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The story of the roadside gift shop and fruit stand “where pineapples grow.”

Plantation Paradise

The Plantation Paradise shop with the very interesting orange man – not Donald Trump, literally a snowman but made of oranges | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

"How are we supposed to find this place," asked Sushibomb as she pushed 90 on US-27, "like do you have an address?"

"Just look for a giant pineapple, we literally cannot miss it," I told her. Of course, we did miss it, but after swinging a quick U-turn, we found ourselves pulling up to the old building that had once been known as Plantation Paradise.

The towering pineapple on the side of the road announcing the promise of “JUICE” to all passing drivers is the peak aesthetic of old Florida roadside attractions. Situated on the side of US-27 near the comparatively populous city of Lake Placid, Florida, this was once prime real estate along a major highway traveled by tens of thousands of tourists visiting the Sunshine State.

Plantation Paradise

A stack of postcards on the counter inside the shop | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

Harold “Jake” Emminger was born in February 1919 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The man that would later become known as the "Pineapple King" first came to the Florida not as a tourist but as a captain in the Air Force during World War II. According to an article from January 1986 in the Rocky Mount Telegram, he served as a navigator on B-26 bombers while enlisted.

Harold was stationed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa but after leaving the military, he instead chose to move two hours southeast to the city of Lake Placid. It was here that he founded the fruit stand and gift shop known as Plantation Paradise. In 1952, Harold Emminger purchased 35 acres of land in Highlands County near Lake Placid and began growing pineapples. At the time, his was the only pineapple plantation in the state, and he became known as the "Pineapple King."

As a kid growing up in southeast Florida I remember growing pineapples in our garden, though admittedly on a much smaller scale than the Pineapple King. My dad would plant the spiky top of a pineapple and I'd watch as a little miniature pineapple would sprout from it and then grow larger over the weeks and months. They were usually fully ripe and ready to eat by early July and we'd cut it up and snack on the delicious fresh pineapple during Fourth of July barbecues with our neighbors before planting the crown again and repeating the process.

The history of pineapple farming in Florida dates back over two centuries. It's believed that pineapples were first introduced to Florida in the 16th century by Spanish explorers and settlers. However, it wasn't until the 19th century that widespread pineapple cultivation began. Pineapples are not native to Florida, though the state became a significant producer of the fruit thanks to its favorable climate. By the early 1900s, Lake Placid had emerged as a notable pineapple-growing region in Florida. The town's sandy, well-drained soil and subtropical climate provided ideal conditions for pineapple cultivation.

Pineapples are propagated from the crowns – the leafy top portion – of mature fruits, which are planted directly into the soil. Typically, pineapples take between 18 to 24 months to grow and produce fruit.

Plantation Paradise

The giant pineapple sign in front of the shop along US-27 | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

As the plant matures, a central flower spike emerges that goes on to develop into the fruit. It literally sprouts up a mini pineapple that then progressively grows larger and undergoes a series of color changes, starting from green then gradually turning yellow and finally golden when ripe.

While not edible, the massive pineapple sign that was built in front of the Plantation Paradise shop would catch the attention of fellow Floridians and tourists alike as they traveled down US-27. Located 4 miles south of Lake Placid, a small town with a thriving citrus industry, the shop offered a range of souvenirs for visitors to commemorate their Florida vacation as well as fresh juice and preserves from fruits grown on the land surrounding the shop.

Plantation Paradise branched out over the years to grow other fruits, but pineapples would remain the staple of the shop. Along with the fruit itself, Plantation Paradise offered pineapple wines that were made in Tampa especially for the shop. According to Harold Emminger, pineapple toothpaste, wine, and candy were the best sellers.

Plantation Paradise Postcard
Plantation Paradise Postcard

A postcard from Plantation Paradise during its heyday | Source: eBay user baysideantiques_02

The preserving kitchen was located in a small room off of the main retail space. This is where the varied fruits would be prepared in a process that would retain the fruit's natural flavor and nutritional content while extending its shelf life and preventing it from spoiling. Common examples include jams, jellies, fruit butters, and marmalades. These fruit preserves were made by cooking the fruit with sugar to create a thick, spreadable mixture. The fruits could be left whole, chopped, or mashed depending on the desired texture.

At its height, roughly 200 to 300 tourists would stop in daily to enjoy the treats the shop had to offer. The gift shop and fruit stand was open from 8:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. daily and visitors were encouraged to bring their cameras and stroll through the tropical garden in the acreage surrounding the shop. Tourists could even pick their own pineapples from the garden. Old postcards that were also available to purchase within the shop advertised it as "Where Pineapples Grow," with specialties like frosty pineapple juice, homemade preserves, and candies.

The humid subtropical climate of Central Florida, while generally favorable for pineapples, can be unpredictable with severe weather and occasional frosts posing threats to the plants.

Plantation Paradise

Shelves inside of the shop that used to be filled with a variety of souvenirs and tropical treats | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

Five years after opening, a devastating freeze impacted the state of Florida. On December 12-13, 1957, temperatures dropped into the 20s with nearby Orlando reporting low temperatures of 26°F and Lakeland 25°F. Pineapples and citrus fruits are extremely susceptible to the cold and this freeze was devastating for the citrus industry in Florida. The freeze of 1957 led to a dramatic decrease in citrus production in Central Florida in the following years, as many groves were damaged beyond recovery. The 1957 freeze reduced Harold Emminger's pineapple inventory by half, leading him to begin supplementing his plants with imports from Mexico and Central America.

