Restored Valentine house a historic treasure
The Valentine house leaves the Manatee
Fruit Co. property
in Palmetto on its way down the Manatee River in 2007 to
the Robinson Preserve, where it is now the visitors center.
A family home more than a century old got a second lease on life on May Day as the visitors' center at the Robinson Preserve, where family and friends gathered for grand opening ceremonies.
The Valentine house was a Palmetto landmark for 120 years. It has survived the turn of two centuries, and was the center of family life for five generations of the Valentine family.
Built around 1886, the house is one of the oldest surviving structures in Manatee County, and stands as a reminder of the county’s agricultural roots.
Known as the grove house, it was situated at the entrance to what was originally a lemon grove and later an orange and grapefruit grove owned by Manatee Fruit Co., which donated the house and its guest cottage to the county in 2007.
The grove house was barged down the Manatee River to the Robinson Preserve and restored by Manatee County’s Natural Resources Department, while the guest house was relocated to Emerson Point Park in Palmetto.
Anyone who enjoyed a glass of Tropicana orange juice in the late 20th century has likely tasted juice from the groves that stood around the Valentine house, as Manatee Fruit Co. was one of Tropicana’s suppliers.
The company’s predecessor, the Manatee Lemon Co., was established in 1892 by the Preston family of Providence, R.I., who expanded their produce business, J.H. Preston Co., to Florida to serve the winter demand for produce in northern markets. Walter Lane Preston, Julius Hayden (J.H.) Preston’s brother, became president in 1896, and used the house as a Florida base.
The company grew lemons and produce behind the house until 1907-08, when a freeze killed most of the lemon trees. They were replaced with orange and grapefruit trees, prompting a company name change in 1911 to Manatee Fruit Co.
Preston’s son, Whiting Hayden Preston, met George Clark Valentine at Brown University, where they became lifelong friends. The two men served together in World War I, joined Manatee Fruit Co., and permanently grafted their families together by marrying twin sisters, Alice and Jane Whitner of Orlando, who later named their daughters after each other.
Whiting Hayden Preston and Alice Whitner had a son, Walter Lane Preston, and a daughter, Jane Valentine Preston.
George Clark Valentine and Jane Randolph Whitner married in 1923 and settled in the house. There they raised a son, Randolph (Randy) Corner Valentine, and a daughter, Alice Preston Valentine.
Like their fathers, Walter Preston and Randy Valentine worked as a team to grow the business, both joining the company in 1947.
The house became the site of the marriage between Randy Valentine and Mary Alice Lane in July, 1949 after Randy’s mother wrote Mary Alice’s mother, Alice Lee Lane, offering to have the wedding 'there, as Alice had just lost her husband, Florida House of Representatives member George Allen Lane, in April of that year.
The newly-married Valentines lived in the guest cottage next to the Valentine house in the early 1950s, then settled in Bradenton to raise their three children, Alice Randolph Valentine Gilbert, John Lane Valentine and George Duval Valentine.
After their children were grown, they moved into the house in 1979. Alice Lane later moved into the house with her daughter and son-in-law.
George Valentine was married to Catherine Warner on the oak-shaded lawn of the house in 1990, and John and Patt Valentine’s daughter, Jayme Valentine, and her husband, Todd Bonds, held their wedding reception there in 1996.
The grove manager for Manatee Fruit Co., Randy Valentine lived in the house until his death in 1999, shortly before the grove was burned to eradicate highly-contagious citrus canker.
His widow, Mary Alice Valentine, and their daughter were the last members of the family to live in the house; they relocated within Manatee County in 2005.
Houseful of happy memories
Four generations of the Valentine family gathered at the house on Saturday to witness the ceremony and reminisce about happy memories there.
A chip in the main stairway’s banister reminded Randy’s younger son, George Valentine, of St. Petersburg, how he and his brother would tie dog leashes to the top railing, pretending to be mountain climbers, then slide down the banister. The designs on the richly colored burgundy and black oriental rugs that decorated the pine floors became racetracks for playing miniature cars.
Randy’s elder son, John Valentine, of Parrish, missed the steep back stairway that was removed in the renovation, which they had used in “keep away” games as an escape route into the kitchen, the slam of the back door acting as a dead giveaway of the player’s position. The kitchen had been added on, and once had a wood-burning cast iron potbellied stove for cooking and heating, he remembered.
A secret door under the main stairs in the living room that allowed access under the house was a fun part of the game. The house was elevated to allow cooling breezes to keep it comfortable in the hot, humid weather in pre-air conditioned Florida.
In back of the house was a red New Hampshire-style barn, once home to horses, cattle, pigs and chickens, and later a place to explore and discover old horse-drawn carriages, farm equipment, citrus crates and other treasures, he recalled. The barn was destroyed in Tropical Storm Gabriel in 2000.
A bell on top of the barn rang when work began in the morning, at noon dinner, and at the end of the day, calling workers whose homes were scattered on the property. It also was used as a fire alarm, as Alice Randolph Valentine Gilbert learned one day when she and Mary Lane Preston, one of Walter Lane Preston’s three daughters, rang it for fun and were scolded, she recalled.
Beyond the barn, which was a popular subject for painters and photographers, the grove doubled as an orange blossom-scented playground, stretching to Terra Ceia Bay, where oysters and clams were sometimes harvested for dinner.
Whiting Hayden Preston admired the reconstruction of the house, donated to the county by his father, Walter Lane Preston, noting that the medallions at the corners of the interior windows appear original.
A centerpiece of gladiolas in the living room was an especially fitting selection, as the Manatee Fruit Co. flower farm grows glads, which often adorned the marble tables in the house.
George Valentine recognized a worn, cream-colored wooden chair as one of the home’s original furnishings that he had once repaired; the green paint showing beneath chipped paint was the original color of the house, which was later painted blue, its present color.
For decades of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, birthdays, showers and weddings, the Valentine family gathered at the house, the adults in the formal dining room at the heavy antique wood table, stretched out with all its leaves nearly touching the high buffet. The children dined in the living room; at Christmastime they could see the tree displayed between the red velvet Victorian sofa and the grandfather clock next to the front door.
After dinner, the two porch swings that hung on either side of the front door were popular gathering spots for conversation. The wrap-around porch’s original railing design was, coincidentally, a series of “V”s. The house originally had three sets of outside stairs, a center staircase and two more angled from the front corners of the house, echoed in the renovation.
Family members were often photographed on the stairs, lingering afterwards on the porch, with no one leaving the house during season without a yellow net bag of grapefruit or an orange net bag of oranges fresh from the grove.
It is the family’s hope that the Valentine house will continue to be an enjoyable gathering place for another century of Manatee County residents, giving them a taste of the agricultural roots of the county, and a family who helped make it grow.
The writer is a member of the Valentine family.