PIECES OF THE PAST: Play Portrayed Florida Citrus History

Daniel CooperPieces of the Past


By Brenda Eubanks Burnette

Mohamed Ismail recently gave me a booklet titled “Golden Harvest – The Romance of Florida Citrus” written by Nina Oliver Dean for the Florida State Horticultural Society “on the occasion of its semi-centennial celebration.” It was actually a play described as “a pageant depicting the important events in the history of Florida citrus from its introduction into the state by the Spaniards in 1565 to the present date” which, in this case, was April 14, 1937. 

The play took place outside under the oaks at Silver Springs in Ocala and featured “The Spirit of Florida,” played by Polly Pasteurs; a feminine reader, played by the author; and a masculine reader, played by William Carleton.

The production opens with a prologue by the feminine reader: “At this semi-centennial celebration of the founding of the Florida State Horticultural Society, The Spirit of Florida looks back into her history and summons other spirits from the vasty deep of her great past, the spirits of those who have brought her honor and glory through the years.”


Starting with Ponce de Leon’s introduction of the sour orange and Pedro Menendez de Aviles of the sweet orange into Florida, the play covers nine episodes that were important in the growth of Florida’s citrus industry. The Spaniards’ gifts of oranges to the Indians created the state’s first wild orange groves, while Odet Phillipe’s chance encounter with pirates in 1823 brought grapefruit to Tampa.

“The Spirit of Florida turns to her history once again and sees the figure of Dr. Odet Phillipe, a great nephew of King Louis XVI of France, friend of Napoleon and surgeon on one of the Napoleonic fleets. An exile after the Battle of Trafalgar, Dr. Phillipe is cruising along the Florida coast in his ship, the Ney, when he meets another ship that flies the black flag with skull and crossbones of a pirate band. They order him to come aboard their ship and give medical attention to those of their number who are stricken with the fever. He aids them, and much pleased, the pirate chief, Gomez, gives him a chest of gold, and draws for Dr. Phillipe a map of the coast, marking a spot on Espiritu Santo Bay, a spot so lovely that the pirate chief says, ‘If God is anywhere, surely this is His resting place.’” The spot Phillipe makes landfall at is Safety Harbor, and he brings both the pirate gold and “the pure pale gold of grapefruit brought from the Bahamas.”

Other episodes included Henry Perrine, one of the state’s great pioneers of horticulture who was killed by Indians; the Parson Brown orange; the organization of the Florida State Horticultural Society in 1888 by a group of 18 men; the Big Freeze of 1894-95; and The March of Progress, which covered rebuilding the groves after the freeze, advances in grove machinery, pest control, packinghouse developments and the publicity of citrus for both food and health.

The play closed with The Spirit of Florida crowning the 1937 Orange Festival Queen, Doris Harrison, of Bartow: “To you, my daughter, I give this crown. Its brightness is for the glowing color of your cheeks under the Florida Sun; its gold is for the vast treasure of the world’s wealth that has come to me because of you; its shining is for the lustre that your name has brought me …. I crown you – Orange Queen!”

Quite the harvest gleaned for the organization’s golden jubilee!

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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