“Stop the car, Ernie," my mother ordered my dad. "I'm going to pick some oranges."
"You'll get arrested," my dad said. "Or you'll be shot."
We were driving toward Winter Haven along the spine of the state. On a winter's afternoon, Temple oranges hung like ornaments. From a hilltop we saw orange-laden trees reaching to the horizon.
"Come on, Ernie," she begged. "Look at all those oranges. Nobody will miss one or two."
I must have been 12. Ike was president, but in Florida citrus was king. My mother, Beatrice Mary Grace O'Donnell, normally loathed Florida as a hellish place too hot and buggy for humanity. In winter she was more tolerant. A Chicago transplant, she was a citrus romantic.
My straight-arrow dad never pulled off U.S. 27 to allow his criminal-minded wife to steal oranges. But if I had been old enough to drive, things might have been different.
I'm a citrus romantic too. During the season, I eat oranges every day. Juice? It has to be fresh squeezed. In February, when trees in our state's citrus belt put out those fragrant blossoms, I drive with windows open.
I am nostalgic about the days when growers carried thin-bladed "citrus knives" instead of laptops. I am nostalgic about Florida Christmases past when Santa left tangerines in stockings. I miss the roadside fruit stands and the wooden orange crates stacked in the back of any Florida grocery. I miss the delicious old citrus varieties that vanished when modern growers decided they weren't profitable enough.
In January, my favorite place in Florida might be an orange grove, any orange grove, probably a grove full of Temples, the only orange that mattered. They're fragile and don't ship well. I still see them in the market in January, but not everywhere. The navel is today's orange of choice.
My second favorite January spot — this is going to sound funny — might be the Florida Citrus Archives on the Florida Southern College campus in Lakeland.
It's not a tourist attraction, but a place more for serious research. Archivist LuAnn Mims usually has a few items out on special display, a collection of old orange crates, perhaps, or a gown once worn by a small Florida town's Citrus Queen. For me, a special treat includes an invitation beyond the locked door to the back rooms where the real rarities are stored.
LuAnn has a postcard, for example, written by the famous 19th century snowbird Harriet Beecher Stowe, best known for writing Uncle Tom's Cabin. For 18 winters she lived in a little North Florida community called Mandarin, where she tended her Temple oranges and enjoyed the perfume of a grove alight with blossoms.
LuAnn's shelves sag under collections of postcards, crates and cardboard signs that advertise grove brands that are no more. She keeps old wood ladders, clothing, tools. The tool that makes me want to weep is a sturdy wood device once found at virtually every roadside stand from Miami to the Georgia border. It's an orange juice squeezer powered by hand.
In the winter, when I travel, I stick as much as possible to the back roads in the hopes of encountering an old-fashioned citrus stand. There are still a few left. In North Florida, I go out of my way to stop at the venerable Orange Shop, established in the town of Citra in 1936. Once it shared U.S. 301 in Alachua and Marion counties with a dozen other citrus businesses. Now it's the last one standing.
A series of freezes, starting in 1962, chased all but the most stubborn growers out of North Florida. Peter Spyke, whose middle name could be "Stubborn,'' replanted.
The Orange Shop is the only place I can dependably find what once upon a time was regarded as the tastiest of all Florida oranges — the delectable Page. They're small, fragrant, juicy and fragile. They don't ship well, which means you are more likely to see a bear than a grove of Pages.
CeeBee's Citrus, at 16907 Boy Scout Road in western Hillsborough County, is the only place I regularly find Duncan grapefruits, a variety developed in Pinellas County in 1840. The Duncan is still the Cadillac of grapefruit, more sweet than sour. Alas, Duncans are exceptionally seedy. Modern consumers don't like to spit.
For juice, if I don't squeeze my own, I drive across Tampa Bay on the Sunshine Skyway to the little community of Terra Ceia in Manatee County. Ben Tillett's family has operated the Citrus Place on U.S. 19 for more than half a century. Like me, he's a throwback. He'd rather go thirsty than drink fake juice from a supermarket carton.
"Everything is changing," he once told me. He routinely meets Floridians, usually young adults, who have never peeled an orange and consumed it on the spot. They prefer jars of cut-up product.
Ben tells stories that suggest the end of the world really is near. Here's one about the time a woman poked her head inside his door to ask if he sold juicy oranges.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, beaming. "I pride myself on our juicy oranges."
"Never mind, then," she told him, backing out of his store. "I was looking for some of those thick-skinned, dryer oranges."
"You'll have to go to California," Ben advised.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727.