3/26/2014 Sebring, Fla. - RYAN PELHAM/STAFF
Millie Anderson, a volunteer docent at the museum, talks about the citrus industry's history to Sebring High School students who came to tour the Highlands Museum of the Arts on Wednesday morning.
SEBRING - If you were shipping Florida fruit in the North how would you market it? There will be plenty of sunshine themes and idyllic images of sunsets and lakes for sure. Having pretty women in bathing suits does not hurt, either, and who can say no to Gerber-baby lookalikes sinking their teeth into an orange? Turns out, citrus shippers and growers from 100 years ago and before were using many of the same themes we do, as seen in many citrus and crate labels from yesteryear. These 9-inch-by-9-inch labels, glued on the back of wooden crates that carried the fruit and were meant to distinguish one nondescript box from another, have become a part of Florida art history and also "reflect American social history and changing popular culture."
Some of these labels, along with vintage tools and equipment used in citrus groves in years past, are on display at the Highlands Museum of the Arts or MOTA . "Citrus Label & Crate Expectations" runs through May 31, and is on loan from the Museum of Florida History in Tallahassee. Wednesday, a few of those who came to see the exhibit were agriculture students from Sebring High School. Rebekah Wills' ag students got a hands-on look at citrus farming through the 63-tree grove they maintain. But Florida's citrus history is not covered in-depth, so Wills and ag teacher Sarah Cleveland jumped at the chance to bring their students to the display, which represents a time when Florida citrus was not squeezed in juice as it is now but sold as fruit. "Citrus is just so important to our economy," said Cleveland, who thought of the field trip for the 300 ag students from Sebring High. Wills told her students to choose their favorite label and look for those from places north of 1-4, which would belong to a time when citrus was still grown in those groves before they were wiped out by freezes. The Great Freeze of 1894-95 ruined many of the groves throughout Florida, according to Florida Citrus Mutual, and growers began their gradual move to locations farther south in the state. "Although Florida's citrus industry has encountered more freezing temperatures during the 20th century, the industry has continued to thrive as new groves are planted farther south after each freeze," the group adds. Some of these labels are from Highlands County groves, and while they have no distinguishing local feature, they basically were selling enticing and exotic images of Florida. The Red-Glo brand had a striking label, using a rising or setting sun as a theme, and sold fruit from the Gregg Maxcy Inc. grove from Sebring. The L. Maxcy Inc. grove from Frostproof had a label of an ibis, birds -- some native to Florida -- being popular subjects. One label from Eustis had a catchy image of a German Shepherd sticking its tongue out. Its brand, you guessed it, "Lucky Dog." Another L. Maxcy label's central art figure was a popular Florida native -- the white gator. One label from the Gregg Maxcy grove had a picture of a scantily dressed woman; several others had women in bathing suits by the sun and the water; and one had an image of an elderly man in a flowing white beard with the label proclaiming "Long Life." "This Fruit Is As Sweet As Her Voice," screamed one label with an image of Marguerite d'Alvarez, an English contralto. Native American and sports images also were popular. One brand's label was called "Touchdown," and had an image of a football player with a ball, while another showed a female acrobat. Bryson Williams liked the grapefruit label that had a picture of a violet-colored orchid on top. "It looks delicious," he grinned, while Jumar Moffatt liked the one that had a picture of a grinning boy and was called "The Yellow Kid." "I like his face," Moffatt said. The Highlands Art League education coordinator Megan Ekenstedt said the response as been "pretty good." "It relates directly to the history of the area," she said. The Highlands Art League, which runs MOTA, also will have two exhibit-themed events. "Get Sauced" will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 22. Chef Mac Gentleman, from the Palms of Sebring, will lead attendees through various citrus sauces. While the chef prepares the tastings, attendees will learn culinary techniques to try at home. Citrus-themed cocktails and light snack will be provided. Cost is $30 a member and $35 for all others. Class minimum is 10 people and will be held at the Visual Arts Center, behind the Yellow House. "Cocktails & Culture" will be held May 1. Cost is $30 for members and $35 for non-members. It is will be an intimate gathering of visitors who will be able to see the exhibit over food and drinks. Citrus industry representatives will discuss the history of the citrus industry. The event is set from 6- 8 p.m. and is limited to 50 people. Highlands MOTA is located at the Allen C. Altvater Cultural Center, 351 W. Center Ave., in Sebring. Its hours are 1 to 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. Cost is $5 for adults, and students with IDs can get in free.