Surrounded by colorful framed citrus labels that hang in her kitchen, Elizabeth Lee Barron recalls her dad coming home with sacks of the fruit throughout her childhood as she pours herself some orange juice. The Tampa native still drinks a glass every day, although at 64, she’s taken to watering it down.
Though it’s been a long time since orange groves outnumbered housing developments in Florida, the University of Tampa librarian can still remember the overwhelming smell of orange blossoms — like the fruit, but sweeter.
“It used to be one grove after another,” she said. “You could look in the distance and it was beautiful.”
Those days of citrus reigning supreme are gone. But for Lee Barron, a descendant of influential Tampa Bay citrus growers, her quest to preserve the past is just beginning.
Lee Barron wants to track down the lost citrus labels from her family’s companies.
“This is part of Florida’s history, not just my family’s history,” she said.
Perhaps you’ve seen them before — printed on postcards and T-shirts, hung up on the walls of kitschy Florida-themed diners, sold on tacky pillows and coasters at the farmers market. The vintage citrus labels bear sun-soaked and nostalgic images of Florida: rolling groves, palm trees arching across a sunset. One features an alligator, standing proud on hind legs to offer a tray holding a pile of fruit. Another stars a small child biting into a juicy orange.
That last illustration, hovering above the words “Baby-Ade” and “The Lee Co., Inc., of Tampa,” is especially important to Lee Barron. The Lee Co. Inc. was her family’s company, dating back over a century. And the little guy pictured chowing down? That’s her dad.
Citrus has been around in Florida for close to 500 years and became a major part of the economy by the 1600s and 1700s, said James Cusick, curator at the P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History at the University of Florida.
By the late 1800s, packinghouses were loading citrus into wooden crates and sending them off by train to the North, where the lots were sold at auction. To lure the attention of buyers, bright labels were affixed to the crates.
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“Everyone that was involved wanted to have labels that distinguished their products,” Cusick said. “The labels just began to proliferate.”
While the citrus industry boomed, its success was underwriting another industry, he explained. Printers across the country took citrus label projects on as a side trade, producing stacks ordered by the thousands. Tampa was home to Florida Grower Press, which cranked out custom labels for companies as well as generic labels that smaller packinghouses could personalize.
Books on this topic say there were probably between 8,000 and 10,000 different citrus labels at one time, Cusick said.
As a teenager, Lee Barron spent time adding family photos and citrus labels to scrapbooks with her grandmother. She grew up hearing stories of her family coming to Florida at the turn of the century to strike it rich with citrus.
Her great-grandfather, Dempsey Cowan Lee, and his brother-in-law, Lamarcus Edwards, traveled back and forth from Alabama to Florida and started planting groves. By 1910, they were entrenched here, settled in Thonotosassa.
“I think that they were visionaries,” she said. “They saw a future in citrus. I mean, he left his successful business in Alabama. ... He didn’t need to do this.”
A reference librarian at the University of Tampa since 1994, Lee Barron was on the hunt for a fun project.
”I get bored easily, and I need to have things to do so that I don’t get in trouble,” she said.
She started researching the citrus labels of her family’s companies in 2017. She soon found the Lee name on dozens of labels that advertised oranges, tangerines and grapefruits.
In one, a shiny orange bursts out of an open treasure chest. In another, a leering pirate squats on a log next to a preening flamenco dancer. Many had big, bold logos: DADDY-O. BALL-O-GOLD. JUCE-ME.
Lee Barron scoured digital collections and emailed with curators of citrus label collections around the state.
“Every time I would find a new one, it would be like, ‘Oh, I’d won the lottery,’” she said with a laugh.
“I was surprised by the number I found. I was also intrigued by how beautiful they were. Some of them looked like they were printed yesterday.”
The University of Tampa, realizing that her research had academic merit, gave her time to check out the collections in person. She visited the Museum of Florida History’s traveling label exhibit when it came to Sarasota, delighted to see a few of her family’s labels, like the Gasparilla pirate one, included.
