The Great Freeze refers to the back-to-back freezes of 1894-1895 in Florida where the brutally cold weather destroyed much of the citrus crop. It also may have been responsible for wiping out natural stands of Royal Palm (Roystonea regia) trees from the lower St. Johns River Valley northeast of Orlando.
Entire communities like Earnestville faded after the citrus crops and trees were lost to the two unusually cold weather patterns of the winter season.
Orlando reached an all-time record low of 18 °F (-8 °C) on December 29, 1894. This cold front continued to West Palm Beach, where the all-time record low of 24 °F (-4 °C) is two degrees cooler than their next lowest reading.
There were two freezes in Florida during this catastrophic season, the first in December 1894 and the second in February 1895. The first did not actually kill many mature trees, but did set the stage for new growth during the warm month that followed. So, when the second, harder freeze came a few months later, the effects were even more devastating. All varieties of fruit (oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes) froze on the trees, and bark split from top to bottom. These effects were felt as far south as the Manatee River, below Tampa.
Up to 1895, the abundant citrus groves extended into northern Florida and the state was producing as much as six million boxes of fruit per year. After the Great Freeze, however, production plummeted to just 100,000 boxes and did not break the one million box mark again until 1901. As a result, land values also dropped in the citrus growing areas from $1,000 per acre ($28,788 in 2016 dollars) to as little as $10 ($288 in 2016 dollars) per acre. Many compared the economic impact of the Great Freeze on Florida to the effects of the Great Fire on the city of Chicago.
In the wake of the Great Freeze, many growers simply abandoned their Florida groves to return to the North or a few to search for frost-free locations in the Caribbean such as Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica. Others relocated to California, using a seedless variety of grapefruit discovered by C.M. Marsh near Lakeland. He was able to harvest 10,000 buds before the Great Freeze that were later propagated by west coast growers with great success, although the overall drier climatic conditions in California produced, according to some, less flavorful citrus.
Since that time the Florida citrus industry has rebounded greatly only to falter again. While Florida once again produces a large volume of citrus, production declined significantly in the first decade of the 21st century due to two serious citrus diseases as well as urban development. Yet, as of 2010, due to an absence of major freezes since the devastating decade of the 1980s and better management of freeze events, Florida alone now produces more citrus than any country in the world except Brazil.