- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

LEESBURG, Fla. (AP) - A mangled mess of charred metal and wood, coated with soot and ash, is all that remains of a once-productive citrus packinghouse that had stood since 1927.

On a quiet two-lane road, Lake County Citrus Sales’ packinghouse came down in a roaring two-alarm blaze the night of Jan. 16 - its demise an unintended symbol of the state of an industry that once defined Lake County.

“It was the best and most efficient packinghouse in the world,” said B.G. Floyd, the building’s 70-year-old owner. “We could run that packinghouse with four people.”

At citrus’ peak, packinghouses were sprinkled over the landscape of rolling hills and groves across the county. In 1975, Lake County produced more than 35 million boxes of citrus, which grew on nearly 130,000 acres - the state’s second-largest producer.

“There used to be a lot of packinghouses around years ago,” said Sharon Faryna, who owns one in Umatilla. “Every town seemed to have one.”

In 2013-14, Lake was the 10th-highest producer in citrus, producing fewer than 3 million boxes on about 10,000 acres, state records show.

Land once used for washing, waxing and shipping 250,000 to 300,000 containers of tangerines annually is now home to just Lake Sumter Fuel Oils, another of Floyd’s companies. He said he has more than 50,000 gallons of fuel on the property, which firefighters kept from igniting.

The State Fire Marshal’s Office has yet to determine a cause of the blaze. Floyd didn’t have insurance on the structure and estimated the fire will cost him about $60,000.

David Knowles, a former Leesburg mayor and city commissioner whose family was in the citrus business and had a packinghouse, said the fire was the end of an era.

“A lot of history disappeared,” Knowles said. “B.G.’s was probably the last old packinghouse in Lake County.”

Quick work by firefighters saved Floyd’s workshop and three trucks located near the burned structure, which hadn’t been operational since 2005. About 50 feet from the packinghouse stands a white fuel tanker that firefighters were able to save.

Floyd has had a strained relationship with numerous city officials, some of whom deemed the packinghouse an eyesore. The dilapidated structure had been slapped with seven code violations.

Floyd, who lost a bid for Leesburg City Commission in 2012, contends the packinghouse is in an industrial part of town, and “industrial isn’t pretty.”

City Commissioner Bob Bone called Floyd days after the fire to say he felt bad for him.

“I’m sympathetic to what happened to him there,” Bone said. “I can only imagine if it were me and a piece of property that had been in my family for generations. I’d be heartbroken.”

Sorting equipment that organized fruit by size and graded it had already been removed, as had huge 140-foot to 180-foot beams of heart-of-pine wood - a rare and valuable lumber that made up much of the packinghouse’s interior.

Now it’s gone forever. Floyd is out of the citrus business.

He recalled that more than 50 years ago his father, William Floyd Sr., put him to work in the citrus groves. Under the blazing Florida sun, he’d spread 100-pound bags of fertilizer and pick sandspurs. While the packinghouse employed “thousands” over nearly eight decades, B.G.’s father insisted that he work in the groves.

“I didn’t know much about citrus,” Floyd said. “But I was hell with a hoe.”

Over time, he worked his way up and eventually took over Lake County Citrus Sales from his father, who died in 1980.

Despite leaving the citrus business - which has been devastated by the deadly insect-borne disease citrus greening - for fuel and apartment rentals, he still has faith in its potential resurgence.

“The real shame is if we have a cure for greening, then citrus will come back slowly,” he said. “This would’ve been the perfect size packinghouse for rehabilitation.”

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Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/

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