As a little girl, Mom would take me to Orange Blossom Groves for half-gallons of fresh orange juice. Inside the gift shop, you could sample fresh juice for 10 cents a cup. There was tangerine, grapefruit, and orange. They made fresh ice cream too. We’d get soft-serve cones of orange and vanilla twist ice cream.
It would melt too fast in the balmy breeze.
“Fix it momma?” I would plead. She would smooth out all the drips and hand it back.
Al Repetto, born the son of a citrus farmer and raised in Pinellas County, opened Orange Blossom Groves on Seminole Boulevard in 1946. A second location on Belleair Road and U.S. 19 followed, rows of citrus trees standing behind the barn-like building.
Repetto died Fri., June 29. He was 88.
I had the chance to speak with Mr. Repetto in 2008 for a school assignment. His house sat back on a big piece of property in a neighborhood in Seminole. The driveway was dotted with small citrus trees. His daughter, Cindy Repetto, answered the door. Mr. Repetto sat in a wooden chair waiting to talk to me. Beneath suspenders, he wore a bright green polo sporting the Orange Blossom Groves insignia.
The first thing I noticed about him where his hands. All 10 fingers were thick and calloused from years of picking citrus and driving cattle.
“I could hold three grapefruits in each hand,” Repetto told me. I believed him too.
He talked about how Duncan grapefruits were Orange Blossom's primary claim to fame in the early days. The notoriously seedy, albeit delicious, fruit went out of fashion for the most part.
“Now they want an easy peel and no seeds,” he told me.
So he started growing Ruby Red grapefruits with thick peels and few seeds. He knew, like me, the best citrus is chalk full of seeds with a patina of outer flesh that is a pain to peel. If you can take the seeds, and the embedding of citrus flesh under your nailbed, the fruit is worth the labor.
Grove owners sold their property to developers slowly but surely over the years, and U.S. 19 turned into a bustling artery running through Pinellas County. Repetto refused to sell his chunk of property on the corner of Belleair Road.
Then citrus canker hit in 2005, forcing Repetto to set fire to the groves. He caved and sold the property to Dick Norris. A wave of sadness washed over his face as he explains making the decision.
“Do you miss it? Working in the groves?” I asked.
“Oh yeah,” he said with a smile. “Everyday.”
I don’t blame Dick Norris for building his car dealership on a spot from which I recount so many childhood memories. Fewer oranges hang from Florida trees; more oranges are stamped into metal license plates. Nothing is sacred in a state owned by those not from the land of sunshine and citrus. Repetto’s resilience in the face of constant development here made an impression on me. Today, the car dealership sits atop the soil that produced citrus for decades under Repetto’s careful watch. A few citrus trees rebelled and continue to produce fruit from time to time in the back of the lot.
North America has Paul Bunyan and the Wild West has Buffalo Bill. Florida has Al Repetto, the king of citrus.
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