PIECES OF THE PAST: The Gate City of South Florida

Josh McGillPieces of the Past

By Brenda Eubanks Burnette

In 1870, Gen. Henry Shelton Sanford purchased 23 square acres of land west of Mellonville, Florida, through the Sanford Grant from Spain. He planned a new city that he called The Gate City of South Florida, which he believed would become the transportation hub for Florida.

In 1877, the city of Sanford was incorporated, and Mellonville was annexed six years later. In 1880, while he was in Europe as a U.S. minister, he formed a land company in London to encourage investments in Sanford. By 1884, Sanford was a prosperous town with wharves, a railroad station and a large hotel.

Sanford traveled the globe as an attaché and liaison for the U.S. government. Wherever he went, he bought seeds and plants to send back to Florida, creating Belair, a citrus grove and experimental garden near his residence in Sanford. More than 140 varieties of citrus, including the Valencia orange, were evaluated for adaptability to the Florida climate. Long before experimental stations were thought of, Sanford instituted extensive and carefully conducted experiments to determine what would grow best in Florida’s climate.

Gate City
Southeast corner of Belair Grove, before the Great Freeze of 1894–1895
Photo by Ensminger Bros. (https://richesmi.cah.ucf.edu/omeka/items/show/700)

By 1889, he had extended his farm to over 400 acres with approximately 145 acres of orange and lemon groves, along with a small nursery. All were tested to determine if Florida citrus growers could introduce new varieties into the growing citrus market. These experiments, while largely for his own satisfaction, came to benefit the agricultural interests of the United States.

“Some Account of Belair, Also of The City of Sanford, With A Brief Sketch of Their Founder,”an 1889 80-page booklet by the city of Sanford, includes this description of Belair: “The space allotted to these experiments covers an area of five acres, and has a southern exposure, sloping from high dry pine land, into the damp, alluvial soil along the borders of Crystal Lake. Here were to be found, before the freeze, fully one hundred varieties of the Citrus family imported from all parts of the world — some of them very rare and costly. It may be appropriate to explain, at this point, that in making the statement above — that the orange and lemon growth on the place, includes all the ‘choice varieties’ — it was meant that in such classification the bitter-sweet orange, the rare freak known as the marmalade orange and the sweet and variegated lemon, are excluded.”

Sanford and his family’s last trip to Belair Grove was in the winter of 1890–1891. They returned to Healing Springs, Virginia, where he passed away on May 21, 1891. His wife, Gertrude, sold the property to the Chase Brothers, who had moved to Florida in 1878 and started working with Sanford.

During the winter of 1894–1895, a severe freeze destroyed the year’s entire crop. Many citizens faced economic ruin and left the area. Those who stayed harnessed artesian wells and developed a subirrigation system that permitted commercial agriculture. By the first decade of the 20th century, Sanford was one of the largest vegetable shipping centers in the United States. The Gate City of South Florida became known as Celery City for its most successful crop.

Gate City
Belair Grove after the Great Freeze of 1894–1895
Photo by Chase & Company (https://richesmi.cah.ucf.edu/omeka/items/show/695)

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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