When James Emmitt Evans was 12 years old, he already knew what he wanted to do.
He aimed to be “a general business man,” as he liked to call it.
By the time he died, at age 96, the Dade City man would have gone on to build one of the first citrus concentrate plants in the state south of Dade City.
He is perhaps best remembered for his pioneering strategies to hedge juice inventory on the futures market, and for planting some of the largest contiguous citrus groves in Florida.
When he died, his obituary carried the lead headline on the front page of the June 13, 1996 edition of The Tampa Tribune.
A half-century before his death, Evans was a vice president on the board of the Pasco Packing Company in Dade City. Other board members were L. C. Edwards Jr., president (whose father was the former head of the Florida Citrus Exchange); W. F. Edwards, vice president (namesake of the football stadium at Pasco High School in Dade City); L.C. Hawes, vice president; and, H.S. Massey, secretary-treasurer.
These men, who were all citrus growers, had a combined total of 10,000 acres that could produce 2.5 million boxes of fruit annually for processing at the plant.
When the company’s whistle was heard across Dade City at noontime, the Valencia Restaurant in downtown Dade City was often the unofficial “Board Room” for Pasco’s board of directors.
Located across from the Historic Pasco County Courthouse at the time, the Valencia was probably the place where plans were discussed to sell the company to Lykes Brothers in Tampa.
With the citrus industry changing beyond all recognition, Pasco’s board members recognized how frozen concentrate was letting growers preserve and ship juice with greater efficiency.
Only 50,000 gallons of concentrate were produced in the inaugural year of 1945. By 1951, production had zoomed to 31 million gallons.
Selling the plant allowed the new owners to change the name to Lykes Pasco Packing in 1961, and to market its labels around the world as “Old South,” “FloridaGold” and “Vitality.” At its peak, Lykes had more than 2,000 workers on its payroll in Dade City.
Unlike any grower in the state at the time, Evans was a trader with his own accounts on the emerging Frozen Concentrate Orange Juice futures market. He was never satisfied with dealing through brokers, buying his own seat and remaining a major force during the formative years of the exchange.
“All I can say is, I love making deals,” Evans said, in a Feb. 2, 1983 story published by The Gainesville Sun.
Evans Packing Company was one of the first processors to supply other packagers with drums of bulk concentrate for distribution to chain stores. At its peak with some 400 employees, many of Evans’ six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren worked side-by-side with their spouses and in-laws.
“If they’re kin, we’ll give them a job,” he was quoted as saying.
Evans enjoyed spending time with his family and friends.
He employed his own pilot, Sam Fallin, who flew the eight-seat, twin engine King Air to the Evans ranch in Homestead, where friends and family could spend a weekend fishing, playing golf, and hunting.
Over the years, Evans endured his share of challenges.
His citrus groves faced hard freezes, the Mediterranean fruit fly and citrus canker.
Despite these harsh realities, Evans started the development of 7,000 acres for production in St. Lucie County in the 1960s. He also began an even larger grove along the Indian River/Okeechobee County lines near the Florida Turnpike during the 1970s. And, the purchase of 10,000 acres for additional groves in Charlotte County was completed in the early 1980s.
Evans did not live to see the outbreak of citrus greening, the agricultural disease with no known cure that has decimated Florida’s citrus production to an all-time industry low.
The 1983 Gainesville Sun story identified Evans as one of 21 Floridians on the Forbes magazine list of the 400 wealthiest Americans. At the time, he citrus fortune was estimated at $135 million.
Five years later, he was the oldest resident in Florida on Forbes 400 list, with $400 million in holdings — putting him at 157th place on the list.
Evans had been successful since the early 1920s, starting off with less than $500 from selling tractors.
“I never did have a bad year in business,” he told The Gainesville Sun. “Not even during the Great Depression.”
Despite his wealth and success, Evans lived in the same wood frame, three-bedroom home on the corner of 12th Street and Meridian Avenue in Dade City for 49 years.
He headed his family business for 39 years.
And, the company he founded in 1951 still remains as one of the largest growers in the state with 12,000 acres of citrus groves.
“Retirement is not for me,” Evans was quoted in 1983. “Retirement is the day I die.”
It turns out, that’s exactly what happened.
Doug Sanders has a penchant for unearthing interesting stories about local history. His sleuthing skills have been developed through his experiences in newspaper and government work. If you have an idea for a future history column, contact Doug at .
Published September 14, 2016