Polk County’s “Big Freeze” of 1894

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.


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

Lakelanders typically expect temperatures in December to dip, and while we’re having a very mild winter so far, that was not the case back in 1894 when Swan City woke up to 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. Temperatures dropped 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.

General Collection

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

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.

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.


Citrus Label Tour site map | Screenshot via Polk County

Want to learn more about Polk’s citrus industry? Multiple citrus label tours exist around Florida, with one available right here in Polk County.

Take the driving tour 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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