Tracing the history of Polk County, Florida is a journey back through thousands of years of human habitation, wars between European powers, pioneering settlers and modern development. From the Paleoindians to the current day, the county has seen a wealth of change since the days of 12,000 year ago when the first Native American tribes inhabited it.
The Tocobago, Timucua and Caloosa tribes are believed to have numbered around 250,000 by the time the first Europeans made their way to the southernmost state in the U.S. With Spanish explorers mapping the Rio de la Paz as early as 1527, it’s clear that the area has been a popular destination for quite some time.
It wasn’t until 1842 when the U.S. military set out to cut roads, build forts and pursue runaway Creek Indians (also known as Seminole) that early settlers were enticed to move further south. According to records, a hurricane in Hillsborough County is credited with spurring this move. As pioneers began to settle along Lake Hancock, they looked to the future – a future secured by forming Polk County from portions of Hillsborough and Brevard Counties. Florida Governor Perry signed the legislation in 1861 and the county was named after former President James Knox Polk.
The arrival of the South Florida Railroad saw towns such as Lakeland, Lake Wales and Winter Haven rapidly develop alongside it. Transporting phosphate rock in 1888 would mark the start of a new industry; one that provided immense financial resources to the area and saw the population soar to 37,000 by the turn of the century. This influx of people also brought with it electricity, telephones and the now indispensable automobile.
With the county now the size of Delaware, it had become an integral part of the State’s economy and politics. The many memories of what makes Polk County home are important not just to its current residents but also for posterity. So, it is the job of organisations such as the Polk County Historical Association to safeguard these stories for generations to come. Check out their website or Facebook page to find out more.
The city of Lakeland is the largest in Polk County, with a population of over 100,000. It was originally incorporated in 1885 and is the county seat. It was a key factor in the 20th century economic growth of the area, with the opening of Polk Theatre in 1928 and Sun ‘n’ Fun Air Museum in 1974 providing culture and education to local residents.
Citizens Bank & Trust has been a cornerstone of the local banking system since it was founded in 1907. The bank serves customers in the greater Polk County area and is still owned by the same family today.
The citrus industry was an important part of Polk’s economy for many years and remains a key part of the region’s culture. Florida Citrus Tower offers a bird’s eye view of the surrounding area, and also provides a glimpse into the history of citrus farming in Florida.
Since the early 19th century, cattle ranching was a major activity in the area and is still practiced today. Lakes and rivers were a critical supplier of water for livestock during these times. The Peace River near Bowling Green is a popular spot for recreational activities such as canoeing and tubing.
Lake Wales is one of the oldest cities in Polk County and is home to Bok Tower Gardens, a 250-acre botanical garden and bird sanctuary. The historic site is also known as the National Historic Landmark of Historic Bok Sanctuary.
Offering jobs, education and lifestyle opportunities, Jean O’Dell Career Center (also known as Jean O’Dell Learning Center) has been a major presence in the county since the 1950s. The center provides vocational and technical training, and has graduated hundreds of alumni who are now employed in various industries.
The University of South Florida Polytechnic, located in Polk County’s eastern side, is a major educational institution in the area. It offers undergraduate and graduate degree programs and is a key player in the economic development of the region.
The Polk County Historical Museum is a great resource for those who want to learn more about the county’s past. It showcases artifacts from all walks of life, including industry, agriculture, politics and cultural heritage.
Brooksville Ridge State Forest is a 37,000-acre unit of the Florida State Forests and is a popular spot for hiking, camping, picnicking and hunting. This natural area is also home to several threatened and endangered species.
Winter Haven is the southernmost city in Polk County and is an ideal destination for those who like spending time on the water. Lake Winterset and Chain of Lakes Park are just two spots that attract anglers and boaters, while Cypress Gardens Adventure Park provides plenty of family-friendly thrills.