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!

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10 thoughts on “Strawberry Schools

  1. My mother, Myrtis Hawthorne, shared so many memories of her life as a teacher. She and my father, Denver Hawthorne, were very involved in every aspect of our community. They met when she was a teacher at Knights school and he was a trustee. They were married and lived on the homestead until his death. She continued to teach at Knights and remained active until her death at ninety five years old. My husband and I still live on this beautiful land at Knights. Old Florida remains along with memories of a wonderful life.

    • I had a Mrs. Hawthorne at Knights — 2nd or 3rd grade I think. Wow, I just saw this. We drove by the old Knights school about six months ago and it has changed.

    • I have heard your parent’s names from my Mama and Daddy so many times…Marion Seiver and Mary Lena Owen Seiver. I have always loved the stories of the Old Florida times!

  2. My mother taught at Knights School in the 1920’s. I was a summer school for a year or two and definitely picked a few a few strawberries.

  3. Thank you so much for your article on Strawberry Schools. When
    my family and I go this February we will all be informed of its
    origin, we will look upon our day differently and appreciate it
    more. Great article. Jan Knowles – Hernando Historian

  4. I attended Griffin Elementary School in Lakeland, Florida in Polk County, Florida (which was a strawberry school) from first grade through sixth grade. I was also a strawberry girl. My mother and my sisters walked down the road to a neighbor’s farm. My mother helped pack the berries and my oldest sister and I picked berries. I am hoping that Griffin School will have a Strawberry School Reunion before it is too late. I loved my school years at Griffin School. It was a wonderful school and the teachers were fantastic. It was during those years that I learned to love reading and writing.Now I am a published writer and poet and a church library director.

    • How big is the Strawberry Festival like in miles or Acres I remember when I lived in Florida growing up and as an adult I would take my kids and we all loved it I live out of state now I have a 14 year old son and he is never seen the Strawberry Festival I was telling him things about it and how big it was but I did not know how big it is in our town we have a little tiny Carnival so I was telling him about the Strawberry Festival I sure do miss it I hope one day I can fly back with my 14 year old son for him to have the experience that I had as a teenager and my other two kids had when they were growing up

    • I think that’s great that you accomplished all those things in your life and you owe it to that school keep up the good work and pass on the knowledge to someone else

    • Dorothy Sawyer I think that’s great you’ve accomplished all those things and that you owe it to the school and you have all those good memories pass on your knowledge to someone else

  5. Pingback: Florida Strawberry Festival:March 2-12, 2017 in Plant City | Florida Rambler

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