By Brenda Eubanks Burnette
Sixty years ago, the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame was created to honor the contributions of individuals for the betterment of the Florida citrus industry. The first person of 17 to be inducted that year (1962), albeit alphabetically, was Joshua Coffin Chase. His brother, Sydney, was inducted the following year.
The class of 2022 will add three more members, with George Hamner becoming the 200th member to be inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. So, during this 60th year, I want to share information on some of the inductees in hopes that you will realize the importance of our forefathers and their struggles in the industry that shaped Florida. Should you want to read more about these citrus pioneers, I hope you will consider purchasing the book about the members of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame, aptly titled “Florida’s Citrus Pioneers – Shaping a State.” More information will be coming on the book. For now, let’s take a look at the Chase brothers.
Joshua Coffin Chase and Sydney Octavius Chase were born in Germantown, Pennsylvania. In 1878, Sydney read about orange groves in Scribner’s Magazine, decided to move to Florida and became associated with Gen. Henry S. Sanford. Joshua joined him in 1884. They formed Chase & Company, selling fire insurance and fertilizer.
The Chases would eventually own Gen. Sanford’s experimental farm, Belair. The Chase family home was located in Sanford. As the company expanded, the brothers began to acquire citrus groves and eventually ended up with 20 packinghouses across the state. During the 1894 and 1895 freezes, Chase & Co. lost its groves and relied on the cultivation of celery while the groves recovered.
While Sydney revived the Florida business, Joshua moved to California to become the manager of the Earl Fruit Company. He then moved to St. Louis to head up the United Fruit Company, learning new ways of managing Florida citrus along the way. By 1904, the citrus industry in Florida had recovered, and Joshua moved back to Florida to establish a branch office of Chase & Co. in Jacksonville. He restructured the company to make the business more efficient and became highly involved in the sales and shipping of fruit and vegetables across the state.
Over the years, the Chases invested in a number of citrus groves and owned others outright. In 1912, they organized the Chase Investment Company as a holding company for their farms. Initially, the company operated the Isleworth, Nocatee, Belair and Kelly citrus groves, as well as celery farms in Sanford.
The brothers also became heavily involved with railroads. Sydney developed new rail lines to help with the transportation of citrus. Joshua was one of the first people to actively work at reducing the freight rates on Florida fruits and vegetables. His efforts culminated in the Interstate Commerce Commission’s decision to force lower freight rates on Florida produce in 1907.
The 1920s saw Chase & Co. facing conflicts with the newly formed Florida Citrus Exchange. Despite the disagreements between the two organizations, Joshua became the president of the exchange in 1930 and 1931. Sydney and Joshua were also important civic leaders; both were elected to the Sanford City Commission.
The brothers supported the development of Rollins College, worked with the Florida Historical Society, of which Joshua was later president, and were the benefactors of numerous charities. They were made honorary members of the Florida State Horticultural Society in 1939.
After Sydney’s death in 1941, Joshua continued to run Chase & Co. until his passing in 1948. Chase & Co. was well known for never failing to make its payroll for 56 years, a fact which was largely attributable to Joshua’s talents as an accountant. The company dissolved in 1979 when its principal assets were sold to Sunniland for $5.5 million. Chase Groves dissolved in 1984, 100 years after the founding of Chase and Co., when the Isleworth grove at Windermere was sold to golf legend Arnold Palmer.
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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