By Brenda Eubanks Burnette
The youngest child of John Wesley Commander Jr., Charles Clements Commander was born on Jan. 23, 1886, in Dawson, Georgia. At the age of 13, he began working as a water boy and a hand in a sawmill until the family relocated to the city of Terra Ceia in Manatee County, Florida, in 1903.
Commander became involved with the Florida citrus industry when he began working with the Florence Citrus Growers Association in Winter Haven. Like many, he started in the packinghouse as a grader and packer, but he applied himself and eventually worked his way up to become a foreman and then manager of the packinghouse.
In 1923, Commander was named manager of the Polk County Citrus Sub-Exchange, which handled marketing for all of the member packinghouses in the county. In this position, he honed his administrative skills and became very knowledgeable in the fields of citrus marketing and merchandising. Two years later, he was selected as the general manager of the statewide Florida Citrus Exchange, a position he held for 26 years.
During his time with the Exchange, Commander focused a great deal of energy into the marketing of Florida citrus and supported federal marketing agreements that led to the development of the citrus export program. He also became an outstanding member of the American Fruit and Vegetable Association, where he served as its vice president and a member of its executive committee and trade relations committee.
Commander’s leadership resulted in numerous innovations to the citrus industry, including the first canning facility, the first automatic juicing machine, the pre-cooling of citrus before processing and the concept of cold-storage holding.
The late 1940s proved to be uncertain times for the citrus industry. Severe market fluctuations in the price of citrus buffeted the industry. The Citrus Exchange decided that the industry needed an organization dedicated to the stabilization of citrus market prices, which eventually led to the establishment of Florida Citrus Mutual (FCM). Commander is recognized as one of FCM’s founding fathers and is credited with helping to recruit members to get the association up and running. FCM was organized in 1948 and was officially activated on March 25, 1949.
In 1952, the Florida State Horticultural Society recognized Commander by awarding him with honorary membership.
Commander died in Tampa on June 20, 1953. He is remembered as a steadfast leader who successfully guided the Florida Citrus Exchange through the difficult years of the Great Depression and World War II.
In 1962, John Wesley Commander was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame’s first class of 17 members. This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, with the luncheon taking place in Lakeland at Florida Southern College’s George W. Jenkins Field House on Oct. 14, 2022. We hope you’ll make plans to join us!
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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