Strawberry Schools

Remember those late spring days back in grade school when all you could think about was the approach of summer vacation? Depending on your age and your preferences, you might have spent the time off swimming, taking family trips, or earning a little spending money at a summer job – anything but sitting still in a classroom.

There was a time, however, when some Florida students took their vacation much earlier in the year, from January through March. A number of counties in Central and South Florida mandated this to accommodate the harvest schedules for winter fruits and vegetables, which provided a living for small family farms. Strawberries were the main Florida crop requiring this arrangement. As a result, schools that operated on the modified April to December calendar were called “strawberry schools.”

Students attending a

Students attending a “strawberry school” in Plant City, Florida (1946).

Strawberries have been cultivated in Florida since the late 1800s. They have been grown in nearly every county in the state at one time or another, but large-scale sustained strawberry farming has mainly been centered in Hillsborough, Polk, Hardee, Bradford, Union, and Orange counties. These days, commercial strawberry farming is largely confined to large-scale operations with hundreds of acres under cultivation. Up until about the 1950s, however, family farms dominated the industry. In some places, strawberry farming came to define whole communities. Plant City, for example, has long been known as the “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World,” and strawberries have been a key theme in the town’s self-promotion.

Hillsborough County folder, Ephemera Collection, State Library of Florida.

Hillsborough County folder, Ephemera Collection, State Library of Florida.

Florida strawberries generally become ready to harvest between late December and March, right in the middle of the traditional spring session of the public schools. Farm families depending on the strawberry harvest for their livelihood often enlisted their children’s help tending and picking the berries. Gathering the fruit was only one part of the process; one woman remembered children being responsible for watering the rows of tender plants by hand and covering them with Spanish moss when the weather turned cold.

Children and adults picking strawberries in Plant City (1946).

Children and adults picking strawberries in Plant City (1946).

Strawberry farmers valued the labor their children provided at harvest time, but they also recognized the importance of their education. Some communities decided to have the best of both worlds by rearranging the school year. This was no new invention; the very idea of summer vacation was originally devised to allow farm children to help their families during the busy summer months. Plus, plenty of other states had similar systems to allow schoolchildren to help out at harvest time. There have at various times been “potato schools” in Connecticut, “apple schools” in New York, “tomato schools” in Ohio, and so on. What Central Florida needed was a “strawberry school” that would allow the students’ off-time to coincide with the strawberry harvest January through March.

Excerpt from the minutes of the Florida Board of Education, July 30, 1942 - volume 6, page 286, Series 252, State Archives of Florida.

Excerpt from the minutes of the Florida Board of Education, July 30, 1942 – volume 6, page 286, Series 252, State Archives of Florida.

And that is exactly what happened in many cases. In earlier years, counties would adjust the school year as needed for their particular harvest season. Once state education authorities began regulating the length and structure of the school calendar, local districts had to request permission to operate on a special schedule. Frequently, only some of the schools in a district would operate on the “summer” or “strawberry” system, while the rest of the county would use the more familiar “winter” system. In at least one case in Polk County, a school remained opened year-round and parents had the opportunity to choose which months their children would attend classes. A similar system was attempted for a few years in the early 1940s in Wimauma in Hillsborough County.

Postcard showing children lining up to turn in the strawberries they have picked (circa 1930s).

Postcard showing children lining up to turn in the strawberries they have picked (circa 1930s).

If you’re “warm-natured,” taking your vacation in the winter-time might not sound like such a bad idea, especially if you had to spend some portion of it walking up and down the rows of a field picking fruit at ankle level. The system had its problems, as veteran strawberry scholars have explained when asked about their experiences. Former Hillsborough County teacher Myrtis Hawthorne once told Tampa Tribune writer Leland Hawes that she remembered the gnats being so bad in her classroom that she often put a small dab of kerosene on her students’ faces to keep them away. The heat left her little choice but to keep the windows open, and so the gnats simply became part of the experience.

The strawberry school system was a boon for farmers, but several factors combined to bring it to an end in the years following World War II. Migrant workers had become a crucial part of the agricultural labor force during the wartime emergency, and in the postwar years they preferred to be able to move northward in the summer months as crops became ready for harvest. Also, improved roads and increased automobile ownership helped popularize the concept of the family vacation, which many families preferred to take in the summer.

The educational quality of strawberry schools also came into question during this period. In 1946, Tampa Tribune reporter J.A. “Jock” Murray began writing a series of articles criticizing the system as exploitative and academically deficient. Murray’s efforts helped pave the way for Florida’s landmark Minimum Foundation education law of 1947, but the school term remained a local option issue. The tide was turning, however, and in 1956 the Hillsborough County School Board abolished the strawberry school calendar for all of its schools. The remaining strawberry schools in surrounding counties followed suit soon afterward.

Two children eating strawberries at the annual Plant City Strawberry Festival (1978).

Two children eating strawberries at the annual Plant City Strawberry Festival (1978).

