John E. “Johnny” Petersen (1926-1994)
Petersen Picking Bags
Pallet Bar Attachments
Dump System & Loader
John E. “Johnny” Petersen was born in Hollywood, Florida, in 1926. His mother, Clair Bulwan Petersen, gave birth to him in the tent that the family was living in while their house was being built in Lake Wales. The family did not move to their house on Seminole Street in the town until Petersen was five years old. Petersen eventually graduated from a Lake Wales high school and attended Sewanee Military Academy. In 1944 Petersen entered the U.S. Air Force.
Petersen’s father died four years earlier and his mother ran the family business, the Petersen Mattress and Awning Company, until her son returned home after World War II. During his time managing the mattress and awning company, Petersen made his first foray into the citrus industry; he created a new type of picking bag as a way to augment the family business. The bags (known as the Petersen picking bags) became prevalent throughout the industry, and developed into the primary family business. Eventually, sales were so brisk that the enterprise was forced to shift operations to a much larger location south of Lake Wales.
During his time selling the bags, Petersen began to observe the strain the citrus industry exerted on the harvesters. Petersen began devising ways to ease the difficulty of the working man. He conceived numerous improvements to citrus harvesting that would change the face of the Florida citrus industry. Chief among these was the Lightning Loader, which Petersen invented in 1958. Previously, workers had to manhandle 90-pound field crates onto the backs of trucks, but the Lightning Loader reduced the process down to a bulk system requiring a machine operated only by one man. Originally designed only for fruit being harvested for processing, the first combination units were not produced until 1962. Petersen discovered that by changing the pick up head on the arm, the new units could swiftly be transformed to handle either fresh or cannery fruit. This innovation converted the entire industry from the use of single 90-pound field crates to the 10-box plastic bulk bins currently in use.
Petersen expanded his inventions into various fields in the citrus industry, especially developing and manufacturing. Over the span of his career, Petersen devised a variety of innovations, including degreening rooms, aluminum tubs and canvas liners, the Pallet Bar attachment, and the dump system and loader. Petersen’s inventions have saved the citrus industry millions of dollars in harvesting costs alone.
Honest and warmhearted, Petersen developed an excellent reputation with his customers and was always willing to test his products in the field. In 1963, the Committee of 100 presented him with the Governor’s citation for industry appreciation. He also served on the board of directors for the Lake Wales Bank and Trust and as the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Dog Island Conservation District. Petersen is also fondly remembered for volunteering his time to teach skills to local Boy Scout groups; he spent many a day chaperoning them on camping and fishing trips.
In 1979, Petersen married Nancy Williams of Tallahassee. She started working in the citrus business in 1985. When Petersen died in March of 1994, she became chairman of the board of Petersen Industries. The family eventually accumulated 40,000 square feet of manufacturing space in a location next to Florida’s Natural in Lake Wales. In his wake, Petersen left behind a legacy of ingenuity and innovation.