Central Florida citrus pioneer loved to grow family relations, too
Orlando Sentinel – August 5, 2012
Austin Caruso Sr. and his family had built one of the largest citrus empires in the state. They once owned nearly 6,000 acres of citrus in Central Florida.
His father, an Italian immigrant from upstate New York, moved to the region in the 1920s and began to amass thousands of acres, competing with the holdings of other major growers, including Dr. P. Phillips. The family owned and operated the Southern Fruit Distributors juice plant on Orange Avenue and Michigan Street in south Orlando for decades. At the height of the citrus industry, they generated nearly $100 million a year in sales.
As children, Caruso and his brothers spent their summers working in the family business. He eventually became the head of the company, running it until the freezes of the 1980s forced the family to close the business and focus more on real estate development.
Caruso died Wednesday from heart failure. He was 91.
Although he was a great businessman and civic leader who served on numerous citrus associations, he was even better family man, said his son Stephen Caruso, 64, of Orlando. The citrus business was demanding. But no matter how hectic it was at work, he said his dad always set time aside for the family gatherings and outings. The entire Caruso clan would get together for the birthdays and holidays, as well as once a week for large Italian meals.
“Sundays were big days for the family to get together,” he said.
He also liked to take his three sons to University of Florida football games several times a year. “It could be the busiest time… He was always there” for the family, his son said.
The elder Caruso was born in Schenectady, N.Y., where his father started a wholesale-produce business pushing a produce cart. The business flourished and the family moved to Orlando when Caruso was 5.
One of four children, he grew up in a home on East Robinson Street near Lake Eola. The family raised chickens and grew their own produce at home, like many families in the area, his oldest son, Austin Caruso Jr., 67, said.
“They were coming out of the Depression,” he said. “Residents were very self-sustaining in those days.”
Caruso graduated from Orlando High School in 1939 and went on to the University of Florida, where he received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics. In 1943, he joined the U.S. Army and served overseas during World War II, his eldest son said.
When he was discharged in 1946, he returned home to help run the family citrus business. At 32, he was named the chief administrative officer of the company, which also sold juice worldwide under its own brand, Bluebird Citrus.
The family continued to prosper after the citrus freezes in part because of some earlier ventures in real estate. They leased land to one of the first Publix supermarkets in Orlando and built a 106-acre subdivision near the store in the late 1960s.
“Orlando was growing by leaps and bounds,” Austin Caruso Jr. said. “We had our fingers in a lot of different pies… Our dad often was the instigator.”
Survivors also include Marie Novello Caruso, his wife of 69 years; son James P. Caruso, of Orlando; brother Philip P. Caruso of Orlando; 11 grandchildren; and 18 great-grandchildren.