Strawberry farming is still a major winter industry in Central Florida, but these days children spend much more time eating the berries than picking them. Plant City still holds an annual Strawberry Festival that brings in thousands of visitors. This year’s event is coming up soon, by the way – the festival runs March 3-13, 2016. Now that you have a bit of local strawberry history under your belt, you’re all set to give it a try.

If you were a student again, would you choose a three-month winter vacation or a three-month summer vacation? Leave us a comment below or on Facebook with your thoughts!

Let’s Have An Air Party

Of all the kinds of parties you can have – toga parties, foam parties, hurricane parties – an air party might seem the silliest. But that’s exactly the sort of celebration many of Florida’s major communities were throwing in the 1930s, when commercial aviation and air tourism were still in their infancy.

Program from Orlando's Second Annual "Air Party," January 1935 - Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

Program from Orlando’s Second Annual “Air Party,” January 1935 – Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

Officials in both the private and public sectors had recognized by this time that aviation offered Florida a marvelous opportunity. Distance, as one observer put it, just didn’t mean as much anymore when a trip that had once taken days could now be accomplished in a few hours. To encourage Florida’s growth as a destination for air tourism, state and local governments teamed up with private businesses to host air races, air parties, and other events. These efforts had two objectives: to sell Florida as a tourist destination by air to the rest of the country, and to convince Floridians of the worthiness of investing in better aviation infrastructure.

Army planes fly over the timing stand at the Sixth Annual All-American Air Races (1934).

Army planes fly over the timing stand at the Sixth Annual All-American Air Races (1934).

Air cruises, usually sponsored by chambers of commerce, aeronautical clubs, and other civic groups, were some of the most unique events. These were typically open to any “sportsman pilots” or private aviators who wanted to attend. The pilots would fly their planes from airport to airport along a chain of host cities, enjoying receptions, races, and other activities along the way. Here’s an example itinerary from the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise:

Itinerary for the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise (1935) - Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

Itinerary for the Second Annual Florida State Air Cruise (1935) – Box 1, folder 1, William C. Lazarus Papers (Collection M82-133), State Archives of Florida.

The towns along the route would often extend privileges to the visiting pilots at their local country clubs, hotels, and restaurants. In some cities – Orlando we know for sure – the pilots received fuel and oil at wholesale prices as an incentive. The local chambers of commerce often arranged ground transportation as well, and local groups provided opportunities for hunting, fishing, swimming, boating, and other favorite Florida pastimes.

Pilot Harold Neumann with

Pilot Harold Neumann with “Miss Chevrolet” in Miami (1936).

These groups were typically quite intimate, but their activities were highly visible and helped introduce a large number of people to the possibilities of aviation. A little more time, plus some help from World War II, saw Florida criss-crossed with busy commercial air routes and a whole new sector to its thriving tourist industry.

Interested in aviation or a related Florida industry? The State Library & Archives has a wide variety of books, ephemera, photographs, and manuscript collections touching on these subjects. The program and itinerary from this blog post, for example, came from a collection of papers belonging to William C. Lazarus, who once directed the Aviation Division of the State Road Department and helped organize a number of “air parties.” Search our catalogs to find out what we have on your favorite topic in Florida history!

When Disney Came to Florida

Walt Disney World, the epicenter of the Disney entertainment empire and a vacation destination for millions of visitors each year, has been a thriving part of Florida tourism since 1971. But how did it get here? Walt Disney had already been operating Disneyland in Anaheim, California with great success since 1955. Practically every major city in the United States and many others around the world had invited Disney to bring his creativity to their vicinity, but for years Walt had appeared content to stick to one location and use Disneyland as the laboratory for his ideas. Yet by the late 1960s he had selected a swampy patch of ground just outside Orlando and Kissimmee to build what would become one of the world’s most popular places to visit.

A view of Cinderella's Castle, one of the hallmark features of Disney's Magic Kingdom (circa 1970s).

A view of Cinderella’s Castle, one of the hallmark features of Disney’s Magic Kingdom (circa 1970s).

In reality, Walt Disney had been eying possible locations for another theme park since the late 1950s. While Disneyland had been a resounding hit so far, the East Coast crowd had not taken to visiting as often as Disney and his team hoped they would. The solution, they believed, was to build a park in the east. Several potential projects were sketched out, including one in New Jersey, one in St. Louis, and even one in the Palm Beach area. Each of these possibilities fell through for various reasons, but over time Walt Disney’s attention settled on Florida as the most promising place for a new Disney attraction. Early in 1963, Disney gathered up a small team of trusted associates and sent them to Florida to locate between five and ten thousand acres of land for the new park. The project was kept secret at this stage, because Disney believed if word got loose that he was in the market for land in Central Florida, speculation would raise land prices sky-high. Consequently, the Florida project was referred to among the Disney inner circle as “Project X” or “Project Future.”

