By Brett Nolan
Citrus fruit is what comes to the minds of many when asked about Mandarin. It was the staple industry for the community during much of the 19th Century and the reason the area was given its name in 1830; however, nestled in the Walter Jones Historical Park is a classic example of a frontier-style log cabin that uncorks another side to Mandarin’s unique history.
It belonged to Francis Louis (Frank) Losco, who migrated to the United States from Verona, Italy. Ultimately making his way to Florida, he acquired land east of Mandarin in 1884. Losco (age 36) married his neighbor and recent immigrant from Italy, Dometilla Danese (age 18), just three years later. He built a one-room house, but it became an obsolescent structure when the couple went on to have 13 children. As the Loscos raised their family, they enlarged the home to accommodate everyone. To make a living, rather than cultivating citrus, Losco began Mandarin’s very own Italian renaissance; he ran the largest wine-making operation throughout Northeast Florida.
In front of their home was the aforementioned log cabin where, on seven acres of vineyard, they produced up to 40 barrels of wine per year. The Losco brand attracted customers from all over to come get a taste of the “Pure Scuppernong Grape Wine,” aged finely in wood. On some bottle labels, Losco had spelled Mandarin with an “e” on the end. By the First World War, Marion (age 23), the oldest son of the Losco brood, was working on the family farm when he was called to register for the draft, as required. Marion went to South Carolina for boot camp, was shipped to France, and died on the battlefield, two weeks after his 25th birthday in 1918. In the Mandarin Museum, there’s an exhibit that features Losco’s wartime letters to his mother and other personal belongings, a full authentic uniform, and general WWI artifacts.
By the 1940s, both Frank and Dometilla passed away. The property stayed in the family until the turn of the new millennium. By the 2000s, suburbia encroachments threatened the Losco’s farmstead and the family did not want to see log cabin winery bulldozed. David Losco, Frank’s grandson, donated the log cabin to the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society, along with other artifacts including a grape press, vintage bottle labels, a 1936 state beverage license costing $50 and antique tools used while fermenting wine.
Bo and Kurt Phillips, Mandarin Museum & Historical Society members, dismantled the cabin and hauled it to its current location in the historical park. There, through precise numbering and labeling, they reassembled the cabin and even planted cuttings from the last of the scuppernong grapes on the farmstead, ensuring that the Losco legacy lives on for all to enjoy. On the first Saturday of every month, you can see and tour the Losco Winery and learn a thing or two about the methods of winemaking in the 19th Century.
(Note: The research collected for this article is from articles written by Dan Scanlon for the Florida Times-Union, “Riverbend Review” and “My Community” in 2007.)
Brett Nolan is a volunteer with the Mandarin Museum & Historical Society. For more information about Mandarin’s history and events, see www.mandarinmuseum.net.
Photo courtesy Mandarin Museum & Historical Society
Losco Winery in Walter Jones Historical Park.