Another freeze occurred exactly five years to the day on December 12-13, 1962, further impacting the citrus industry in Central Florida that was just beginning to get back on its feet. Despite these challenges, Plantation Paradise persevered and would remain open for another several decades.

Business began to slow down for the shop "where pineapples grow" in the 1980s. The previous decades had seen significant expansion of interstate highways, and several key interstates were completed or expanded during this time, including Interstate 4, Interstate 75, and the Florida Turnpike. Previously, US-27 was the primary north-south route for travelers and commerce and the construction of interstates in the mid-twentieth century reshaped transportation patterns in the state of Florida. These highways offered faster travel times, smoother roads, and fewer traffic signals compared to the older highways like US-27. The volume of traffic on US-27 had decreased significantly by the end of the twentieth century, leading to fewer potential customers passing by the shops and businesses along the route.

Plantation Paradise

A closed sign in the window of the abandoned shop | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

In a March 1990 article, Harold told The Palm Beach Post that when the Turnpike opened it cost him 80% of his business. Years later, the opening of Interstate 75 took away customers traveling to and from Fort Myers and Naples. However, he said, in the winter months a decent number of tourists still come by the shop to sample his wares.

(The same Palm Beach Post article describes a visit to the Tom Gaskins Cypress Knee Museum, another old Florida gem along US-27, which you can read more about here.)

In 1985, Harold Emminger married Virginia McKenna and moved with his new bride to Manatee County, nearly 80 miles away from Lake Placid. However, this did not deter the Pineapple King from making the commute to keep his beloved shop up and running. Harold continued to operate his shop just south of Lake Placid for over 50 years until his retirement in 2004 at the age of 85. In 2007, he was recognized for over 50 years of active service to the Placid Masonic Lodge #282. Harold Emminger passed away on May 14, 2008, at the age of 89.

Plantation Paradise

Inside the old Plantation Paradise shop | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

After Harold Emminger's retirement from the shop he had managed for over half a century, the building was briefly owned by Shonda Legree. A resident of Lake Placid, Shonda rebranded the shop "Shonda's Souvenirs," a designation that is still visible painted on the fascia in front of the shop.

It's not known exactly when the shop closed for good. Old images found online show the shop in good condition in June 2011, a sign out front advertising fresh OJ, jams, souvenirs, and t-shirts. However, images from 2015 show the building to be very clearly closed, a for sale sign posted near the roadside.

One can track the deterioration of the building over the years via street view images on Google Earth. Progressively more and more of the building was boarded up until every piece of glass was replaced by plywood and shutters due to damage from vandals and the wild Florida weather.

While the old shop was closed up and boarded shut, remnants of the days past remain scattered throughout inside like a time capsule. Plastic jars reading "Plantation Paradise" in red letters and adorned with a picture of the fruit sit on shelves inside the shop and preserving kitchen.

Plantation Paradise

One of the many jars from Plantation Paradise left inside the abandoned shop | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

Postcards displaying alluring images of brightly colored tropical fruits, aerial shots of local groves, and the Plantation Paradise in its heyday were still stacked in boxes in a dark back storeroom. Some of the postcards display various recipes such as key lime pie and pineapple margarita. Yellowed newspapers dating back to 1963 were strewn across a table in this back room as well. The colossal pineapple in front of the shop may be discolored and aged from over half a century in the Florida sun, but it still stands tall, now repurposed as a nest for osprey.

The shop that once delighted both locals and tourists alike with its assortment of delicious treats and kitschy souvenirs sat vacant for years. Like many thriving roadside shops that were a mid-century staple of Florida tourism, the place “where pineapples grow” fell into abandonment and now stands as a relic to old Floridian entrepreneurs.

Many people long for the days when small scale mom and pop shops and intrepid entrepreneurs opened up shops along these routes, drawing in passerby with attention grabbing signs and slogans and the promise of unique curios. These places made the journey all the more enjoyable whether you were a tourist traveling across the country or a local Floridian driving just down the road.

Plantation Paradise

An assortment of various postcards from Plantation Paradise on the counter of the shuttered shop | Photo © 2018 Sugarbomb

Though commercial pineapple production in the area is not nearly as prevalent as it once was, the legacy of pineapple farming continues to be celebrated. Some small-scale growers still cultivate pineapples, and Lake Placid's annual Caladium Festival, which celebrates the town's agricultural heritage, often features demonstrations related to pineapple farming.

We might possibly be one step closer to a return of these "good old days." In 2021, the old Plantation Paradise and its accompanying land was purchased by Peter and Jeisse Hernandez. They are working to repair the shop and revitalize the plantation, with plans to turn it into a working farm that the public will be able to enjoy as well. There is hope that this will breathe new life into a place with such a rich history and that the bygone days of kitschy mid-century roadside shops aren't quite as gone as we thought they were.

Plantation Paradise

The front of the shop that was briefly rebranded 'Shonda's Souvenirs' before being closed for good | Photo © 2017 Sugarbomb

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