An aerial view of the Disney property near Orlando and Kissimmee prior to the park's opening (1967).

An aerial view of the Disney property near Orlando and Kissimmee prior to the park’s opening (1967).

Disney himself assisted in selecting the land near Orlando and Kissimmee. Locating the new park at the center of the state rather than on the coast eliminated some of the risk of damage from hurricanes, as well as the direct competition from the beaches themselves for visitors’ time. “We’ll create our own water,” he reportedly said. Once he had decided on the Orlando location, Disney worked with local representatives to buy up parcels of land using a series of nine “front” companies with names like the Latin-American Development & Management Corporation and the Reedy Creek Ranch, Inc. By the middle of 1965, Disney had purchased over 27,000 acres for just over five million dollars.

A group of Disney representatives inspecting the company's new property near Orlando and Kissimmee. The man at center in a dark sweater and glasses is Roy Disney, Walt Disney's brother (circa 1965).

A group of Disney representatives inspecting the company’s new property near Orlando and Kissimmee. The man at center in a dark sweater and glasses is Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s brother (circa 1965).

Disney representatives looking over a map while inspecting the Disney property fronting Lake Buena Vista (circa 1965).

Disney representatives looking over a map while inspecting the Disney property fronting Lake Buena Vista (circa 1965). Roy Disney is second from left.

As the planning continued, it became increasingly difficult to keep the project a secret. By the autumn of 1965, the press had called out Disney’s land purchases, and Walt and his associates decided to go public with their plans. Governor Haydon Burns confirmed the Disney rumors as early as October 24th, but his office worked with the folks at Disney to plan a formal press conference for November 15th at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando to make the official announcement. Dubbed “Disney Day” by the Florida Development Commission and various state officials, Governor Burns called it “the most significant day in the history of Florida.” Burns’ staff sent scores of invitations to media outlets, chambers of commerce, and local officials from around the state to dramatize the occasion. Walt Disney and his brother Roy sat on either side of Governor Burns as he explained to the many reporters and cameras how much the new attraction would mean to Florida. He predicted a fifty percent increase in tourism, as well as new tax revenue that would bring prosperity to the entire region.

Walt Disney, Governor Haydon Burns, and Roy Disney at a press conference announcing plans to build a Disney resort in Florida. The conference was held at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando (November 15, 1965).

Walt Disney, Governor Haydon Burns, and Roy Disney at a press conference announcing plans to build a Disney resort in Florida. The conference was held at the Cherry Plaza Hotel in Orlando (November 15, 1965).

 

Watch a clip from the press conference below, or click here to view the full conference video.

At the press conference, Walt Disney spoke only in broad generalities about what he intended to do at the new park. Considering how much secrecy had surrounded the land purchases, some might have easily believed he was purposely concealing his plans. In reality, his vague description owed mostly to the fact that very little had been definitely decided at that point about what Walt Disney World would actually look like. Walt hadn’t even set foot on the property yet; he would do that for the first time the next morning.

Even as late as 1969, there was still some question as to what Walt Disney World would look like when finished. This is an artist's concept of an aspect of Disney World, possibly EPCOT (1969).

Even as late as 1969, there was still some question as to what Walt Disney World would look like when finished. This is an artist’s concept of an aspect of Disney World, possibly EPCOT (1969).

After the announcement, however, the project moved swiftly. Disney “Imagineers” and other designers began sketching out the various parts of the new Florida resort, while contractors began preparing the actual site. The complexity of the new undertaking required a great deal of cooperation between the Disney corporation and governments at the state and local level. On May 12, 1967, Governor Claude Kirk signed into law new legislation creating the Reedy Creek Improvement District and two municipalities within it, Bay Lake and Reedy Creek (later renamed Lake Buena Vista). Situating the Disney property within these new entities enabled the company to develop the resort with a greater measure of independence regarding taxation and land use restrictions.

Governor Claude Kirk (left) shakes hands with Roy Disney (right) after signing new legislation facilitating the development of Walt Disney World (May 12, 1967).

Governor Claude Kirk (left) shakes hands with Roy Disney (right) after signing new legislation facilitating the development of Walt Disney World (May 12, 1967).

Walt Disney World opened on October 1, 1971 with two hotels and the Magic Kingdom theme park. Over the years new attractions emerged, including EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and a wide variety of hotels and other amenities. Walt Disney, the man whose dream gave shape to the project, sadly did not live to see his masterpiece completed. Disney passed away in December of 1966, well before the park opened. As Walt himself once explained, however, the world of Disney entertainment was much bigger than Disney the man or his ambitions. “I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing,” he once said, “that it was all started by a mouse.”

Mickey Mouse greets several children at the Magic Kingdom, part of Walt Disney World (1977).

Mickey Mouse greets several children at the Magic Kingdom, part of Walt Disney World (1977).

What are your favorite memories from visiting Walt Disney World? Were you around to see the opening? Tell us about your experiences by leaving a comment below!