By Brenda Eubanks Burnette
I was recently in DeLand visiting the Stetson Mansion and decided to also visit the West Volusia Historical Society. It was closed, but I came across a bust of Lue Gim Gong in the memorial garden that was dedicated to him, so I looked up the society’s website, www.delandhouse.com, and found some fascinating information.
I had heard about Lue Gim Gong some time ago, as it was said he developed a strain of citrus that helped revive the industry after the devastating freezes in the 1890s. Those freezes were so severe that the St. John’s River froze solid, and people could walk across the ice to the other side!
Lue Gim Gong moved to Florida in 1886 with the Burlingame family, working on their newly purchased orange groves in DeLand. His mother had taught him the art of grafting in his native China, so when the freezes of the 1890s hit, he experimented with citrus to develop a cold-resistant orange.
According to an article by Wenxian Zhang, Lue “crossed the Florida Harts Late orange with a variety from the Mediterranean region. The result was a sweet, juicy fruit that could endure severe weather. It was named the Lue Gim Gong Orange and was propagated by Mr. George Tabor of the Glen St. Mary’s Nursery. Hume (1926) noted in his Cultivation of Citrus Fruits that ‘this hardy thrifty-growing variety is very resistant to cold; in fact, it may be the hardiest of all sweet orange varieties now commonly cultivated in America. It is a noteworthy fruit because of the length of time the fruit may be held on the tree.’ The New York Times (1925) reported that ‘he (Lue) saved the industry millions of dollars by his perfection of an orange tree on which fruit would remain until far beyond maturity.’ For this achievement, the American Pomological Society awarded Lue a Silver Wilder Medal in 1911, the first time such an award was made for citrus (Calkins, 28; Henry A. DeLand House Museum, 2002).”
John B. Stetson came to DeLand in 1886 to escape the cold winters in Philadelphia and visit his friend, Henry DeLand. According to the book How to Polish a Diamond (The Stetson Mansion) by JT Thompson, “Stetson purchased several hundred acres of land, planted orange groves, built an electric plant, an ice plant, and put in a water system west of DeLand. His groves froze in the 1894-95 freezes, and he built wood slat houses over them so they would never freeze again. His electric plant was the first in Florida, and the three streetlights were the first in Florida. The generator he used was the fourth one made by Edison.”
Thompson’s book is on the renovation of the Stetson Mansion and includes history on the property. The book has an old photograph of the Stetson groves behind the house. Who knew that “The House That Hats Built” also had citrus groves for a time?
Although freezes eventually ended the citrus industry in DeLand, the proverb Lue Gim Gong lived by reminded me of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame: “No one should live in this world for himself alone, but to do good for those who come after him.”
Brenda Eubanks Burnette is executive director of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. Pieces of the Past is presented in partnership with Florida Southern College’s McKay Archives Center in Lakeland.
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