, in the old days, ships at sea could always tell when they were off St. Augustine because a delicious fragrance of orange blossoms drifted out to sea.

Orange culture, started by the Spaniards and highly developed during the English occupation of Florida, had made the little town almost one continuous grove. The trees were the ornament and wealth of old St. Augustine. They encircled the little white houses in green and helped to maintain their owners in comfort. Almost every home had its orange trees, sometimes planted so close together they nearly shut out the sun. The air was aromatic with the scent of the leaves and the golden fruit, and in spring the odor of the blossoms was almost overpowering.

Nurseries also flourished to supply the demand for young trees as new groves were planted along the shores of the St. Johns. Many Minorcan families had eight or ten trees and sold the fruit, worth $1 to $3 per hundred, to buy little luxuries in the city's stores.

In the early 1800's it was estimated that between 2,000,000 and 2,500,000 oranges were exported from St. Augustine and the surrounding area. Most trees bore about 2,000 oranges, but one belonging to A. Alvarez was laden with 6,500, and a giant in the Plaza bore 12,000 golden orbs in just one season. Sailing ships filled the little harbor to carry the harvest north and as many as 20 sloops could be counted in port at one time during the busy season.

But it all ended.

Freezes were not unknown, of course. In 1765 it is recorded that the thermometer dropped to 26 degrees, and in 1774 a snowstorm blanketed the area startling the inhabitants who thought it was extraordinary white rain.

But in 1835 real disaster struck. For ten days a bitter wind blew from the northwest freezing the St. Johns River many yards from the shore. One night the mercury stood at seven degrees above zero. St. Augustine's beautiful groves were ruined, the trees killed to the very roots. When the wind stopped, in place of the lovely green, there were only bare branches and ragged bark. But it wasn't quite over. The trees sprouted back from the roots and as the century neared its end, the groves were booming again.

But in December 1894 there was another really devastating freeze. It did not quite kill the trees, but winter wasn't over, and in February a four day cold wave swept in. This time the leaves and fruit fell to the ground and the bark split wide open. It was the final blow. Commercial orange culture along the upper St. Johns River never recovered from the freeze of 1894 -95, and the industry moved farther south to the hill country in the middle of the state now accessible with the coming of the railroads.

Plantation of Jesse Fish

Jesse Fish

One of the first highly developed plantations in Florida was within sight of St. Augustine. It was the internationally famous El Vergel (The Garden) on Fish Island, named after its owner, a shadowy figure about whose true character very little can be ascertained. All that remains of this 10,000 acre estate today is the tomb of its master, Jesse Fish, and some stone work, which is believed to be the foundations of a guardhouse built on the east side of the plantation, which is separated from Anastasia Island by a marshy creek.

Fish came to St. Augustine as a young boy and was raised in the Herrera family. He learned to speak fluent Spanish and became more Spanish than American in outlook. When he grew up, he was made agent for an American firm, Walton and Company of New York, which supplied the garrison in St. Augustine.

Then in 1763, the British took over Florida and the old Spanish families left for Havana, many of them choosing to leave the sale of their property to the newcomers from England in the hands of Jesse Fish, who stayed in St. Augustine. At any rate, when the British occupation ended and the Spanish returned in 1783, many of them found their property enmeshed in a tangle of claims and counterclaims.

Was this Jesse Fish's fault? In a petition written to the King of Spain shortly before his death he says that he turned the management of the property left in his hands over to a relative and "afflicted by separations and domestic intelicities, I retired to my actual habitation on the Island of Santa Anastasia." It seems an odd way for a good business man to act but then, as Fish also points out in the petition, he did not flee when the Spaniards returned as a guilty man might have been expected to do. In an unsigned document (possibly a draft of a letter) dated the same year as Fish's petition (1789), the domestic problems he alludes to are described as the behavior of his young wife, a good-looking girl, much his junior, whose actions were so wild as to drive her husband into seclusion.

At any rate, El Vergel was a model plantation where careful methods of handling and processing the crop were worked out and practiced. Instead of tossing the harvested oranges into a two bushel sack, thus crushing those at the bottom, El Vergel oranges were lovingly picked by one man in the tree and handed to another on the ground, who placed them carefully into barrels. If the fruit was intended for overseas shipment, it was first dried for a day or two indoors in a well-ventilated barn and then each orange was individually wrapped in papers before packing.

Jesse Fish loved to give people presents from the plantation, and on one occasion sent 1,000 prime oranges to some American prisoners in St. Augustine. They were influential citizens of Charleston who had been arrested by the British as rebels and sent here for safekeeping. But the South Carolinians never got a chance to thank Jesse Fish, because no visitors were permitted on Fish Island.

In a letter written by George F. Clarke of St. Augustine in 1830 and published in the Southern Agriculturist, El Vergel's strides in citrus culture are described and its owner characterized as "highly respected for his information, his practical philosophy, his philanthropy and wealth; who 70 odd years ago possessed in this country half a million dollars in property and planted with his own hands and cultivated to his death in 1790 the far-famed grove of El Vergel."

Jesse Fish's son continued to operate the plantation after his father's death, but today it has reverted to its primitive state, and the Garden is covered with tangled vines and scrub.

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