The Florida Legislature got it right in 1861 when it carved out a swath of scrub land that encompassed then-Eastern Hillsborough and Western Brevard counties.
With a roll call of votes and the signing of a bill, Polk County was created – just months before the nation plunged into the Civil War.
In those days, Polk’s population barely topped 3,000 residents. The railroad, citrus, cattle and phosphate industries hadn’t taken root. And roads were little more than a dirt path cut through thick brush.
Officially dubbed Polk County Feb. 8, 1861, it became the state’s 39th county with the passage of Chapter 1201 of the 1861 Florida Statutes.
Early History of Polk County
On paper, Polk didn’t appear in historical records until just before the Civil War. However, its history far predates its 150-year-old name by about 11,000 years – to the last ice age. During that time, the sea levels were about 350 feet lower than they are today.
It’s largely thought the area’s first inhabitants were the Paleoindians, who had reached the northern parts of Florida about 10,000 B.C. Through curiosity, the Paleoindians made their way to the lower, interior areas of the state and along the Gulf Coast and began making permanent settlements between 9,000 and 8,500 B.C. when the glaciers began to melt.
European explorers made their Florida entrance in the 1500s, followed by various Indian tribes. Many scholars associate the county's Native American inhabitants with the Tocobaga people of Tampa Bay and their close relatives, the Mocosos, who lived east of the bay and along the Alafia and Hillsborough rivers. The Seminole Indians, which were descendants of Georgia’s Creek Indians, didn’t settle the areas in and around Polk until the 1700s.
Polk quickly underwent a period of growth and change during the 19th century.
The county’s first courthouse was constructed in 1867 in Bartow on land donated by cattle baron Jacob Summerlin. By the 1880s, the development of various industries, including citrus, cattle, and phosphate, and the arrival of the railroad caused a boom in land prices.
The population of the county doubled as a new wave of visitors and workers settled in Polk. Henry Plant’s South Florida Railway crossed the county and reached Tampa in 1884, linking central Florida with a massive transportation network. Locally produced goods were shipped by rail to national and international markets – Florida oranges could now reach major metropolitan areas like New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore in less than a week. Phosphate mining also benefited from improvements in the transportation infrastructure and quickly became one of Polk County’s largest industries.
Communities sprang up across the area and a third courthouse was constructed in 1908, replacing the second built in 1884, to meet the growing needs of Polk County. By the 1920s, Florida had become a popular tourist destination and land prices soared, prompting a building boom in towns across the county. The 10-story Polk Hotel opened in Haines City in 1926 and Bok Tower Gardens in Lakes Wales was dedicated in 1929, an event attend by President Calvin Coolidge.
Although the Florida boom ended with the onset of the Great Depression, the 1930s also brought the creation of Florida’s first theme park in Polk County, Cypress Gardens, the opening of George Jenkins’ first Publix grocery store in Winter Haven and the building of early airfields, which served the nation during World War II.
Today, Polk County is a leading contributor to the state’s economy and politics. Citrus, cattle, agriculture, and the phosphate industry still play vital roles in the local economy, along with an increase in tourist revenue in recent years. The county’s location between both the Tampa and Orlando metropolitan areas has aided in the development and growth of the area. Residents and visitors alike are drawn to the unique character of the county’s numerous heritage sites and cultural venues, stunning natural landscapes, and many outdoor activities, making Polk the heart of central Florida.