Florida’s citrus industry is one of its economic mainstays, generating more than $8 billion a year. The state’s 12,000 citrus growers cultivate some 107 million citrus trees on more than 858,000 acres of land. The state produces more oranges than any other region of the world, except Brazil.

But at the risk of sounding like a Swedish version of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”—we have a Swede to thank for it all. The fact that Swedes founded Florida’s modern citrus industry is a forgotten chapter of Swedish-American history.


Boström’s orange boom
Johan Anders Boström, a sailor and a teacher’s son from the Swedish island of Gotland, is the undisputed father of the Swedish/U.S. citrus industry. He set out to cultivate them, realizing their commercial potential early on. In the process, he founded a boom industry, as well as the cities of Ormond Beach, (Florida’s first millionaire playground), and Daytona Beach.

Fate obviously wanted Boström in Florida—he survived three shipwrecks off its coast before taking the hint and leaving the sailor’s life behind to settle there for good in 1865. At that time, Florida was still mainly wilderness, with only about 100,000 people, and still recovering from the Seminole and Civil Wars.

Boström took advantage of Florida’s Armed Occupation Act, which accorded each settler five acres to cultivate and, after five years, 160 additional acres and one year’s rations. He settled at Hog Pen on the Halifax River and sent for his brother Charles from Sweden to help him in his orange groves. He didn't know much about agriculture, but he learned a lot during the five to seven years it takes for orange trees to produce their first fruit.

Boström acquired additional acreage for $1 an acre and built the first house on the banks of Halifax River, on what is now Riverside Drive in Ormond Beach. A couple of years later, the brothers also developed large groves further north. They founded Daytona Beach as a grove center and built the first house there.

Once Boström's orange groves were in full production, people began shipping crates of oranges to friends and relatives up north. Most likely that's how the Corbin Lock Company of New Britain, Conn., first discovered the fruit and realized the crop’s potential. In 1871, they dispatched horticulturists to Florida to look at Boström's groves and scout for suitable land for colonies for their employees. They purchased an area of land bordering Boström's along Halifax River.

The arrival of Corbin Lock was the start of what might be called a citrus gold rush—one that, from the growers’ perspective, came to be dominated one way or another by Swedes for the next 15 to 20 years.

Oranges made Boström a wealthy man. He built a new 14-bedroom house he called “Bosarvet” (“Bo’s inheritance”) in 1903, along with much of the city of Ormond Beach. He shared the estate with his brother and two sisters, and hosted the likes of the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. Bosarvet is still a landmark in Ormond Beach. Boström lived there until his death at 91 in 1927, the town’s oldest inhabitant (and former mayor). His grandson still lives there today.

The story of New Upsala
Another chapter in the story of Swedish citrus focuses on the pioneering efforts of the sons of noted judge Lars Henschen, of Uppsala. One of his sons, William, emigrated with a group of friends to Seminole County, Florida, where they established an agricultural settlement there called New Upsala. The settlers cleared the land and planted orange trees. While waiting for their first yield, they earned livings as carpenters, blacksmiths and tailors.

That was until the former general and ambassador Henry S. Sanford saw what among others, the Corbin Lock Company was doing and got bitten by the orange bug. He bought 12,500 acres along St. Johns River and Lake Monroe, north of the small village of Orlando.

Sanford had been advised to use immigrant labor due to the hostile view in Florida towards using black labor. So he hired all of the Swedes in New Upsala and asked the Henschen brothers to bring over some more. The first group of 32 immigrants sailed from Gothenburg on board the “SS Scandinavia” on April 23, 1871; another group on October 10, 1871, also from Gothenburg; and a third group from Liverpool, England, in July 1872.

As more Swedes arrived, New Upsala grew to support two churches, a school and a railroad station. For the colony to be as self-sustaining as possible, New Upsala attracted workers including masons, carpenters, tailors, cabinetmakers, tanners, etc., as well as farm workers.

As the colony grew, it was renamed Sanford. However, there are still many reminders of its Swedish heritage. Upland Road still exists, leading to New Upsala Swedish Baptist Church. And the Sanford Museum contains numerous Swedish memorabilia and artifacts, including a list of every Swede who arrived to work at the Sanford groves.

Sanford not only developed citrus groves, but took pride in cultivating practically every fruit-bearing tree of the tropics. For that, he relied on his Swedish head gardener, I.E. Wenström, and botanist Alfred Löfgren. For his head horticulturist, he turned again to Sweden, hiring Dr. Carl Leonard Vihlén of the University of Uppsala, whom the Florida Citrus Manual credits with developing the Valencia orange, the basis for today's juice industry.

The New Upsala colony thrived in Sanford until the terrible “double freeze” of the winter of 1894-1895, which destroyed the citrus crops. Many of the Swedish families there were forced to leave the area to find work, and scattered across the state.

