For the onset of Florida Strawberry Festival season, we decided to take a look back at the beginning of the festival. As noted historian D. E. Bailey Jr. wrote, “Harvest festivals have long been traditional with every country in the land.” Plant City was going to have one. The role of strawberry production and sales in the Plant City community had long been established and the city even adopted the moniker, “Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.”
The old Board of Trade, forerunner to the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce, as early as 1914 urged the residents to promote the strawberry industry and send post cards to everybody they knew. It finally culminated in the first festival on March 12 to 15, 1930.
But, it took organized promotion to get it underway.
A believer in the effectiveness of civic clubs, Albert Schneider followed brother William’s lead and was one of the founders of the Plant City Lions Club in 1929. William had helped form the Kiwanis Club in 1921, helped organize the effort to construct a new hotel, which became the Hotel Plant, and served as Kiwanis president in 1928.
Albert Schneider was the first president of the Lions Club, and at the July 5, 1929, weekly meeting, he challenged the members to sponsor a festival for the entire greater Plant City community. They met the challenge. The planning committee was organized, with City Manager John C. Dickerson as general manager, and the city advanced $1,000 as seed money to be paid back from the festival’s proceeds.
The committee drafted its charter, gained state approval of the association, and Albert Schneider was named the first president of the festival. Promoters were delighted when the communities of Cork, Dover, Hopewell, Lithia, Seffner, Springhead, Trapnell and Turkey Creek became enthusiastic partners; each reserved a booth for the grand festival. Overall response was so good that exhibit space could not keep up with demand. They were sold out.
Festival officials were filled with joy and promise. Albert Schneider, presiding over that first festival, saw the enthusiasm and predicted that the festival would grow to be “one of the largest winter fairs in the Southeast.” His prediction was fulfilled.
So, who was Albert Schneider?
He was a multi-faceted individual. His parents were John William Schneider and Katherine (Bader) Schneider. John William was born March 11, 1823, in Lautkirch, Germany, and Katherine Bader was born May 29, 1832, in Albershausen, Germany. They had left Wurtemburg, Germany, in 1850, and settled in Philadelphia, Pa.
Albert Schneider was born Oct. 1, 1866, in Philadelphia, and was educated in the public schools. He had two brothers we know of: John H. (date of birth unknown), and William (June 14, 1864).
The brothers were entrepreneurial and, after high school, J. H. Schneider and younger brother, William, went to Lancaster, Pa., to launch a German-language newspaper. J.H. then began a produce business in Seffner and Sanford, and marketing in New York. In 1888, Albert moved to Sanford to work on acquiring the fruit and vegetables for J.H. Schneider and Brothers.
William moved to Florida to join J.H.’s business by managing the growing operation that they purchased. This proved virtually disastrous, because the Great Freeze of 1894 to 1895 destroyed much of the citrus crop. William returned to Pennsylvania, while Albert remained in Sanford. On Aug. 9, 1899, Albert married Annie Elizabeth Hammerly, the daughter of Lt. J.W. Hammerly, a gallant Confederate officer, and his wife, Annie Scott Broome Hammerly. Annie’s grandfather had served as adjutant-general of Florida, and she was the niece of Gov. James Broome.
Also in 1899, Albert and Annie Schneider moved to Plant City, which was reportedly becoming the center of a productive fruit and vegetable growing region, and there was a great demand for containers for packing and shipping. He became invested in the Warnell Lumber & Veneer Company that manufactured crates for packing and shipping.
Warnell Lumber moved in 1898, to Plant City and became Plant City’s first major industry. This was the largest business of its kind in the south. Bailey wrote, “Because of Warnell, the town, for a decade-and-a-half, was known as a little mill town.”
In 1901, William and Lydia Schneider moved to Plant City, and William purchased an interest in the Warnell plant. The business flourished. Albert Schneider is credited for bringing new life to Warnell and building a large, profitable business. Both Albert and William continued to prosper and became deeply involved in Plant City’s business environment and throughout various regions in Florida. They also involved themselves in their church, local government, social activities and civic affairs.
Albert acquired citrus groves in Clearwater, and with C.A. Root and D. C. Thompson created in 1905, the Plant City, Arcadia and Gulf Railroad. Again, with William and others, he purchased the Consumers Lumber and Veneer Company in 1920, in Apopka. Albert also helped organize the Bank of Plant City and became its first president. He was a stockholder in the Plant City Foundry, Machine and Boiler Works. In 1914, he was one of three members appointed to the newly established Board of Public Works, with authority over all public works in the city.
Albert and William were both on the building committee for the Presbyterian Church and, in 1925, saw the fruition of those efforts when services were held in the new building. Albert was also on the charter board helping to draft the new city charter in 1927 and served as mayor in 1928 and on the commission until 1931.
Annie Hammerly Schneider was also active. She was an educated woman and a talented musician. She was Plant City’s first music teacher. Albert and Annie lived in a newly constructed large house at the southeast corner of Reynolds and Wheeler streets and filled the house with concerts and readings and socials. Annie helped start the local chapter of both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. She formed a literary group that evolved into the Woman’s Club of Plant City, of which she was a charter member.
When the American Red Cross appealed for help for wounded soldiers in 1917, Annie helped organize a women’s group to sew hospital garments. She helped secure a Red Cross nurse for the school and the community and was influential in the city’s beautification program. She was a mover.
Albert Schneider, businessman, civic leader, and the first president of the festival, died Sept. 24, 1941. Annie Hammerly Schneider later moved to Winter Haven and lived until March 9, 1986. They are buried together in Oaklawn Cemetery.
Sources: “Plant City: Its Origin and History,” by Quintilla Geer Bruton and David E. Bailey, Jr.; documents accessed via Ancestry.com, and other various documents.
Gil Gott is executive director of the Plant City Photo Archives and History Center.