PIECES OF THE PAST: Once a Farmer, Always a Farmer

Josh McGillPieces of the Past

By Brenda Eubanks Burnette

While passing through St. Augustine one weekend, I came across a sign in the Washington Oaks Historic District that made me stop and take a photo so I would look into it at a later time.

Owen D. Young was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1929. Washington Oaks Historic District in St. Augustine pays homage to the Florida citrus industry’s beginnings.

In 2009, the National Register of Historic Places designated Washington Oaks as a national historic district. The Friends of Washington Oaks raised funds so visitors to the park could learn the stories behind the buildings and gardens located within the park’s historic district. The sign that stopped me was artwork of a beautiful citrus grove and the story behind it.

Louise Powis Clark and her husband, Owen D. Young, a wealthy industrialist, bought the property in 1936 after retiring and lived there during the winter. Clark was a prominent lingerie designer who was reportedly responsible for introducing rattan to the United States. Young was on the board of General Electric, started RCA so the English couldn’t control the U.S. airwaves, and counseled no less than five U.S. presidents!

Young started as a farmer with his family, who mortgaged the family farm to send him to St. Lawrence University for an education. It was a gamble that paid off well for the family. Young went on to Boston University and completed the three-year law program in two years and graduated cum laude in 1896.

Britannica.com lists this information on his career: “Young practiced law in Boston until 1912 and then became general counsel for the General Electric Company, serving also as chairman of the board of directors (1922–39). He organized the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1919, was honorary chairman of its board of directors (1919–29) and was chairman of the executive committee (1929–33).

“He also served in a number of public capacities, notably as a member of the first committee of experts appointed to advise the Reparations Commission concerning the stabilization of German currency after World War I. In 1929 he was chairman of the second committee of experts, which drafted a permanent plan — generally known as the Young Plan — for the settlement of reparations and also established the Bank for International Settlements.”

In 2019, almost 60 years after his death, Young was inducted into the Consumer Technology Hall of Fame for founding and leading the nation’s first radio company (RCA) and his leadership of General Electric (GE). Wikipedia notes that he helped GE shift “into the extensive manufacturing of home electrical appliances, establishing the company as a leader in this field and speeding the mass electrification of farms, factories and transportation systems within the U.S.”

Young was Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1929 and was considered as a presidential contender in 1932. He eventually retired to his birthplace in Van Hornesville, New York, where he endowed the local school, which was named in his honor. Winters were spent in St. Augustine, where his wife designed the house and, together, they created formal gardens at the estate and “cultivated groves of oranges, grapefruits, lemons and limes.” Young could frequently be found selling citrus alongside A1A or giving fruit to family, friends and the local hospital.

Young passed away in St. Augustine in 1962. Two years later, his widow gave most of Washington Oaks to the state of Florida with the condition that the gardens and groves be “maintained in their present form.”  So today, you can still visit the Washington Oaks Gardens State Park and picture the former counselor to U.S. presidents sitting by the road selling citrus!

It just goes to show that the old adage is true: “Once a farmer, always a farmer.”

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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