The historic Carney Island orange grove, tucked away next to Marion County’s Lake Weir, may soon disappear if no one takes on the grove’s upkeep and responsibilities.
Carney Island has seen many different caretakers in its lifetime. Eighty-three-year-old War Veteran Kenneth Brown Sr., has lived by the orange grove long enough to see most of its history.
“What, 83, 84? Well about that time anyway it froze… got down to about 10-11 degrees. One year the trees froze off real bad, and we pruned them,” Brown said. “Everybody pruned them all off, and about thirteen months later, in January, the roots died.”
Brown and his son, Ken, saw Carney Island in some of its best moments, and in some of its worst. Since the freeze, they said Carney Island hasn’t been the same.
“It’s not the whole Carney Island like it used to be, but the groves are still up there,” he said.
In the past, Carney Island was an agricultural site, and a home to the Timucuan American Indian tribe since the 1600s.
Gina Peebles, Marion County Parks and Recreation Director, said it became a grove a couple of hundreds of years later.
“Back in 1875 Captain John L. Carney and his brother, E.L. Carney, bought the grove, and they developed the 25-acre orange grove, which later grew in size,” she said. “They were also responsible for developing different kinds of citrus including the Parson Brown. In 1894, there was a freeze that wiped out the trees around the lake.”
The Carney Island grove was later purchased by the Coca-Cola Co., using the citrus for their Minute Maid Juice division in 1990. Coke later sold Carney Island back to the county, when the Marion County Sheriffs Office agreed to maintain it.
Sgt. David Hurst has been with the sheriff’s office for 29 years, and he became familiar with the grove when the agency picked it up in 2008.
“At one time, there were so many trash trees, and by trash trees I mean not orange trees, more like oak trees. There was just a lot of foreign trees to the grove that were in there,” Hurst said. “It was head high, literally between the rows, and we went in and did a lot of work in there, and it’s a lot better than what it was six years ago.”
A year ago, the sheriff’s office backed out of caring for the grove. Now, Marion County is trying to figure what to do with this historic site. At one point the Department of Corrections expressed an interest in maintaining it, but backed out due to the daunting workload, according to Hurst.
“We were challenged with resources and personnel,” he said. “We were always struggling late in the season to get down to Carney Island and get it picked. So when someone else was interested, since we had adequate fruit here (the University of Florida’s research farm), we decided to back off so nothing would go to waste and share it; we would let someone else use it.”
Peebles said that so far the county is just letting the grove grow wild, but it has some agritourism ideas for its future.
“People from other places, they don’t have orange trees, so you could come here, learn about them, maybe pick one, juice it; do a you-pick kind of thing so it’s kind of a fun family experience,” she said.
However, with a year of no one taking care of it, Carney Island has become organic, and the county has talked about removing the historic orange trees and the smell their orange blossoms produce.
“Well, at some point it’s just gonna grow wild, and the county will have to make a decision at some point that we want to do something with that grove,” she said. “Or just take out the orange trees and plant it with something native to the area.”
However, she thinks the trees and their aromatic presence will be missed.
After living next to the grove for so long, Brown said he would remember how the area surrounding the log house he built in 1964 would smell like oranges.
As of now, Peebles said there have been some interested caretakers that have come and gone, and it’s just a matter of time until a decision, which the Marion County Board of Commissioners have an open mind about, is made.