By Brenda Eubanks Burnette
The TruBlu brand was one of Wm. G. Roe & Sons’ citrus labels from Winter Haven. When I saw a citrus crate for sale with that label, I immediately bought it. However, once I received it, I was shocked because it was a smaller version of the shipping crates I had seen in the past! I thought maybe it was for tangerines since the Roe family is known for its tangerines.
When I showed it to Quentin Roe, he identified it as a 4/5-bushel shipping crate that had the smaller 7 by 7-inch citrus labels. These crates were used for oranges; tangerines were shipped in the flatter “half-strap” versions of the full-size crates. TruBlu was one of the earliest brands for his grandfather, William G. Roe, and the TruBlu emblem can be found on all of the company’s other brands.
William G. Roe was born in Earlton, New York, in 1886. He started in business as a teenager, chopping ice in the Hudson River in upstate New York and selling it in New York City. The relationships he made by selling ice to produce markets gave him a start in the fruit business. He began marketing nectarines, peaches and plums grown in New York. That progressed to selling Florida citrus during winter months. In 1913 he moved to Crescent City, Florida, and then to Winter Haven the following year.
Along the way, Roe worked for several fruit firms, eventually as foreman, before buying his own citrus and gift fruit business in 1917. By 1924, he had built a packinghouse in Winter Haven and was marketing citrus under numerous labels such as TruBlu, Tru-Type, Blue Lake and Noble, which is still in use today, to name just a few. He was affiliated with the first Clearing House Association in 1928, which created an early voluntary method of setting industry standards. By 1952, he was one of the first packers to ship more than one million cartons of citrus in a single season.
A man of strong convictions, Roe was vocal in his views and led the fight against high freight rates for citrus by hauling fruit to Tampa for shipment by boat. His courageous stands on matters pertaining to citrus, whether popular or not, led many at the time to name him “The Greatest Individualist in the Citrus Industry.”
Roe’s two sons — Fred and Willard — also became active in the family citrus business. Willard earned his bachelor’s degree in political science from Princeton University in 1941. He then went on to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II in the Field Artillery Brigade in support of the French First Army. He left the service as a lieutenant colonel and was awarded the Bronze Star Medal and the Croix de Guerre. Fred and Willard took over the family citrus business and turned it into William G. Roe and Sons, building it into a worldwide packer, shipper and marketer of Florida citrus products.
In 1953, after the death of their father, the brothers split the management of William G. Roe and Sons, with Fred running the packinghouses and Willard handling the groves. They ran the company in this manner for over 35 years until Fred’s death, and then Willard took over handling all the operations. Until his death in 2006, Willard ran William G. Roe and Sons with his own sons, who today continue the business with their sons.
Willard followed his father’s footsteps by maintaining leadership roles in numerous organizations, including the Florida Citrus Showcase and the Production Managers Association, and was a founding member of both the Citrus Growers Associates and the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame.
William was inducted into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 1963. Willard joined his father as a member in 1992.
The dictionary defines “true blue” as “unwavering in one’s commitment; extremely loyal…” Well, today, Willard’s son, Quentin, is following his father’s footsteps with numerous leadership roles in the industry, so “TruBlu” colors obviously run deep in the Roe family!
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.