Lee Barron met up with Cusick at the University of Florida’s P.K. Yonge Library of Florida History, home of about 3,000 labels in the Jerry Chicone Jr. Florida Citrus Label Collection. When she visited the collection, the Baby-Ade label was hanging on the wall. She excitedly told Cusick, “John, that’s my dad.”
Lee Barron learned that her grandparents, former Plant City Mayor William Edwards Lee Sr. and Miriam Mays, loved to put their children on the labels. (Her grandmother had also been born into another citrus dynasty.)
Lee Barron found two Baby-Ade branded labels with her dad’s face on them. A young Aunt Miriam was on a label called Pretty Baby, peeking over a table at some citrus. She discovered Aunt Rosemary as a little girl perched on the edge of a crate, the words Lov-Lee in the sky and rows of groves in the background. Aunt Rowena Katherine, smiling above a bowl of grapefruit sections next to the name Tampa Belle. Even the family dog Juno, who the children called Goo Goo, was pictured grinning on its very own label. The only child without a label was her Aunt Dempsey.
“Poor Aunt Dempsey didn’t get a label, but Goo Goo did,” Lee Barron said with a laugh. “I don’t know why she didn’t get her label.”
By the time Lee Barron visited the Florida Southern College Fruit and Vegetable Label Collection, she had found about 40 or so family labels.
“I had things that they didn’t have, they had things I didn’t have. And we shared, which was really cool, too,” she said.
An archivist at Florida Southern invited her to put together an exhibit in 2018. She told the story of her family’s journey through the exhibit, from her great-grandparents coming to Florida to her grandfather adding his children’s faces to the labels.
Today, framed Pretty Baby, Lov-Lee and Baby-Ade labels decorate Lee Barron’s kitchen. She gave the original Baby-Ade label to her father, and keeps a thick scrapbook of over 50 labels arranged in alphabetical order.
Most of the labels in her collection are not originals. Those can be rare — and cost hundreds of dollars.
“Even if you have a pretty comprehensive collection today, you’re still missing a lot of the labels that were actually produced because there don’t seem to be any examples of them in existence anymore,” Cusick said.
“I think that’s part of the fascination, too. For collectors, it’s probably part of the fact that these items are becoming rarer.”
The fruit label craze lasted through World War II. After the war, a shortage of paper caused labels to fall out of fashion. Cardboard replaced wooden crates, and companies began printing logos and images directly onto the boxes.
Labels didn’t go away completely. New designs were less common, but those that existed shifted with the style of the time. For instance, in the ’60s and ’70s, mod designs and brighter neon colors emerged.
“The labels kind of moved with the times,” Cusick said. “They changed as popular taste and ideas about art changed.”
But citrus itself started to decline. Consumers pulled away from sugary drinks. Housing developments started replacing groves. The modern blow to the industry has been a disease known as citrus greening. A third to a quarter of groves are lost each year. There is no cure.
“It’s just development after development,” Lee Barron said. “It used to be one grove after another.”
Citrus label hunt continues
The groves are going away, and the packinghouses, too. But Lee Barron’s citrus label quest is just getting started.
After her retirement (just 45 weeks and two days away, she said during the interview) she has grand plans.
Once it’s safe to travel, Lee Barron wants to visit her cousins in California and check out collections of vintage fruit and veggie labels there. She’d like to work more with the Tampa Bay History Center, where she plans to donate her labels after she passes. She also aspires to get great-grandfather D.C. Lee into the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame. She tried once before, but to no avail.
“I think part of it is because he died young. He died in 1929, but I still think he was a pioneer,” she said.
Then there’s capitalizing on the labels, making fridge magnets, pillows and T-shirts. She even has dreams of authoring a coffee-table book with Cusick.
“I want to make money off of them, because other people have,” she said.
She isn’t waiting for retirement to keep searching.
“I’m grateful for the ones I have,” she said. “And I’m still not done. I think there are more out there.”