Polk County’s “Big Freeze” of 1894

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Frozen citrus trees, Bartow, FL | Photo via Florida Memory

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December in Florida means one of two things: it’s either going to be really hot or really cold. However the weather, Lakelanders back in 1894 never expected the “Big Freeze.”

On December 29, 1894, four days after Christmas, citrus growers awoke to a freeze, merely days after a routine 85-degree morning, in typical Florida fashion.

While the first, 20-degree freeze was detrimental, a second freeze on Feb. 8, 1895, was catastrophic — dropping to an uncharacteristically cold 18-degrees, wiping out nearly 90% of the trees in a handful of Central Florida groves. Some trees even split open, sending loud crackling noises across the farms, startling residents.

Luckily for Lakeland, these freezes had a silver lining. While the surrounding area was negatively impacted, northern counties were far worse, leaving many farmers coming south to the Greater Lakeland area.

Fast forward to 1935, the Federal State Agricultural Weather Service (aka the Federal-State Horticultural Protection Service) was created, along with the Florida Citrus Commission, benefitting growers in Swan City and beyond.

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The first Florida Citrus Commission, circa 1935 | Photo via Florida Memory

This led to a Federal-State Frost Warning Service, established specifically for citrus growers with headquarters in Winter Haven, Orlando, Wauchula, and Bradenton. The forecasting unit was located inside Lakeland’s City Hall until 1975 when the operation was relocated as a part of the National Weather Service.

Today, Polk County is an epicenter for Florida citrus — one of the biggest agricultural industries in the state. So much so, that multiple citrus label tours exist around Florida, with one available right here in Polk County.

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Citrus Label Tour site map | Screenshot via Polk County

The driving tour allows visitors to hunt for citrus label markers that were once plastered to fruit-filled crates. Find three in Lakeland at Tigertown Complex (2220 N. Lake Ave.), Florida Southern College, (on the corner of Frank Lloyd Wright Way & Johnson Avenue), and the Florida Air Museum (4175 Medulla Rd.).

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