In the winter of 1929, after years of selling strawberries shipped from Florida, Harris headed south to visit the source of his growing success. Upon arriving in Plant City, he found a place that was all about strawberries, a town surrounded by many small farms, all dedicated to that precious little red berry. Plant City had citrus groves, of course, and had once been cotton, timber and cattle country, but during the twentieth century strawberries became the most valuable cash crop.
Henry Plant’s railroad first arrived here in 1883. Originally a Seminole settlement known as Ichepucksassa, the town at that time was called Cork, thanks to an Irish postmaster who wanted to honor his place of birth. But residents were so grateful for train service that when the town was officially incorporated in 1885, they named it in honor of the railroad tycoon, and by 1908 Plant City had erected a brick train depot that still stands. It was a major junction with tracks running to the Midwest and also farther south into Florida. Another line went west to Tampa and east to the Atlantic coast, and all the way north to New York. Scores of trains, passenger and freight, passed through every day. Even today, the several tracks in Plant City and many crossings seem to stop me at every turn. I’m tempted to curse them until I remember that the farmers and the markets would not be here without them. The railroad is what made Plant City a strawberry town.
Back then, berries had to get to market fast, within two days or less of picking, an advantage that railroads exploited with express trains around the country. But farmers in Plant City and nearby Dover had more than locomotive speed on their side. They had a climate advantage; Florida’s warm weather helped produce crops earlier in the growing season. And they had fertile, well-drained soil with a secret ingredient—phosphate, a primary component in fertilizer. Vast deposits of phosphate rock were mined throughout the region and shipped to farmers across the country. But Plant City growers came by it naturally. By the time Harris arrived, Plant City was shipping eight million pints of strawberries each winter to frozen northerners hungry for the first sweet taste of the season.
For my grandfather, Florida was another in a succession of big changes. He had traded life in a Jewish village in Russia for the modern chaos of New York City; now he had to adjust again to the farm country of the South. This new place was certainly not New York. No subways, no delis, no pushcarts, no babel of foreign languages, no all-night bustle, no madding crowds of millions. Still, by 1930, Plant City was busy in its own way. Even after the Florida boom of the 1920s had gone bust, the town of about six thousand residents was relatively prosperous thanks to the railroad and all those strawberries. The young chamber of commerce was bursting with civic pride and a busy schedule of parades. It threw its inaugural strawberry festival the year after Harris first visited.
Little Plant City had boasted a Ford dealership since 1912, along with occasional visits from Henry Ford himself. The town had brick public buildings, a newspaper and a downtown square lined with business blocks, sidewalks, a hotel, the Capitol movie theater and a full spectrum of churches. But no synagogues. It did have one area in which my grandfather was fluent—the auction business of a produce market. Here he would be at the opposite end of the supply chain from New York. He would buy directly from farmers and bid against other packers to ship the crops to wholesalers up north.
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