Living

‘Golden Nugget’ claims are rich in Coast history

A postcard mailed from Gulfport in 1911 comments, ‘This shows the orange trees when young,’ making the point that one good reason to plant citrus on the Mississippi Coast is that it produces crops early.
A postcard mailed from Gulfport in 1911 comments, ‘This shows the orange trees when young,’ making the point that one good reason to plant citrus on the Mississippi Coast is that it produces crops early. Paul Jermyn Collection

The “Golden Nugget” was commonplace on the Mississippi Coast long before a legal casino with that name entered the local scene.

People bit down on these nuggets just like they would to check the veracity of real gold. These yellowish-orange treasures caused booms and busts in personal finances, and their business profitability was definitely dependent on the good times.

The analogy must end there, however, as the Coast’s first golden nuggets were fruit.

Over 100 years ago a Coast promoter named Thomas E. Dabney labeled the satsuma as the Coast’s “golden nugget.” The satsuma is a mandarin orange known for its sweetness, few seeds and loose skin.

In several slices of Coast time, Dabney’s nugget theory was right. In the 1890s, again in the 19-teens and again in the 1930s, farmers sold impressive quantities of tasty Coast-grown satsuma. Local soil and weather conditions were right for bumper crops. Some of the time, anyway.

Why the nuggets?

As South Mississippi chopped down its giant ancient yellow pine forests for the lumber export business, the question arose as to what to do with the cut-over lands. People like Dabney believed the answer was agriculture, and his Jackson County became a leader in proving it, especially with pecans. In 1913, Ocean Springs also happily launched an annual Satsuma Day festival.

Dabney wrote colorfully and enthusiastically in his own newspaper, The Ocean Springs News, and he also published pamphlets on the wonders of the satsuma. “This juicy, tender, delicious orange is a fortune in itself,” he declared in one 1915 pamphlet. Unlike many slow-producing orchard trees, a satsuma had the potential to produce hundreds, if not thousands, by age 3.

One state entomologist in 1915 counted 40,000 satsumas, 8,000 grapefruit, 300 kumquats and several thousand other citrus trees in the region from Back Bay Biloxi to the Pascagoula River, and the golden nuggets grew on other parts of the Coast, too.

Before we reveal what happened to these fruit flush times, lets explore a bit of U.S. citrus history. Would you be surprised to know that citrus is not native, and the first citrus is thought to reach the New World in 1493 via Christopher Columbus? Early Spanish explorers, likely Ponce de Leon, planted the first orange trees around St. Augustine, Florida, between 1513 and 1565, paving the way for Florida to become a top orange producer.

By the 19th century, citrus trees were growing wild in the Florida forests and orange orchards were cultivated in the St. John’s River and Tampa regions. Why? The state’s sandy soil and sub-tropical climate were ideal.

But historians say it took nearly 400 years from the first introduction of citrus to Florida to turn it into a profitable agriculture business.

Our Coast joins fruit fray

With Mississippi’s coastal region boasting similar climate and soil, it was inevitable that our Coast would jump on the citrus bandwagon. Local agricultural entrepreneurs, among them Bechtel, Money, Cox, Wilson, Delmas, believed in the golden nuggets.

While Dabney’s Jackson County was busy planting citrus, so were folks in Harrison County and elsewhere. At this time Orange Grove, now an incorporated part of Gulfport, was born, and a newly formed Gulf Coast Citrus Exchange included Mississippi.

Because our Coast tends to have cooler winter temperatures than Florida, local farmers chose the satsuma because it is more cold hardy than other citrus.

Weather, however, did not cooperate for this Mississippi citrus boom. A bad September 1915 hurricane and dry spells followed by unusually cold temperatures in the winters of 1915 and 1916 gave local farmers a re-think about growing citrus profitably. The same thing had happened in the 1890s when a surprising 1999 Blizzard froze citrus enthusiasm.

Let’s try, try again

By the 1930s Coast agricultural promoters were at it again. Once again undependable weather combined with citrus canker, a bacterial disease that causes premature fruit drop, killed enthusiasm for our Coast’s mining of the golden nuggets. Large, profitable citrus orchards don’t appear to be in the cards for this Coast.

Happily, that’s not the end of the story. The Coast continues to have citrus devotees with small orchards or backyard trees, and you can find their produce in farmers markets. Satsumas, grapefruit, lemon, kumquats and a wonderfully flavorful new fruit called the lemonquat are grown on our Coast.

This year’s unusual cold temperatures are hard on the citrus trees, but most devotees won’t throw in the citrus towel. Consider yourself lucky if you have a neighbor or friend who shares their bounty, for no store produce can match a ripe, just-picked satsuma or kumquat. If you are really, really lucky, you might even get to taste a rare lemonquat.

Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes the Mississippi Coast Chronicles column as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com or at Southern Possum Tales, P.O. Box 33, Barboursville VA 22923.

  Comments