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Now browsing: Hometown News > News > Volusia County

Old packing house is getting a new lease on life
Rating: 4.21 / 5 (24 votes)  
Posted: 2013 Apr 12 - 06:14

By Erika Webb

A curious relic of bygone prosperity -- and strife -- will get a new life.

Steve Strickland bought the Theodore Strawn Packing House at 5707 Lake Winona Road in DeLeon Springs in 2012 for $50,000.

Recently Mark Shuttleworth, historic preservationist and owner of Florida Victorian Antiques, was found sifting through the building's dusty interior. Some would call it rubble, but for Mr. Shuttleworth old is gold.

Mr. Strickland is one of Mr. Shuttleworth's customers. He thinks along the same lines, and called his Oveido home -- now for sale -- "more or less an antique warehouse."

A passion for the archaic led him to the neglected 13.5-acre property where he will operate the hay and feed business he started in Oveido in 2004. He has been distributing from DeLeon Springs for about two years, he said.

Mr. Strickland's plan to put a feed store and farmers market in the front, along North U.S. 17, will require a zoning change since the majority of the property is zoned light industrial.

"The trucking outfit will be in back, which will pretty much be unseen," Mr. Strickland said.

He agreed he got a deal on the property, but said he's already put equal amount into cleaning it up and will have even more invested in addressing county requirements.

Mr. Strickland said the 11,000-square-foot main building could be multi-purposed.

"It's a little more (space) than we probably need for our industry, as far as a feed store," he said. "We've looked at it being an auction house, an indoor farmers market or maybe even for antique sales."

On the National Register of Historic Places, the Strawn Packing House and other buildings on the property were once the center of a thriving citrus enterprise. Situated along the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, the location was ideal for washing and sorting vast quantities of oranges before shipping them north.

Sylvia Strawn Crump, one of the owners of Vo-LaSalle Farms, is the great-granddaughter of Robert and Elizabeth Rhoads Strawn. They were married in LaSalle County, Ill.

Ms. Crump said the Strawns came to Volusia in 1883 and Elizabeth started buying 15-acre parcels of land in Glenwood, where she began "setting out" orange trees.

Pretty soon Mr. Strawn had to figure out what to do "with all this fruit that was coming in," Mrs. Crump said. "He took it to DeLeon Springs and shipped it in barrels to a Chicago market."

The Strawns' son Theodore helped his father pack the fruit in a tent across from the entrance to DeLeon Springs.

"Then they built a (wooden) packing house that burned in 1921," Mrs. Crump said.

Theodore and his wife, Candace, had four sons, Robert, Ted, Chester and Gordon. Chester was Mrs. Crump's father.

"My father was in college in Illinois when Theodore called all of his boys to help rebuild the packing house," Ms. Crump said. "It was cement, steel and glass, so it wouldn't burn. It's rusted but it hasn't burned."

She said several of the original buildings also were destroyed by fire, including a sawmill across the street from the packinghouse.

"They used to mill the most beautiful cypress there," she said.

The Strawns shipped under three labels: Intrinsic, Bob White and Old Volusia.

Mrs. Crump said Intrinsic was the highest quality, followed by Bob White and Old Volusia.

But she said she's confused by media references to the old building, calling it the Bob White Packing House.

"It's never been called that. It's always been called the Theodore Strawn Packing House," Mrs. Crump said. "For some reason the Bob White paint stayed on the building and maybe that's why."

Citrus farmers then, and now, have been subject to catastrophic occurrences outside of their control.

Today, citrus greening -- caused by a bacteria spread by an insect called the Asian citrus psyllid -- is threatening the state's $9 billion dollar citrus industry.

Back in the 1950s, Mrs. Crump recalled, the nemesis of the day was the Mediterranean fruit fly.

"They (once) had to unload, discard and bury a whole train car of beautiful fruit, all gift packed and ready, because a fruit fly was detected somewhere in the area," she said.

Finally, the freezes of the 1980s ceased operations at the old packing house then owned by Mrs. Crump's cousin, John Strawn.

Mr. Strickland, who said his plans are "in the engineering phase right now," won't be battling freezes or flies to make a living, but he sighed deeply as he talked about storm drainage and sidewalks.

Among other things, the county will require him to put sidewalks around the property.

"I have to spend $20,000 on a sidewalk that starts nowhere and goes nowhere. Is that really a necessity?" he said. "I'm industrial and have no neighbors for a mile."

He's resolute and understands certain mandates are just "the cost of doing business today."

But he's also anxious to restore the look, at least, of the past.

"We're gonna have to put in a permit because some of the buildings are in such a bad state of repair; we'll have to demo some," Mr. Strickland said. "But we'll try to maintain the look of the main buildings because it's important to keep the character, I believe."

Florida Victorian Antiques manager Danny Sorensen helped Mr. Shuttleworth sort through remnants of history in the packing house.

"I found a box of letters from the 19-teens," he said, "written in that classic calligraphy they don't teach anymore, just beautiful. They were from family members and people writing from all over the U.S. thanking (Mr. Strawn) for the delicious oranges. My goal is to reconnect the letters with the family."

Mr. Shuttleworth said he'll be excavating for weeks to come. Much of the building's contents was in pieces but he managed to repurpose most of it. Old packing crates and even partial grove ladders were cleaned up and sold to boutique owners for display racks and cases. He said some of the packing crates also will serve as bookcases.

"If you only think narrowly of its original use you're going to be throwing a lot away," he said.

The conveyor systems are being disassembled; the parts can be used for coffee tables and workbenches, Mr. Shuttleworth said.

"They have an old industrial look, very sturdy," he explained.

Hundreds of cylinder rollers made of heart-pine, cypress and oak have been salvaged and sold as table legs.

He said the conveyors also yielded some "very cool" industrial table legs.

"We're reusing about 80 percent of the conveyors," Mr. Shuttleworth said. "We scrapped out some things that weren't reusable, but we're unbolting everything instead of using a steel saw to cut it up for scrap. A lot will be sold for funky furniture."

Even gear-pulley assemblies from the woodworking shop and the main building will be dismantled and sold. Various sizes of industrial beams can be rebuilt as table bases.

A variety of reclaimed wood, iron and hinges were used by University of South Florida grad student Vanessa Diaz for her thesis art exhibition.

"There are a lot of ways they can be reinterpreted and used," Mr. Shuttleworth said of the pieces and parts of industrial history.

Even the window sash weights serve a noble purpose.

"I sell 300 to 400 sash weights at a time to fisherman in the Turks and Caicos and Bahamas," he said. "They use them (to sink bait) when they're fishing 1,000 feet down for grouper."

To view local filmmaker Woodruff Laputka's picture book vignette of the salvage effort, go to vimeo.com/56060668.

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