For many years, the Plant City area was home to several schools that prioritized farm work in the winter months.
If you’ve spent any amount of time in Plant City, you know this town takes its strawberries seriously.
But did you know it was so serious at one point in time that even local schoolchildren had to work the fields?
From the 1920s through the 1950s, Plant City was home to several “strawberry schools” that designed their entire curriculums around the winter strawberry season. Rather than give their students the three-month summer vacation today’s kids know and love, school ended for the three months of peak Florida strawberry season so that the kids could work in the fields.
One of Plant City’s first schoolhouses, the Hopewell School, became a strawberry school long after it opened in 1880 and remained so until its closing in the 1950s. Trapnell Elementary School, which eventually converted to a traditional public school and still exists, was a strawberry school where roughly 50 percent of enrolled students were the children of sharecroppers and picked berries when school was out. Other Plant City-area strawberry schools included Antioch, Turkey Creek, Dover, Cork, Springhead, Pinecrest and Knights — all of which are now traditional public elementary and middle schools — and the historic Glover School in Bealsville, which is no longer in operation but is now on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Hillsborough County had 11 strawberry schools operating in the late 1940s.
If this whole thing sounds like an effort to exploit children for unpaid labor that would absolutely be illegal today, well, you’re right. What was once widely accepted in Hillsborough and the other Tampa Bay-area and Central Florida counties where strawberry schools operated grew to be despised by the public, reaching near-unanimous disapproval by the 1950s.
Closing strawberry schools in Hillsborough was an effort spurred on not only by locals but also by the Tampa Tribune’s efforts to expose the many flaws of the strawberry school system. The Tribune uncovered numerous labor issues, burdens created by financial and transportation problems and shocking health and sanitation violations, including one case at the Hopewell school where the boys’ restroom was found to have an exposed sewer pipe that would have leaked noxious gas throughout had someone at the school not covered it with a tin can.
Hillsborough County moved to shut down all strawberry school operations in 1956 and switched to the traditional calendar used today, though county schools do still have an annual holiday for students to go to the Florida Strawberry Festival.
Information from the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center and floridamemory.com was used for this article.