During its annual convention in September, FFVA saluted a group of its members who have been a part of the association for more than 25 years. At the top of the list was Oviedo-based Nelson & Co. The family-owned company will celebrate 70 years of FFVA membership in 2013.
A lot has happened in those 70 years, but even more impressive is that Nelson & Co. was already close to 60 years old in 1943. And the company’s story begins even earlier than that.
In 1870, two Swedish brothers arrived in the United States. Within five years, they had settled in Central Florida, in what would soon be known as the town of Oviedo. Gus and Steen Nelson got to work clearing the land and planted citrus trees. By 1880, they were selling tangerines for $10 a box. They built a packinghouse and founded Nelson Brothers Packing Company in 1886.
Two railroads converged in Oviedo at that time. This created the ideal shipping situation for the growing company, which packed their own citrus and that of other growers under the name “Pride of Oviedo.” All went well until 1895, when the area experienced an extremely severe 100-year freeze.
The freeze of 1895 destroyed most of the trees. It also ended the partnership between the brothers.
Steen Nelson replanted and persevered. He organized the business into Nelson & Co. as a partnership between himself, W.H. Browning and B.F. Wheeler, Sr. During the next few years, they expanded the packinghouse and in 1913, B.F. Wheeler bought out W.H. Browning’s share of the company. The next couple of years were profitable, and the partners expanded their packinghouse operation. Then another freeze hit in 1917.
By this time, area growers had figured out that diversification was a good way to protect their assets against freezes. Many of them were growing and shipping celery. During a 10-year span in the late teens until early 1920s, more than half of the celery grown in Florida was being shipped from Seminole County packinghouses.
Wheeler bought Steen Nelson’s share of the company in 1922. He decided to keep the Nelson & Co. name because it was a successful and trusted brand. The company enjoyed prosperous times through the land boom of the 1920s and even during the Great Depression. During the 1930s, Nelson & Co. employed on average 25 full-time workers and about 200 seasonal laborers. Wheeler also built a fertilizer blending plant that employed about 65 people at the time.
B.F Wheeler, who was named to the Florida Citrus Hall of Fame in 1997, became active in the newly formed Florida Growers Association in the mid-1940s. In 1948, the organization changed its name to Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association. Soon, Wheeler’s son-in-law, John W. Evans, became a long-term member of FFVA’s board of directors and served as chairman from 1963 until 1965. In 1978, Evans noted in a biographical document that, “I’ve been a director since 1946-47 and I don’t think I have missed a directors’ meeting.”
Evans also served as a member of FFVA’s celery committee and the budget and finance committee. He was active in the Oviedo community, chairman of the Seminole County School Board and Seminole Memorial Hospital, president of the Rotary Club, and trustee of the First Methodist Church, among other positions.
John W. Evans was married to Clara Lee Wheeler Evans. Daughter of B.F. Wheeler and known as Claire, she became one of the city’s most respected historians. Her great-grandmother, Narcissa Melissa Lawton, had settled in the area as a young widow in the 1860s. The marriages of Mrs. Lawton’s children produced some of the area’s most influential citizens in the years to come. After Claire Evans passed away in 2010, the city of Oviedo named a street in her honor.
Claire and John’s sons Arthur, David, Charles and Wes, and a cousin, Miriam Wheeler Bruce, run Nelson & Co. today. Over the past several decades, they have weathered the freezes of 1983, 1985 and 1989, hurricanes, a challenging economy and much more.
“This company grew citrus from 1886 until the freeze of 1895 slowed it down,” said Arthur. “Then it came back for another 90 years before the three freezes of the 1980s. We were almost back to starting up again after the second freeze in 1985 but then another came in 1989 and it was just too much. That’s what prompted us to move more into the commercial real estate business,” he said.
The fertilizer plant was sold to Douglass Fertilizer (now The Andersons) in 1992. “Spencer Douglass bought it to go into the lawn and garden, golf and commercial turf fertilizer business,” said David.
Nelson & Co. now consists of a real estate division, a property management division and as far as the citrus end of the business, a production division and a sales and marketing division, David said.
Arthur serves as president and chairman of the board. David is vice president. Charles, a licensed building contractor, lends his expertise in permitting, governmental compliance and related matters, and Wes has retired. Mimi Wheeler Bruce serves as corporate secretary. David’s focus is on the citrus real estate and Arthur’s is on the commercial real estate. “But everything overlaps a bit,” David said.
The brothers also have their own business ventures outside of the Nelson & Co. umbrella including, most recently, blueberries. Wes, Arthur and David Evans followed their father’s example and have served as members of FFVA’s board of directors. David is a current executive committee member.
The Nelson & Co. property in the historic section of Oviedo has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as significant in the development of Seminole County.
“We’re the second oldest company in Central Florida,” said Arthur. “The only one that’s older is Chase and Co., which was founded in 1884 and is now Sunniland Corp., Sanford.”
Learn more about the interesting history of Oviedo, Fla. here.