PIECES OF THE PAST: Above and Beyond

Josh McGill Pieces of the Past

By Brenda Eubanks Burnette

Lena Smithers Hughes was born on a farm near Elgin, Tennessee, and helped to raise her seven siblings after her mother died when she was 14. She started teaching school at age 17, while still a student at Tennessee Tech, and went on to earn her degree from the University of Tennessee.

In 1931, she and her husband, Ausker Hughes, a research chemist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), moved to Lake County, Florida, where they both worked on citrus research. Hughes and her husband thought seedling trees would be more cold hardy than the budded trees that were in use commercially at the time. So, they set out to prove that theory. Working by hand, they planted thousands of nucellar Parson Brown and nucellar Valencia seeds, transplanting the seedlings to two blocks of grove land near Plymouth. Their investment of time, money and work went above and beyond the norm, because the seedling groves would produce no money for almost 20 years.

Lena Smithers Hughes
Lena Smithers Hughes
(Photo courtesy of Florida Southern College)

In 1938, her husband left the USDA for a job in Michigan, where she was a metallurgist for Great Lakes Steel Company and earned a master’s degree from Wayne State University. Hughes went on to teach nutrition and biochemistry at Kent State University. Her husband passed away in 1944, and she continued the breeding research on her own. She enlisted the Plymouth Citrus Growers Association to care for the groves even though she was told they would never pay for their upkeep.

In the early 1950s, the citrus industry was faced with numerous viruses from infected budwood, and the Budwood Certification Program was established. Organizers turned to the Hughes’ seedling groves to provide the much-needed, virus-free breeding stock for Florida nurseries. By 1983, the Hughes budwood accounted for approximately 60% of all Valencias propagated in Florida. Hughes returned to Orange County near Orlando in 1957 and, in 1960, using money from sales of her Hughes Valencia budwood, she provided horticulture scholarships at both the University of Florida and Florida Southern College.

Hughes was the first woman to serve on the Orange Citrus Extension Advisory Committee, where she served 10 years. She was also the first woman to serve on the Growers Administrative Committee and was the only woman to serve on the fundraising committee for the Ben Hill Griffin Jr. Hall at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred. She was a member of the Plymouth Citrus Growers Association for 45 years and was inducted into the Florida Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984. In 1986, she was voted the Gator Citrus Club Person of the Year and was the first woman inducted into the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame.

The back-to-back freezes in 1984 and 1985 wiped out her groves and she decided not to replant. Hughes died in 1987 at the age of 82 and was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 1993. Although she was not the first woman inducted into the hall of fame, her perseverance and work on Valencia oranges has been called “one of the most significant citrus developments” to originate in Orange County, which was one of the nation’s major orange-growing regions at the time. 

Why wasn’t she inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame earlier, you might ask? Someone needs to make the nomination. All nominations are due by Nov. 1 of each year for consideration in December, so please take the time to make a submission for someone you feel has gone above and beyond on behalf of the Florida citrus industry. Make plans to attend the 60th anniversary induction luncheon on Oct. 14 in Lakeland at Florida Southern College, where the 200th member will be inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame!

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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