North on FM Road 673 is Orangedale, where orange crops were shipped by rail. The tracks are gone—as are the orange groves. Little is left of the town except a cluster of homes and two highway signs.
“BEEVILLE AS CENTER OF CITRUS SECTION” claims the headline of an Aug. 9, 1907, newspaper article, penned by C.A. Briggs, a staff correspondent. Which newspaper, however, is open to question because the article, unearthed from the Bee-Picayune attic, is brittle with age and trimmed without the newspaper folio lines which contain the name of the publication.
“With 75,000 orange trees flourishing in territory adjacent to Beeville (some of those acres grew at the state’s first Texas A&M Agricultural Experiment Station, opened in 1894) and plans made for hundreds of other orchards,” he wrote, “Bee County may well feel justified in laying claim to being a near future competitor to California in the production of citrus and other fruits.”
Already the area had a name — the Southwest Texas Fruit Belt —and Briggs outlined its many advantages. “Two-thousand miles nearer (to) the great markets of the country gives ... a distinct advantage over older fruit-producing sections.”
The reporter was equally enthusiastic about the town.
“Beeville is the youngest city in the state...a city of 4,000 inhabitants, (it) has a boy mayor of 25 years of age, who is serving his people for nothing. He is a U. of T. man, a lawyer and one of the enterprising citizens of the city. His name is John R. Beasley.”
Unlike other counties in the Rio Grande Valley, Briggs noted, “Orange culture in Bee County has passed the experimental stage.
“Citizens now talk oranges in technical language and with as much fluency as the old-time ranchers...talk about brands and roundups.”
In 1909, a 25-page brochure by San Antonio real estate agent J. A. Clopton advertised 30-acre tracts north of Beeville — $25 to $45 each, depending on location — perfectly suited for orange orchards or other crops.
Curiously, some of the text was lifted, word for word, from Brigg’s article.
So promising were the orchards — and such a potential threat — the California Citrus Association sent one of its members to investigate. F.G. Hutchinson was so impressed with the soil and the climate that he sold his California orchards at a loss, moved to Beeville, bought 100 acres and planted 25,000 orange trees.
“Mr. Hutchinson states that he was never more convinced of success than he is now,” Briggs writes. “He is more than satisfied with his investment.”
Beeville’s citrus reputation extended to both coasts. A 1909 article in the Picayune quoted L. N. Polk of Florida who said Bee County was “fully as good, if not better and a safer climate for orange growing than we have in Florida.” He told the newspaper he planned to move his entire operation to Beeville.
If citrus growing was a stage, Beeville’s footlights were never brighter.
The Dugat family of Beeville even claimed to have bred its own unique variety of orange, aptly named the Dugat.
“Various are the claims as to the origin of that hardy Texas orange,” Briggs writes, “but Beeville claims the honor....A family by that name can show you the original tree, now 38 years old, but loaded with fruit. The writer saw the tree with his own eyes, and so accepts the story.”
W.S. Dugat, a major in the Confederate Army, was instrumental in breeding the orange, which is thought to have included a graft from a Japanese variety mistakenly shipped to the United States. The tree was on his property near the IBC Bank.
“How they got started in that business or what instigated their developing the orange, I have no idea,” says his great-grandson, Sid Dugat of Beeville. “But, they were proud of it. It was pretty hardy. It could stand a lot of freeze, but not what finally happened.”
In a publication celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Texas A&M Research Station, writer Steve Hill noted that at the height of the Beeville citrus boom, a class D professional baseball team in the newly formed Southwest Texas League was christened as the Beeville Orange Growers. “The team won a pennant in 1911.”
It disbanded a year later — the same year the freezing winters came.
While some of the climatological records are sketchy, low temperatures measured in 1907, the year of the Briggs story, compared with 1911 are, well, chilling.
In 1907, the average low temperature for the winter season was 45. For 1911, 43.7. That doesn’t seem to be much of a difference. However, the lowest winter temperature in 1907 was 22; in 1911, 19. Worse yet, the number of winter days when the minimum temperature was 28 or below in 1907 was four; in 1911, 11.
Records kept at the National Weather Service office in Corpus Christi also contain an anomaly. Two years before Briggs extolled the advantages of growing citrus here because of the tropical climate, Beeville recorded its fourth-coldest winter on record, with eight consecutive days when the minimum temperature was below freezing and five days when it was below 28. The Briggs story doesn’t mention it.
Unfortunately, Hutchinson had come to Bee County during more than a decade of mild winters.
A notation at the research station: “The season of 1912 was begun with the trees frozen almost to the ground.”
In the next few years, some orchard owners tried to replant and start over. Historian Margaret Moser relates that in May 1924, Hutchinson, now the “superintendent of the Beeville Orchard and Nursery Company, ...planned a 100-acre orchard three miles north of Beeville.”
But, Hill writes, “the subsequent freezes...dampened the spirit of the people...the citrus fruit diminished almost to the point of extinction.”
Including, it seems, the Dugat.
“There’s nothing left,” Dugat says, “and it’s kinda sad.”
A computer search of the orange only returns an art dealer in Lansing, Mich., selling a color lithograph of it, drawn in 1880 that appeared in the U.S. Department of Agriculture Yearbook of 1910.
The last remnant of Beeville’s citrus boom is available — only one print left — for $20, including shipping.
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.