William Henschen didn’t stay long either. He pulled up stakes after only a couple of years and moved to Brooklyn in New York, where he served as editor of the newly founded Swedish-American weekly newspaper Nordstjernan (owned today by Swedish News, the publisher of Nordic Reach) from 1873 to 1874.

The birth of St. Petersburg
Henschen’s brother Joseph, who was more of a businessman than his brothers, also dabbled in the railroad. He and three partners, Demens, Sweetapple and Taylor. Together they founded the Orange Belt Railway, which is remembered chiefly for its role in founding one of Florida’s major cities.

Early in 1887, when construction work on the Orange Belt Railway was starting and post offices were being established along the road west, Mrs. Ella E. Ward was appointed postmistress for the town at the far west end of the road. She immediately faced a dilemma: The town had no name. How would mail be addressed? She was told that the town should be named after one of the four original backers of the Orange Belt--Demens, Sweetapple, Taylor or Henschen. So Mrs. Ward went to the railway headquarters of the, where only Henschen was present at the time.

Several stories have been told about how the town finally did get its name, but according to Henschen himself:

“They wanted me to name the town, and I didn’t know what to call it. We’d already named a town along the way after Taylor [Taylorville], to call it Sweetapple would have doomed the town from the start, and my name is too difficult to spell. However, I knew that Demens wanted a town named after his Russian place of birth. So I thought to myself, why not call this town down there on the Gulf of Mexico St. Petersburg–it will never amount to anything anyhow, so its name won’t make any difference. That is the way St. Petersburg got its name.”

‘A Swede in every grove’
By the mid-1870s, Swedish growers and workers were a major presence in the citrus groves of Florida. The industry was a magnet for Swedes seeking fortunes in the New World.

Olof Larsson, for example, a native of Värmland, acquired several thousand acres in Piedmont, which is now part of the town of Apopka, near Orlando, and covered in large part by Disney World. Further to the east, between Orlando and Boström's groves in Volusia County, lies the town of Pierson. It is named for Per Persson (known locally as Peter Pierson) and his family, who founded and ran the town for years.

From St. Petersburg to Daytona Beach there was, as someone said, “a Swede in every grove.” So many that there was even a Swedish-language newspaper for a time, Florida Posten.

The Hallströms of Vero Beach
The last of the Swedish citrus pioneers to make a major impact on the industry was Axel Hallström, a farmer’s son from Skåne. He arrived in Florida towards the end of the century, looking for suitable land to grow pineapples. He discovered that pineapples weren’t a profitable proposition and switched to citrus on a grand scale. He had loading docks for the Florida East Coast Railroad built right on his property, just south of what today is Vero Beach. He named the area Viking County and owned the land between Oslo and Stockholm Roads. Oslo Road is today one of the main roads through the former Viking County, now called Indian River County.

Hallström became the first president of the Orange Growers Association and the Florida Citrus Growers Exchange. He also founded the only area bank to weather the Great Depression.

Driving along the Old Dixie Highway south of Vero Beach, I have often admired a large, beautiful red brick Victorian building set back anonymously from the road. About a year ago, it was named the new headquarters of the Indian River County Historical Society. It had been donated by Axel Hallström's daughter. She was born in the house, which took her father, an early widower, ten years to build. She never married and willed the house to the Society upon her death, at 100, a couple of years ago.

On the other side of the Indian River Lagoon, in the city of Vero Beach, there is another Swedish memento: the Wahlstrom Sculpture Garden, which includes Carl Milles’ “Boy and the Dolphin,” and is part of the large, Swedish-run Vero Beach Museum. But that's another story…

-- Lars H. Ottoson

Fun Facts about Swedes, Oranges and Florida
Citrus trees aren’t native to Florida. China is credited as the birthplace of citrus—dating back to 2200 B.C. (hence the Swedish word for orange, apelsin–”äppelsin,” or “Chinese apple”). The first citrus fruit was brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, and early Spanish explorers planted the first orange trees around St. Augustine sometime between 1513 and 1565.

Pierson and St. Petersburg aren’t the only Florida towns named by or after Swedes. In 1897, Bengt Magnus Johansson, a crofter’s son originally from the Swedish province of Halland, moved his family to Florida from Illinois to improve his ailing health. Johansson, formerly the pastor of the Lutheran Augustana Synod’s seminary in Paxton, Ill., had by then changed his last name to Halland to honor the province of his provenance. During his first winter in Florida, he founded a new congregation that eventually grew into a village and is now a city of close to 100,000 people. That city is Hallandale, just a few miles north of Ft. Lauderdale.

Orange juice is a staple in today's refrigerators. But the orange juice industry (as opposed to whole fruit) didn’t develop until after World War II. The post-war era ushered in the baby boom and the growth of America's suburbs. Frozen concentrated orange juice, along with other frozen food items, started to appear in freezers throughout the country. Frozen concentrate remained the most popular form of orange juice until the early 1990s, when ready-to-serve chilled orange juice surpassed frozen juice in sales.