As the curator of the Manatee County Agricultural Museum, my job is not only to take care of the artifacts, but to tell the stories behind them. Great "stuff" becomes even more significant when there is a story behind it. Recently, I learned the story of one of my favorite artifacts: the Tropicana Suit. I spoke to the family of Charles "Charlie" Johnson who commissioned this custom-made piece, to learn more about it.
If you have never seen it, the Tropicana Suit is made of 1970s green polyester, with a slight bell bottom pant and large lapel. The suit is embroidered with several classic Tropicana logos including Tropic-Ana and the Orange Bird. The Orange Bird logo was designed by Walt Disney in 1970 in exchange for Florida Citrus Commission's sponsorship of the Magic Kingdom's Tiki Room attraction.
In 1947, Italian native Anthony Rossi founded Tropicana in Bradenton. Rossi's company (then called Manatee River Packing Co.) packed fruit gift boxes and jars of sectioned fruit for salads, out of Palmetto. Later, Rossi moved his company to east Bradenton and changed the name to Fruit
Industries, focusing production on frozen concentrate orange juice. In 1954, Rossi developed flash pasteurization, which preserved the fresh taste of the juice by rapidly raising its temperature for a brief time. As a result of this technologically advanced process, Tropicana Pure Premium became the company's flagship product resulting in a name change in 1957 to Tropicana Products Inc.
During the early days of Tropicana, one of the most beloved employees was the Tropicana Suit's owner. Charles "Charlie" Johnson was a Bradenton native and the director of public relations at Tropicana Products Inc. Johnson's career began in the newspaper industry before he left to join Tropicana's vending division in 1955.
Within the Tropicana Co., Johnson was known as hardworking, loyal and thoughtful. The ladies in the office could expect a single rose from his garden on their desk every Monday morning. In speaking to his wife, Barbara, she jokingly recalled that she was the one who had to cut all of those roses every week.
Over the years, he progressed through the company, until 1979 when he retired from his final position as director of PR. Johnson had the Tropicana Suit made during his time at the company, and was known to wear it to company and community events including the Manatee County fair and the Desoto Parade to promote the company. During his years at Tropicana, Johnson was a fixture at the Manatee County Fair. Tropicana's booth won a prize nearly every year during the 1970s, a time when the fair booths were known to be especially elaborate.
In addition to representing Tropicana to the community, Johnson was deeply involved in business, civic and religious endeavors. He won the "Bronze Keystone" from the Boys' Clubs of America, honorary membership in the Florida Blue Key, and the Citation for Meritorious Service for furthering the employment of the handicapped.
Tropicana Products Inc. was sold to Beatrice Foods in 1978 and founder, Anthony Rossi, retired. He began the Aurora Foundation, which funded Christian educational institutions, missions, and other charities as well as established the Bradenton Missionary Village (now il Villaggio). Johnson retired a year later after 25 years at Tropicana Products Inc. and became the head of the Missionary Village's landscape crew. As gardening had always been a hobby of Johnson's, it was a natural fit.
The Tropicana suit remained tucked away in the Johnson home until it was donated to the museum by Johnson's wife Barbara, after his death in 2004.
The suit in its full glory is displayed as part of the museum's citrus exhibit. Pictures cannot do justice to the vivid beauty of this wearable advertisement which represents a large part of Manatee County's agricultural history.
Melissa Dagenais, curator at Manatee County Agricultural Museum, enjoys learning the stories behind her favorite objects.