Seaboard railroad ag agent boosted local farming

Portrait of Francis “Frank” Marion Connor, on display in the Manatee County Agricultural Museum.
Portrait of Francis “Frank” Marion Connor, on display in the Manatee County Agricultural Museum. Provided photo

In the early and mid-20th century, train travel was the best way to go. Many small railroads continuously merged throughout the years. One of the most important railroad companies in Manatee County was Seaboard Airline Railroad, which was known for passenger service with the slogan, “The Route of Courteous Service.”

However, the railroad made a large impact on the agricultural community as well through Seaboard’s agents.

Francis “Frank” Connor moved to Fort Myers in 1926 as an agricultural agent for the Seaboard Airline Railroad. In 1930, he was reassigned to Arcadia, and to Palmetto in 1938. Connor represented the rail travel and freight in the area with a goal to increase yield and income from old crops as well as to introduce and diversify crops.

During Connor’s early years in Manatee County, he spent much of his time working and studying the sandy soil in Palma Sola that easily supported tomatoes and the muck soil in which salad greens thrived. He learned which crops were best suited to different places and used methods to improve soil when needed. Approaches included new fertilizer formulas, crop rotation and irrigation. He also matched many growers and land owners with the right acreage and helped them negotiate for them to sell, lease, share or lend land for crops.

In the 1950s, Connor began developing a new market. He worked with northern growers to produce summer crops in Manatee County in the winter. Through several trials, the idea began to take root in these growers, and many cauliflower and radish growers came south for the winter to continue their growing seasons.

One farm family from Ohio, Harlan Lanzer and his son, Harlan “Babe” Lanzer, were radish farmers who often spent winters in Florida. They asked Connor to help them find muck land to produce winter vegetables. Connor found unused land in Parrish and convinced Mrs. Parrish to lease a block of her pasture to the Ohioans. They brought their own farm machinery from Ohio and many farm employees to grow radishes, spinach, onions, carrots, iceberg lettuce and more. They often employed many local people for their harvesting operations and packed, iced, and shipped their produce through a Seaboard packing house in Palmetto.

In a newspaper article by Milton Plumb, Connor was asked about the farm land and his job and he stated: “There is rich land still untouched here on the West Coast,” said Connor. “One of my jobs is to help good farmers find good land.”

In addition to field duties, Connor also manned the Seaboard Railroad booth at the state fair and helped with the Manatee County Fair exhibit. The Manatee County exhibit often featured produce, including the “poisonous orange,” which was hard as golf balls and smelly and squishy inside. The only known tree was in Connor’s yard. He was always experimenting with different agricultural products and methods even at his own home. His daughter remembers after he passed away, they continued to laugh for years as they mowed their lawn because it still contained three different kinds of pasture grass he had been testing. In 2010, Francis “Frank” Connor was inducted into the Manatee County Agricultural Hall of Fame for his contributions to the county agricultural industry.

Melissa Dagenais, who works at the Manatee County Agricultural Museum, enjoys learning the stories behind her favorite objects.