Friday, May 25, 2018
News Roundup

Citrus king Al Repetto stayed true to his Florida roots

The shiny postcard captured a vision of Florida that tourists saw, of cars from the 1950s parked in front of Orange Blossom Groves, a barn-shaped wooden building beneath a shouting blue sky.

Inside, Al Repetto pressed orange slices onto a stainless steel juicer, then strained the juice into glass gallon Coca-Cola jugs to sell beside the grapefruit candy, saltwater taffy and chocolate-covered fruit peels.

He joked with customers, pulled pranks on his employees and planned for the next busy day, which would inevitably find Mr. Repetto tooling around endless groves on a tractor or tending to his black Angus cattle.

That is how he ran Orange Blossom Groves, once among the state's largest.

He saw the business grow to 350 employees and earn more than $12 million a year.

Then the sheen wore off.

Citrus canker wiped out thousands of trees. Tourists stopped shipping bags of oranges and grapefruit up north. Developers wanted his land.

The world changed around him, but Mr. Repetto had not. He refused to sell.

Finally, he changed his mind and closed his stores in Seminole and Clearwater. He remained available for the Kiwanis Club of Seminole and continued to raise cattle even when he could no longer drive.

Mr. Repetto, who ran an iconic citrus business for nearly 60 years and helped put Seminole on the map, died June 29 at a rehabilitation facility. He was 88.

"He was truly a gentleman," said Seminole Mayor Jimmy Johnson. "He was generous, very kind, and he would always be there if someone needed help. He served our business community extremely well."

Old photos show a brawny man who had spent his life outdoors.

He was born in Pinellas County, the son of a citrus farmer who used mules to carry fertilizer and water. He served in the Navy during World War II. The same leathery hand that could palm three grapefruit also pitched softballs for the Clearwater Bombers.

In 1946, he opened Orange Blossom Groves on Seminole Boulevard with a brother-in-law. Three years later, he opened another store on U.S. 19 at Belleair Road.

"There were three major industries in Pinellas County before the tourists found out we were here: citrus, cattle and dairy, and fishing," said Don Forehand, 74, who is president of the Largo Area Historical Society. "Al really knew how to (grow citrus). He knew how to merchandize it, too."

Orange Blossom Groves catered to snowbirds and tourists, who stopped for fresh-squeezed orange juice and orange ice cream. The store and packing house thrived. In his free time, Mr. Repetto fished for mullet.

He was one of three charter members of the Kiwanis Club of Seminole in 1960 and was part of a successful effort to see Seminole become a city in 1970.

"He was involved in giving to different organizations," said Harold Kinsey, 75, the club's president-elect. "He would ask the question, 'Why aren't we doing this?' "

Mr. Repetto also counseled Seminole Vo-Ed Center agriculture students in raising livestock and gave them tips on getting the best market prices, said Leslie Waters, Seminole's vice mayor.

"His passing is certainly the end of an era," Waters said.

As other growers sold land to developers and Pinellas County groves gave way to subdivisions, Mr. Repetto held onto the 37 acres he had left.

"I'm too dumb to know when to quit," he told the Times in 2004, when he was 79 and still working every day. "I'd hate to sell even an acre."

Said Johnson, "He loved his orange groves, and he wouldn't give up on them, that's for sure."

An outbreak of citrus canker in 2005 helped change his mind. Mr. Repetto burned more than 27,000 trees to stop the spread of the disease.

"That just killed him," said Janet Repetto, his wife of 63 years.

Daughter Cindy Repetto now runs Allison's Orchids on the original location of Orange Blossom Groves.

He had sold the Clearwater property, which is now occupied by a car dealership.

Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.

 
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