Lew James Prosser, Jr. (1899-1996)
Lew James Prosser, Jr., was born July 9, 1899, in Prosser Hollow, Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to Lew and Annie Prosser. His father was a bituminous coal operator and real estate dealer who moved the family to Miami in 1906 where Lew, Jr., attended public schools, graduating from Miami High School in 1916, completing his formal education at the Pan American College of Commerce, also in Miami.
Afterwards, he moved to Plant City where he worked for the Seaboard Air Line Railroad and gained valuable experience in freight shipping and the express business, which would eventually lead to some of his most important innovations. At the time, Plant City was the largest inland shipping point in the state, with fifty to sixty trains passing through each day.
Prosser began his career in the citrus industry in 1921 working for Robert Wade Burch, a pioneer citrus and produce shipper, attaining partnership status in 1924. After the death of Mr. Burch in 1928, Prosser assumed sole ownership of the R. W. Burch Company at the young age of 29. Within two years, he had expanded the operations to five citrus packing plants and had become the third largest independent shipper of citrus fruit in Florida. In 1928, he married Vaviel Madeline Wilbur in Plant City and they had one child: Sally Madeline Prosser, who was an honor student at Duke University. In 1950 Sally married Dr. John Verner, a medical internist at Duke University Hospital, and later a partner in the Watson Clinic in Lakeland, Florida. They had four children: Sally Lou, John V., Jr., James Prosser, and Edward M. Verner.
With the collapse of Florida’s economy in the late 1920s, farmers had few markets for their products. Their survival depended on the extension of farm credit, which enabled continued production for both farmers and their suppliers. This led to the formation of the first farm production credit association in the area, the Plant City Production Credit Company, which was administered by Prosser’s R. W. Burch Company and sponsored by a forerunner to the United States Farm Credit Administration.
An inventor and an aggressive innovator, Prosser went on to form the Florida Mixed Car Company which specialized in marketing mixed carlot shipments of citrus and produce on one rail car solely dedicated to the shipment of produce. By the late 20s, Prosser was averaging 1,000 carloads of citrus and produce annually. Later, when the railroads were unwilling to provide refrigerated carlot express services, Prosser underwrote the expense of a proceeding before the Interstate Commerce Commission in Washington. The case lasted three years and eventually resulted in a ruling by the ICC in the mid-1930s that gave significant relief for produce growers and shippers by requiring express companies to provide full refrigerated car service for produce at reduced rates. The landmark ruling resulted in increased shipments of produce from Plant City, eventually paving the way for the state’s largest farmers market and for “making Plant City the largest winter strawberry shipping point in the world.”
Areas around the Farmers Markets were incubators for new business and, in 1944, Prosser organized the first and only citrus canning plant in Plant City, the Citrus Products Company, providing a new market for citrus producers. He also used the byproducts through processing them in the adjacent cattle feed division and the citrus molasses division. Prosser sold the plant to what became a multi-million-dollar cannery, the J. William Horsey Company.
By the 1950s Lew Prosser owned or controlled via lease several thousand acres with some in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk, and Sumter counties, which led to another innovative development in 1951 – the first citrus harvesting rig.
He traveled extensively and often funded trips with Dr. A. F. Camp, (later of the Citrus Experimental Station (CAS) in Lake Alfred), to research citrus production practices in other countries. They went to Brazil to explore that nation’s citrus growing potential well before its rise as a main competitor in the citrus industry, and later to Spain to study how that country was handling the infestations of the Mediterranean fruit fly. He became known primarily as a citri-culturist, having traveled the world to visit and research all the major citrus producing countries.
Prosser’s extensive search for knowledge about citrus resulted in several revolutionary changes in processing and marketing crops. He made a valuable contribution to the industry with the development of two patents which became uniformly applied throughout the state.
One of these was the tri-sodium phosphate bath. Previously it had been necessary to wrap each orange and grapefruit separately in specially treated paper to deter decay in transit and merchandising. This was eliminated by the new bath process which significantly retarded decay, reduced the cost of packing, and led to the use of alternative types of containers.
The second innovation pioneered by Prosser’s company was an improvement patent. The dyeing of oranges of varieties characteristically yellow in appearance gave them a darker orange color. This color-added process became widely used within the industry due to the enhanced eye appeal of the fruit, which made it more competitive with higher colored varieties.
A former employee, Lewis Surratt, recalls “Mr. P was a believer and supporter in the science and technology work of Dr. Camp and the experiment station. Even in his older years Mr. Prosser read and studied everything there was to know about the industry and how it was changing. Though he had been involved since before the Great Depression, and many old growers were a tad slow to adopt certain sprays and technologies, Mr. Prosser was always looking ahead.”
His grandson, Ed Verner, grew up working for his grandfather and recounts this story:
“My grandfather introduced me to many names currently adorning your hall of fame’s list of recipients, such as Dr. Camp, Mr. Floyd, B. H. Griffin, Thom Mack, Buster Pratt, and others. Additionally, I had a class with Dr. Prevatt while at FSC and he too mirrored comments offered by these men and others regarding my grandfather’s contributions to the Florida Citrus industry. The common theme I would hear from these people when they would greet my grandfather, and then address me was nearly always something like, ‘Son, you should be very proud to be Mr. Prosser’s grandson. He has done sooooo much for this industry…’ etc. Frequently I would hear how my grandfather had been instrumental in supporting Dr. Camp’s efforts and what became the Lake Alfred Experiment Station before such was funded. I was told how Lew sponsored some of the travels to foreign countries by many who otherwise would not have been able to study and learn.”
Prosser was also known to quietly donate to education for numerous family and friends throughout Plant City, as well as anonymously fund area projects and in a 1975 article discussing the growth of Plant City, recounted several accomplishments that were actually his own, but he didn’t take credit for them in the article.
Prosser was a charter member in the creation of the First Federal Savings and Loan Company in Plant City, which provided loans to the agricultural industry, and was also a director of the Tampa National Farm Loan Association. Very active in his community, he was a member of the Kiwanis Club of Plant City, the University Club and Executives Club of Tampa, Palma Ceia Golf Club of Tampa and the Lakeland Yacht and Country Club, to name a few. Known as Plant City’s “Quiet Entrepreneur,” Prosser was also the author of “Early History of the Produce Industry in Plant City” and passed away in 1996 at the age of 97.
A pioneer, shipper, producer, processor, researcher, and promoter of Florida’s citrus industry for more than 75 years, we are proud to add Lew Prosser, Jr. to the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame.