James Howard “Jim” Ellis (1935)
James Howard Ellis was born on April 2, 1935 to Percy and Fannie Ellis in their wooden frame home in the middle of an Alturas orange grove, by our current Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam Putnam’s great-grandfather, Dr. Hughes. His father had a small grove, but also worked at Lake Garfield Citrus Cooperative as a night watchman and repaired their wooden field crates before moving up the ladder to become the General Manager. Jim grew up with his younger brother Charles, working in his family’s groves hoeing, feeding livestock, pruning trees – whatever needed to be done – a trait he would carry with him throughout his life.
He attended a wooden three-room schoolhouse in Alturas through six grades, moving on to Bartow High School for two years before going to the Summerlin Institute – where he graduated in 1953. He was a Sentinel in the FFA, as well as a member of the Parliamentarian and Judging Teams, and participated in the first Polk County Youth Fair, where he placed with a dairy animal. After graduation, he attended a National Guard summer camp, which prompted him to join the army in September of that year. He served in the United States Army with the 7th Infantry Division from 1953-56 in Korea, replacing those who were on the front lines and preparing their remains for shipment back to the United States.
He finished his tour of duty and returned home in 1956, where he met and married his wife of almost 60 years, Shirley, who he met through her father, a Baptist preacher in Alturas. He worked for a year with the Plant Board on the burrowing nematode project, digging up roots and putting them in a jar for testing. His crew leader was a graduate of Florida Southern College and it didn’t take Jim long to realize that an education meant better wages, so he signed up for Florida Southern College on the GI Bill majoring in citrus. While there, he was president of the Citrus Club and received the Florida Citrus Mutual Award for Outstanding Achievement in the field of citrus studies, graduating in 1960 with a degree in citrus. While attending school, Jim worked part-time in groves for whoever would hire him, earning a reputation as a personable hard worker who knew his way around a grove.
Shortly before Jim’s graduation, Bob Rutledge, the general manager of Florida Citrus Mutual, was driving through town, saw Jim, and yelled out the car window for Jim to stop by and see him. Jim did, and Rutledge hired him on the spot as the Florida Citrus Mutual field man for Polk County under Dale Carlton. He worked there for five years during the early stages of FCM– hosting steak dinners and signing up growers as members of the organization.
In 1965, his father and Uncle Joe needed him as a shipping clerk for Lake Garfield Citrus Cooperative and, after a brief stint selling chemicals to growers, he moved up the ladder to General Manager, making him the third Ellis man to work in that position for Lake Garfield Citrus Cooperative.
As general manager, Jim learned to “think outside the box,” always experimenting with ways to do things better but – more importantly – sharing his successes with other industry members. In 1979, he gave a presentation to the Florida State Horticultural Society which was printed in the February 1980 issue of Citrus Industry Magazine titled “Innovations for Citrus Packinghouses.” The article showcased a number of unique ideas including: mechanical gathering of leaves and other trash in pallet boxes that are dumped with a homemade forklift attachment; controlled recycling of hot air to reduce dryer fuel costs; a “magnetic broom” on forklift trucks in the receiving yard to gather nails and junk metal that otherwise ruin tires; and electric photocells that detected a fruit pile-up in the cannery bins and shut off the necessary equipment. He introduced the first electronic sorter to the state of Florida and experimented with cutting and scoring grapefruit, applying a sweetener and shrink wrapping them to market as a breakfast item. In addition, he was among the early experimenters using different forms of automated fruit harvesting equipment such as cherry pickers to shake seedling trees and abscission chemicals, which were only good when conditions were ideal.
When the freezes shut down the packinghouse in the late ‘80s, Jim went to work at Orange-Co as the production manager for Polk County, going back to chemical sales when they shut down. However, his broad knowledge of the growers and the industry made him an ideal candidate for running the Citrus License & Bonds, Division of Fruits & Vegetables, for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. His attention to detail and love for the industry helped him watch out for the growers’ interest in numerous fruit-buying situations.
Jim has served on numerous boards, including stints as president for the Polk County Farm Bureau, Florida Citrus Showcase and the Interior Seald-Sweet Shippers, Inc. He was a member of the Citrus Research and Education Foundation, the Polk County Extension Overall Advisory Council, the Florida Farm Bureau and a 25-year member of the Kiwanis Club.
His main love, however, is history and talking about history. Jim always has a story to tell if you have the time to listen, and – if you don’t – you should make time, because he’s a great storyteller!!! His recollections of the early days of the industry are an invaluable asset to the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame’s Oral History Project, and he is constantly finding old artifacts to add to the archival collections – along with the information on how they were utilized. He continues to run the “No Names” Club, which is strictly for “old-timers,” and sets up the meetings and programs each month.
However, Jim is probably best known for not only his passion for the citrus industry and its history, but his citrus crate label collection. He has one of the largest collections of Florida citrus crate labels in the world, which is the nucleus for the Florida Citrus Label Digital Collection at Florida Southern College. He and fellow label collector, Jerry Chicone, brought label-collecting to the forefront in the early ‘60s and ‘70s, when people were throwing out and burning old labels to make room in the packinghouses for the cardboard fruit boxes which had taken the place of the wooden shipping crates. His collection, along with that of Chicone’s, has been used in three books on citrus labels, and has even been featured in the décor of a restaurant recently opened in Sarasota!
However, the newest development based on Jim’s collection is the Polk County Citrus Label Driving Tour, which is a collaboration between the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame, Visit Central Florida and The Polk County History and Heritage Trail to stimulate interest in the history and citrus legacy of all the communities throughout Polk County. This flagship program currently includes almost 20 installations with enlarged reproductions of the vintage labels located on various buildings and sites throughout the county. The accompanying map provides background information on each label displayed, presenting the connection between that community and the citrus industry and the long-term goal is to eventually take the concept statewide and help showcase the importance of the citrus industry to the state of Florida.
He has been an avid speaker about both citrus labels and the industry in general, helping educate everyone from school children to senior citizens on the Florida citrus industry. He was also a key component in creating the partnership in 2008 between the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame and his beloved alma mater, Florida Southern College. He attended the initial meetings between Dr. Anne Kerr, Rob Tate and the Hall of Fame, helping to smooth the way for the move to FSC and raise the necessary funding. Funding that not only led to a physical presence on campus, but a website and fellowship endowments that have led to an engaged learning program with FSC students focused on preserving the heritage of the Florida citrus industry. Current digital collections include over 1,500 Florida citrus labels, 350 industry postcards and 500 photographs, as well as oral history interviews and Hall of Fame member biographies.
Jim has led a distinguished career for decades in the Florida citrus industry as a grower, packer, industry representative and historian. His love of the industry and his willingness to share his knowledge has made him an invaluable resource to whoever asks him for help or information. Dr. Calvin Arnold summed it up nicely: “Jim really gives to the industry from his heart, with no expectation of personal gain – his passion IS the citrus industry.”
Therefore, we are honored to induct Jim Ellis as the 185th member of the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame!