BRADENTON -- The Mixon family celebrated 75 years of Mixon Fruit Farms with some pulp and circumstance and a touch of humor Thursday afternoon.
"Oftentimes people ask you how do you make it to 75 years?" owner Dean Mixon said. "The answer is: a lot of tears, a lot of crying, a lot of praying -- mostly praying."
The gathering at the Mixon pavilion included nearly 20 Manatee County businesses, each of which has operated for more than 40 years, as well as Gov. Rick Scott, who is a regular visitor to Mixon Fruit Farms.
"It's great to see generations do things like this, and it's great that it's in Florida," Scott said.
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Scott even shared his own memory and favorite part about Mixon Fruit Farms: ice cream. When Scott last visited Mixon in July for a business roundtable discussion, he made his way over to the ice cream stand to try a dreamsicle-like creation featuring orange and vanilla.
"I do expect to get the ice cream when I leave today. I'll make my own, but I never had the orange and vanilla together before I walked out of here a few months ago," Scott said. "Janet, you gave it to me, and it was great. When I leave, I want it the exact same way."
Most of the original orange grove was planted in 1849. Through disease and sale of surrounding lands for development in the 1990s and 2000s, much of the groves were lost. Willie and Rosa Mixon moved to the Village of Manatee in 1917 after he served in World War I, Dean Mixon said, and bought his first grove soon thereafter. He didn't know what to do with the crops.
"He got my grandmother to load up the six kids in an old Model T truck and hauled them down to the Dixie Grand Hotel in downtown Bradenton and sold our first gift fruit, and that's how we got started," Dean Mixon said. "People liked it so much that we've been doing it ever since."
Willie's son, Bill, Dean's father, is credited with making the family business successful in its early days.
"Somehow he managed to make us think it was fun -- it was really work," Dean Mixon said. "Sixty hours a week as a teenager was fun."
The business officially started in 1939. Thanks to a changing economy, citrus canker and other disease, the family decided to sell 250 acres for development. They nearly sold the remaining land, but decided to upgrade the venerable citrus operation at 2712 26th Ave. E. by expanding the gift shop and expanding its tourism-related offerings. Dean, his wife, Janet, and his brother, Don Mixon, bought the business in 2006 from their father, Bill.
The Mixons were also founding members of the Florida Fruit Shippers Association, which had 350 members at its peak in the late '90s, and now has 35 members.
"We had to redefine ourselves. All we've been doing is to change what we do, and part of that is to become an attraction," Dean Mixon said.
Bill Lupfer, president and chief executive officer of Florida Attractions Association, credited the Mixons for making citrus farms part of state agritourism.
"They stepped up and said, 'Hey, we're tourism, too.'" Lupfer said. "And now we have a number of attractions around the state that are members of our association that are prospering because they embraced the two primary parts of Florida's economy -- agriculture and tourism."
The citrus industry in Florida has consolidated over the years, and family operations like Mixon Fruit Farms are still strong across the state, said Douglas Ackerman, executive director of Florida Department of Citrus.
"They're an extremely important part of our history, and they've got a great setup down here that give tourists and locals alike a glimpse at the citrus industry from the grower tours to all the different products inside," Ackerman said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter Coming Monday: Meet the longtime Manatee County businesses honored by Mixon Fruit Farms