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HomeAt Home & BeyondJ. T. Daniel and his Magnificent Eggplant

J. T. Daniel and his Magnificent Eggplant

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“It’s planting season!”

Now, those are some words you don’t hear everyday! They were spoken more than a century ago when families came south to homestead in the mid to late 1800s. Springtime in Florida meant not just azaleas and redbud trees. It was a season to see what rich soil would produce! It was planting season! A family with the last name of “Daniel” became synonymous with farming in Hernando County.

William Littleton Daniel and Louisa Cook Daniel’s oldest son, J. T. (John Thomas), was born on June 19, 1877, in the small town of Macon, FL (present day Trilby), not far from Brooksville. Of their four children, J. T. seemed to have a natural interest in agriculture and a neighbor named Thomas Seiley encouraged him along toward farming.

J. T. married Fannie Ether Lee in May of 1898. They produced a large family- eleven children were born to them between 1899 and 1925- with eight of them living to adulthood. It was a time when big families were a resource, and many extra hands were needed to work the land. Most families tended large gardens and raised various livestock, all of which put food on their table. The fifth child, Eva, had fond memories of accompanying her maternal grandmother on trips to sell fresh vegetables and canned jellies.

The Daniel farm raised a variety of vegetables, including eggplant, tomatoes, squash, and corn. They also had pigs, chickens, goats, and cows. Citrus trees on the property provided an abundance of oranges, tangerines, lemons, and grapefruit. Extra produce and livestock were sold locally or shipped off to larger cities such as Tampa. Wagons were an early means of transporting goods. Later, trains took over the job and vegetables and citrus were loaded onto large box cars.

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In 1908, J. T. Daniel lived in Spring Lake and was a school officer and an active church member. He grew 200-300 acres of tomatoes on his farm in the spring of 1912.

J.T. Daniel knew so much about farming that he became what they called a County Farm Demonstrator. These individuals, both men and women, assisted in educating young farm families. The women shared tips on having a smooth-running farm kitchen while the men taught the proper mix of soil, water, fertilizer, and cultivation.

In 1914, J. T. Daniel was appointed as the first Hernando County Agriculture Agent and lived for a short time in west Brooksville. However, he soon returned to farming in Spring Lake, favoring its rolling hills and rich clay-based soil, perfect for growing vegetables. His corn production for the summer of 1915 was reported as the largest and best yield anywhere around.

J. T. Daniel wanted to interest young boys in farming by means of a “corn club.” This organization encouraged future farmers and awarded prizes for best yield per acre and best honest effort. In May of 1916, thirty club members were treated to an afternoon swim and fish fry in Aripeka. I’m sure it was a day they’d never forget!

By 1917, Agriculture Agent J. T. Daniel was planning the Hernando County exhibits at the South Florida Fair in Tampa. His display of oranges, lemons, and grapefruit was award-winning. For the next thirty years, he was well known for submitting prize-winning vegetables at the fair, especially his squash and eggplant.

J. T. Daniel held several titles besides farmer. He was a Hernando County Commissioner from 1927 to 1933 and a Hernando County Tax Collector from 1933 to 1952. He was an officer for the Hernando County Citrus Growers in the mid-1930s, serving as vice president and then as president.

J. T. Daniel was named an Honorary Colonel by Florida’s Governor Fuller Warren during his 1949 to 1953 term. Other Brooksvillians receiving that honor were Frank Saxon and Alfred A. McKethan. Well-known for agriculture, J. T. Daniel was a popular public speaker at club meetings.

But life was not all work. J. T. Daniel played some golf and loved the outdoors. He hunted deer alongside other prominent Brooksville residents at a hunting camp in Gulf Hammock. He often invited his sons, Roy and Van, on these trips.

During the depression years, J. T. Daniel helped supply Hernando County with food. He left crates of culled vegetables or “extras” piled outside his home on Highland Avenue. He stacked rows of melons.

They were free for the taking. And he often donated boxes of produce to hospitals and schools, leaving them quietly and anonymously at back doors. Strangers were welcome guests in his citrus groves and were allowed to pick what they needed during hard times. J. T. Daniel said he didn’t miss what they took a bit! He had more than he ever needed!

Every year, J. T. Daniel farmed and shipped produce. He was known as one of the largest fruit and vegetable growers and shippers in Spring Lake, filling box cars with his eggplant, peppers, and beans. One year, it was believed he had the only crop of eggplant available in the entire United States due to freezes up north and hurricanes down south.

He also had a nephew named J. T., who became interested in farming and did it well. This nephew added “Jr.” to his name, making him J.T. Daniel Jr. to distinguish himself from his well-known uncle! Together, the two of them produced fields of melons and acres of sweet corn.

Although J.T. Daniel’s health declined, his love of agriculture did not. It remained just as strong as when he lived in Macon, FL, as a young boy. He passed away on January 24, 1961, at the age of 83 and is buried in the Spring Lake Cemetery.

Many members of the Daniel family are there, too. If you visit the cemetery, you’ll see grave markers for J.T.’s father, William, his wife Fannie, and his brother Nathan. It’s also the final resting place for the eleven children and for his nephew, farmer and rancher, J. T Daniel Jr. (1911-1985).

The Daniel family can be proud of its legacy. They were one of six million early American farmers in the 1900s. Buying property for as little as $5 an acre, they turned dry land into something wonderful. They were often asked for farming advice and willingly shared their “wealth” with Hernando County. That, for us, is one of life’s true treasures.

Today, if you travel Broad Street (Hwy 41) towards Brooksville, you’ll pass by eateries such as McDonald’s and Zaxby’s on the east side. But look closely after the Sunoco Gas Station and you’ll see Daniel Avenue, which runs east from Broad St. as it zig-zags to Main St., just south of downtown. It’s named for the Daniel family. When I see the sign again I’ll be thinking of J. T. Daniel and his magnificent eggplant.

Eggplanter J.T. Daniel as published in the December 21, 1947 Tampa Sunday Tribune. J. T. Daniel had no interest in retiring and was still proudly farming at age 70!
Eggplanter J.T. Daniel as published in the December 21, 1947 Tampa Sunday Tribune. J. T. Daniel had no interest in retiring and was still proudly farming at age 70!

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