A rusted forklift sits idle next to a conveyor belt and baskets that once overflowed with juicy oranges and grapefruits. Weeds have claimed the yard.
Not long ago, Fred and Betty Snell held court in the small house off Ridge Road. They presided over a family business that shipped citrus fruit around the country. They taught newcomers from the North how to care for backyard trees. They shared local honey and orange marmalade.
As much as the Snells enjoyed their business, it seemed more of a symbol of the end of an era, a last stand for an industry that had dominated the landscape. Fred Snell once could look out his window and see nothing but orange trees. Then overnight, it seemed, the groves became Lowe's and Home Depot, Wendy's and Ruby Tuesday. Cattle trails became busy paved highways.
"My grandfather always said this place would soon be nothing but asphalt,'' recalled Amanda Davidson, 35, who worked at F.J. Snell Groves for 12 years until it closed in the summer of 2008.
Fred Snell died Friday (July 6, 2012) at age 92. He lived long enough to witness a total transformation of western Pasco County, a shift from an agriculture-based economy to one dependent upon building houses. He enjoyed the citrus boom and then endured terrible freezes in the early 1980s that killed trees and forced farmers to sell out. Citrus trees covered 35,000 acres in Pasco then. Today, state officials say that's down to about 8,500.
"Mother Nature always had a say in the business,'' said Davidson, who now works for the city of New Port Richey. "If it wasn't the freezing weather, it was too much rain or canker.''
Still, she said, her grandfather looked forward every day to working at his fruit packing business. "He kept that wonderful sense of humor,'' she said. "He loved to make us laugh.''
Mr. Snell grew up in Elloree, S.C., the son of a rural mail carrier and stay-at-home mother. He studied agriculture at Clemson University and met Betty when she visited his church as part of a Methodist youth group from Memphis. Their swift romance culminated in a wedding ceremony in Memphis on Oct. 18, 1944, just before he headed off to war as a second lieutenant. He fought with the 75th Infantry Division in Germany.
When the war ended, Mr. Snell remained overseas, stationed in France at a base the Army called Camp Philadelphia. "He was liquor allocations officer," his wife recalled with a chuckle. "He took $65,000 and a driver to Paris to pick up liquor for the camp. He asked me, 'What would happen if somebody knocked me out and stole the money?' Luckily they never did."
The family moved to Winter Haven in 1946 so Mr. Snell could begin a career with General Foods. He supervised a citrus processing plant and remained active in the Army Reserve. In short order, the couple had three sons: Fred Jr., Randall and Bryan.
Meanwhile, Mr. Snell kept his eye on Pasco County, where his brother Harvey managed the Elfers Citrus Growers Association, a cooperative owned by local growers — and where his uncle, O.J. Harvey, had amassed thousands of acres of agriculture land. Mr. Snell planted orange and grapefruit trees on 40 acres he bought in Hudson in 1953. He commuted from Winter Haven to work the land until he could finally move in 1966.
After the freezes, he sold the Hudson land but kept 17 acres in Spring Lake in Hernando County. The Snells maintained about 400 acres of groves for cooperative members, but that dwindled as they started selling off the land. Mr. Snell retreated to the fruit package store with his brother. The cooperative closed in 1990.
Mr. Snell retired from the Army Reserves as a lieutenant colonel and seldom missed his outfit's reunion. He joined the First United Methodist Church of New Port Richey in 1966 and served as an usher for 30 years. Mrs. Snell remains a member of the choir.
"That pretty well sums up my dad,'' said Bryan Snell, who started in the groves in the early 1970s while a student at Gulf High and continues to maintain the 17 acres in Hernando. "He loved his family, he loved his church, he loved being in the grove or the store. His hobby was working.''