PALM HARBOR — As his wife and children stayed warm in the house, Charley Jones drove his truck loaded with pine wood through his 15 groves filled with Valencia oranges. He'd stop along each row, piling the wood to make a fire. After a few dozen piles were ready, he went back through with his matches and lit each one.
But despite his efforts, on Dec. 18, 1957, Jones lost all but five groves of the citrus trees to a freeze.
"We used hard pine wood from North Florida for the fires because it let off a lot of smoke that would mix with the air and keep the trees from freezing, but that time even the burnt wood on the leftover fires had frost,'' said Jones, 89. "After that, we decided to get out of the citrus business. It took until 1961, but we did get out.''
Jones has lived the history of northern Pinellas County. Visit with him at "Southfolks,'' his 5-acre property in Palm Harbor, and you'll leave with visions of long-ago Florida, when the landscape was ripe with oranges and men made a living from their trees.
Southfolks, which is near Keene Road, was named by Jones' wife, Winona Nigel Jones, the much-loved director of the Palm Harbor Museum who passed away in 2009. Jones originally purchased 30 acres more than 65 years ago. The couple sold off 10 acres to be developed with single-family homes, and in 1991, they sold 15 more acres to Pinellas County schools.
"Maybe someday there will be a school there,'' said Jones, a fourth-generation Floridian.
He took his first breath in a grove house just down the street from where he lives today. His father, also named Charles, was a superintendent for Schneider Groves, and as a boy Jones learned the ABCs of growing oranges by following his dad around. But he also learned that growing oranges was a tough life.
"My family was dirt poor. I knew that I had to do more than hoe oranges in order to make good money to raise a family the way I wanted,'' he said.
Jones dropped out of high school to help support his siblings when his father, a World War I veteran, became ill. In 1942 when he was 18, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, a public relief program started by the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration.
"I remember the day a friend and I went to downtown Clearwater, where the CCC had brought a bus over to pick up boys to take them to work. They took us over to Sebring to build the Highlands Hammock State Park,'' he said.
That led to work constructing Army bases in Indiana, Louisiana and Florida. After the United States entered World War II, Jones went to work for the Maritime Service and the Navy, building warships at the Tampa Shipyard.
"I'd help put together the warships during the day, and then I'd drive home to Palm Harbor,'' he said.
In 1944, he married Winona, a childhood friend he knew through church. "We got married when she was 16 and I was 20, at Ozona Baptist Church. I think Winona's father liked me because he knew I was a hard worker.''
Once they had their children Gene, Carole and Sharon, Jones began working as a builder for different construction companies. And he and his wife also operated a produce stand, the Citrus Service Station, at the intersection of Alt. U.S. 19 and Virginia Avenue.
His daughter, Sharon Allworth, who now lives in Oregon, remembers how she and her siblings would share the duties of squeezing juice, selling fruit and jams, and packing up citrus to mail to customers up North.
"My dad always made sure money was coming in. We were comfortable, and I think I felt like we had more money than we actually did,'' she said.
In 1961, after the Joneses got out of the citrus business, "Winona said it was time for her to go back and finish school,'' he said. She finished high school first and then, "she never stopped,'' Jones joked, earning a bachelor's degree in history and political science, a master's in library science and an advanced master's in television and communications. Eventually, she served as the national president of the American Association of School Library Specialists.
"Maybe one of the reasons my dad married my mother was because he knew she was forward thinking,'' said Sharon. "They were a couple that was ahead of their time.''
In the early 1970s, while Winona worked as a library director for Pinellas County schools, Jones started CA Jones Construction.
"The orange groves were starting to go away and become roads and houses for families,'' he said. And it wasn't just houses that were needed.
"Palm Harbor children needed a park," said Jones, who was also the first president of the Greater Palm Harbor Chamber of Commerce. "So since I had the truck and tractor, a few of us went down and cleared the way. Today it's Pop Stansell Park."
County Commissioner Susan Latvala has known Jones for 20 years.
"I have lots of stories about Charley. What comes to mind right away, although I didn't know him at the time, is how when Palm Harbor's volunteer fire department needed a fire truck, it was Charley who went to the bank and took out a loan. He had good credit so he went to the bank, and Palm Harbor was able to buy a truck,'' she said.
"And when he was involved with the start of the chamber, it was a changing time for Palm Harbor," she added. "A lot of citrus groves were gone, and Charley and Winona both had a desire to keep Palm Harbor strong. They were so good at showing us what happens when we work together.''
For Jones, some changes are easier than others. He's okay with drinking orange juice out of a bottle on most days. And he's okay with all the traffic on nearby Keene Road. He's even okay with the recent arrival of coyotes.
"The other night an ambulance went by and a coyote in my yard started howling. They are here from somewhere else, and along with them, I remember when there were no sirens. The mules pulling wagons on the street would have been scared to death by the sirens,'' he joked.
But losing his wife was a change he says he's "still not over.''
'"It's hard to think of the holidays without her," he said. "I expect her to walk up my front steps at any moment.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4163.