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Atwood Grapefruit Company Served Up Delicious Fruit

There’s a new kid in town north of the Manatee River. Feld Entertainment headquarters at 2001 US Highway 301 in Palmetto produces live entertainment experiences, such as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Disney on Ice, Monster Jam, and several others. The property is a busy place, preparing for all their shows. But imagine the property being used for a different type of business - another “growing” business, many years ago.

Kimball Chase Atwood

Kimball Chase Atwood

Manatee County Agricultural Hall of Fame Portrait.

In 1892, this property was purchased by Kimball Atwood. A native of Maine, born in 1853, Atwood moved to New York City at the age of nineteen and became successful in the insurance industry. He vacationed in Braidentown in 1890, lured by the hunting and fishing opportunities. While here, he became a great fan of Florida citrus fruit…so much of a fan that he bought the Palmetto property to plant a grapefruit grove.

Atwood returned to New York and over the next few years, the land was cleared. It was a laborious task, as the land was covered with dense vegetation. After the land was cleared, a few buildings were erected and wells were drilled. Atwood was finally ready to plant…but the planting was delayed by the great freeze of 1895, which destroyed a good part of Florida’s citrus industry. Eventually, the rich hammock soil along the Manatee River was ready for planting and 16,000 grapefruit trees were planted on the property in 1897. There were 96 rows of trees with each row being one mile long. That’s 96 miles of grapefruit! Using artesian wells and pipelines placed on every other row, the entire grove could be watered in one week.

Aerial view of Atwood Grove, c. 1920.

Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historic Digital Collection

Once it appeared that the grapefruit was going to be a successful crop, a pier was built on the river and a packing house was erected on the end of the pier. Atwood fruit could be shipped up to Tampa by steamer. A story that Atwood’s grandson told during a speaking engagement in 1978 is that the packinghouse had an observation tower built on the roof, where a man would keep watch to spot the incoming steamer ship, headed for the pier to pick up the fruit. When he saw the ship, he sounded a conch shell for all to hear; in later years, a trumpet was used and then a bell after the trumpet. This would alert the crews to get ready for the unloading of supplies and the loading of fruit.

Atwood Grapefruit Co. Packinghouse, c. 1930.

Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historic Digital Collection

Atwood Grove became very successful and Kimball Atwood became a wealthy man. He invested well in the marketing of his grapefruit and orders poured in from across the United States as well as from overseas. He did make at least one mistake along his grapefruit journey, however. In 1910 an Atwood crew foreman, Mr. R. B. Foster, picked a grapefruit from a grove tree to enjoy with his lunch. Upon cutting the fruit open, he discovered that instead of the usual yellow flesh inside, it was pink! He reported his discovery to management, but Atwood felt that it was simply a curiosity – an anomaly – pink grapefruit would never be successful. Local nursery, Royal Palm Nurseries, ended up developing and propagating the pink Foster Grapefruit. In their 1915 catalog, Royal Palm advertised the Foster as “the newest and most valuable grapefruit. The quality is all one can ask for, simply unexcelled by anything in the grapefruit line.

Atwood Grapefruit Co. Front Gate

Entrance to Atwood Grapefruit Company Groves, c. 1916

Courtesy of Manatee County Public Library Historic Digital Collection

Despite this mistake in judgment, Atwood Grapefruit Company became the largest grove in the world. It is said that England’s King George V was an annual customer. At the peak of production in 1927, the grove produced 160,000 boxes, valued at more than a half-million dollars. Atwood passed away in 1934 and the grove remained in the family until the late 1960s/early 1970s when the property was sold to industrial development. After several manufacturing companies made their home on the property, Feld Entertainment has its corporate headquarters there today. Rumor has it that if you walk straight out to the river from the parking lot, you will find yourself in a hammock and may be able to pick yourself a grapefruit to enjoy with your lunch.

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