PIECES OF THE PAST: Citrus Sprayer Innovation

Daniel CooperIrrigation, Pieces of the Past

By Brenda Eubanks Burnette

In the early 1900s, there were a number of inventions made to help the growing citrus industry flourish. One of those inventions took place in Winter Haven at the Van Fleet Company in Florence Villa. The company manufactured the Van Fleet sprayer. An article in the May 1920 issue of The Citrus Industry magazine described it as “the pioneer in the realm of roller type sprayers.”

Van Fleet sprayer

The Van Fleet sprayer was the idea of Dick Van Fleet, a mechanic in Winter Haven who constructed the first machines in his blacksmith shop. The article notes that “Living in the heart of the great Ridge citrus section, Mr. Van Fleet early recognized the need of some small, compact, light draft sprayer which could be used in the light sands of the Ridge country where the heavy wheel sprayers were in many groves largely impracticable. Combining his own ideas with the practical views of experienced grove owners, he constructed his first machine. Somewhat crude in construction, rather unwieldy in appearance, a practical demonstration in actual grove work demonstrated its merits. Growers were quick to recognize the efficiency of this new departure in spraying methods, and Mr. Van Fleet was called upon for more machines.”

Van Fleet worked to improve the machines and increase his output. But, even with restricting his work in other areas, the demand soon outstripped his ability to produce more than three or four sprayers per month.


Therefore, recognizing the need and opportunity, “a company of local capitalists banded themselves together in the fall of 1919, erected a modern plant at Florence Villa and began the construction of the machines on a large scale. On January 1, 1920, this company was reorganized, and fresh steps taken to increase the output and improve the machines. The company is composed of R.R. Van Fleet, president; C.C. Commander, vice president; F.J. DeHaven, secretary and treasurer; R.A. Ellis, manager; G. Duncan Bruce, he a prominent grove owner, and John M. Snively, also a large grove owner and the manager of extensive estates.”

The group was able to increase output to “over 25 machines per month, or an average of one per day.  Yet even with this great increase, output has failed to keep pace with the demand.”

The Van Fleet sprayer, an idea based solely on observing what Florida growers needed, was used widely throughout the state. The article summed it up nicely: “The old idea that it is easier to roll a barrel on its own surface than to push it on soft ground on a wheelbarrow has been made use of and worked out to perfection in the manufacture of this machine.” 

C.C. Commander and John M. Snively are both in the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame, and R.A. Ellis, who managed the plant, was given a life patron status to the Florida State Horticultural Society on behalf of the company. However, R.R. Van Fleet has never been nominated.

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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