This year’s unseasonably warm winter will likely go down in the record books as one of the warmest we’ve had.
And, anyone who has lived in Florida knows from summer to winter our weather can drastically change — something to which most of us have grown accustomed.
However, these drastic changes in weather often had severe consequences to our early pioneers, and during the winter of 1894-1895, these consequences were witnessed first-hand during Florida’s Great Freeze.
Fruit was frozen on the trees, farmers lost their crops, and land values plummeted — it would take years for an economic recovery following this devastating freeze.
December 29, 1894 — The First Front
The first severe cold weather event of Florida’s Great Freeze swept over the state on December 29, 1894. By midnight, December 30, 1895, the devastating impacts were being felt.
According to the Times- Picayune, temperatures in Florida were the lowest they had been since 1835 and were only 1 degree lower then the freeze of January 11, 1886.
Throughout the Tampa Bay region and in Pasco County, temperatures averaged 19 degrees. And, with the exception of Key West, there wasn’t a location in the state that got above 26 degrees — no one was able to escape the cold’s death grip.
Measurable snow fall was recorded in downtown Tampa, Quincy, Titusville and other points throughout. Reports indicate that “in many of the ponds and lakes in South Florida, the ice [was] half inch thick and at Tampa, the bay skimmed over for nearly thirty yards from the shore.”
In Lake City, Florida, an unknown white man was found by the roadside in a dying condition, and a black man reportedly froze to death.
And, with no prevailing winds it was downright cold. At 3 p.m. thermometers throughout Florida still hung at an average of 32 degrees.
However, with a greater agrarian population, the impacts of the Great Freeze of 1894-1895 were much greater then those previously witnessed and entire farming communities suffered losses.
Young orange groves from one to four years old were undoubtedly ruined, while the winter crops of tomatoes, eggplant, cabbage, lettuce, turnips, pineapples and other vegetables were killed outright.
According to State newspaper, with an estimated 2.5 million boxes of oranges still on the trees, the fruit was frozen solid. Estimated losses were $2 million with another $500,000 lost by the transportation companies in freight.
Many growers held the Weather Bureau responsible for inadequate warnings of the eminent freeze, which if timely enough would have allowed time for fruit to be picked.
According to the Charlotte Observer, warnings arrived to Jacksonville on December 29, 1895 at 10 o’clock, but only indicated a frost in eastern Florida, the orange growing section, and a cold wave for west Florida.
While this warning came only five hours before temperatures reached 27 degrees, many farmers didn’t take action simply because they thought their crops could bear the forecasted frost.
But, there was a small glimmer of hope, and all wasn’t lost. While fruit and younger trees were ruined, many of the older, better rooted trees reportedly survived and only seemed to thrive after the frigid cold snap.
And as the weather quickly warmed following the front, by February 1895, reports were coming in that many of the older trees were bearing new growth and, in some cases, new blooms.
For an instance it looked like things would rebound and the growers thought they had escaped the worst.
However, the worst was yet to come.
February 7-9, 1895 — The Second Blast of Arctic Air
As if one disastrous winter storm wasn’t enough, on February 7, 1895, the thermometers dipped again during a second, more devastating, arctic blast that swept the state.
According to the Times-Picayune, on February 7, 1895, the mercury began to drop again and for forty-two hours didn’t come above freezing.
Here in Pasco County, even with the advantages of the warm Gulf breeze, temperatures dipped down to 28 degrees on the west coast and an unprecedented snow fall was recorded in Anclote.
According to Pioneer College, at St. Leo, the county’s interior temperatures dropped even further and was recorded at 16.8 degrees.
On February 8, 1895, the second day of the cold blast, the Sioux City Journal reported that Palm Beach and Lake Worth were the warmest communities in the entire United States with a reported temperature of 35 degrees.
But, it was much more then the temperatures that made the second freeze a significant event — it was the complete and utter loss.
According to Plain Dealer newspaper, it wasn’t just a loss of fruit and instead was the devastation of the trees, which were made more vulnerable by the first freeze in December.
Those older, better rooted trees that had survived the first event were severely damaged and in many cases the bark split from the tree as sap froze. The prospects of having a good crop were lost.
When it was all said and done, aggregated losses were expected to reach $15 million.
And, according to Cyclopedia of American Horticulture, after the freeze, orange production in the state plummeted to just 100,000 boxes.
But, damages went well beyond the losses of groves and production numbers as land prices also plummeted.
According to Type Studies from the Geography of the United States, citrus lands dropped from $1,000-an acre prefreeze price to a mere $10 an acre after the freeze, and many compared the economic effects of Florida’s freeze to that of the Great Fire in Chicago.
With all hope lost, many simply gave up on Florida and headed back north.
According to History of Pasco County Florida by J.A. Hendley,
“Darkened like a funeral pall which swept over it when every fruit tree in Florida was killed. I stood upon the bank of the lake and watched the wagons filled with sorrowful-looking men and women on their way back north. They had built their houses and made their groves and then saw them swept away in one night by the cold winds of the northwest. They had risked all and lost and now they were abandoning what was left of their once beautiful homes.”
However, some growers decided they had invested too much and the daunting task of replanting became the focus.
It wouldn’t be until 1901, six years after the Great Freeze, when the state’s citrus growers finally achieved and exceeded the shipment of 1 million boxes of fruit, although land prices never fully rebounded.
Many farmers and growers in Florida learned a great deal from the impacts from the Great Freeze of 1894-1895, including which areas are better protected from the weather.
By the 1910s, a system of keeping the groves above temperature was created and merely consisted of piles of pine lighter-knot, which was set afire when temperatures dipped too low.
Piles of pine lighter-knot eventually gave way to the smudge pot, which is an oil burning device used to prevent frost from forming on fruit trees.
Today, our advanced weather warning systems allow farmers and fruit growers plenty of time to prepare ahead of an eminent arctic blast from the north.
In most cases plans are quickly implemented, usually days in advance of an approaching winter storm, which allows ripened fruit to be picked early enough to lessening the impacts felt on the industry.