PIECES OF THE PAST: From Flunky to Hall of Fame

Josh McGill Pieces of the Past

By Brenda Eubanks Burnette

John Jackson, John Veldhuis and Bob Battaglia have been working on a digital book about Lake Region Packing Association (LRPA) that is now available. In talking with them, I came across an oral history interview done on J.B. “Babe” Prevatt in 1977 by Paul Weaver at the University of Florida. Prevatt was with LRPA for 46 years. The interview was a fascinating read that covered his time from starting in the industry at age 13 or 14 as “primarily a flunky” getting paid 50 cents a day to his time at LRPA where his marketing expertise helped establish the association as a leader in the industry and earned him a spot in the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame.

J.B. “Babe” Prevatt
(Photo courtesy of John Jackson and Lake Region Packing Association)

K.M. Wakeland was president of the association and “one of the several men that went to California with a group of Florida growers, to see what and how the California Fruit Growers Exchange was set up and operated.” When asked what the group accomplished, Prevatt replied, “The only thing I could tell you that this group accomplished was getting some six or eight young citrus men to come to Florida, and they were employed in some of the larger exchange houses.”

One of these men was Harry Plano, who first employed Prevatt in 1920. “Packers back in those days [were] paid for packing oranges, I believe, 6 cents a box and 4 cents for packing grapefruit,” said Prevatt. “But they had to wrap every piece of fruit with a tissue, and it took [considerably] more time than it does now. Daily wages [ran] from 10 to 25 cents an hour. Picking was anywhere from 10 to 15 cents on oranges, and a little less on grapefruit, a little more on tangerines.”

Prevatt went on to describe his early years working in citrus at a packinghouse in Kissimmee: “The machinery was very crude. In fact, one man [ran] the entire operation. It had, as I recall, about three rollers where the fruit could go down the barrels and size the fruit, and he [ran] this by paddling it like the old-time sewing machine … The packers were in a pit about 3 feet deep, and when they packed the box of fruit, they slid it off of the stand on the floor. We nailed boxes and the birch hoop. We put those hoops down in a stream of water to soften them up, and the nailer would have to get down on his knees to nail those lids on and the birch hoop around, making it just as difficult for him as possible.”

When Prevatt was hired as secretary/manager in 1925, he noted there was only “42,000 boxes of fruit in the association, a bonded [indebtedness] of something like $85,000. And, as to their bank account, it was practically [nil]. They had $250 in the bank. But I was determined to make a go. I put in many hours. In fact, I [did] my own soliciting in trying to get new growers and more fruit into the association and covered lots of territory. In fact, I drove approximately 50,000 miles a year, meaning that I had to work long hours.”

Fifty-seven years later, when asked about the future of citrus, Prevatt commented “…Citrus has been better to the people in Florida than … any other thing. You have your bad years with citrus, yes. But you have the good ones, too. You don’t get — you can’t get — it all. You have to take the bitter with the sweet … If I was a young man, I don’t know of anything — if I had the money — that I wouldn’t do just what I had done.”

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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