Old Polk County Courthouse: A Walk through History in Bartow, Florida

Lisa Fritscher June 30, 2012 No Comments

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Old Polk County Courthouse Museum

The Old Polk County Courthouse now houses a detailed historical museum

When we found ourselves unexpectedly stranded for an extended time in Lake Wales, Florida, Dad and I decided to make the most of the opportunity. Although we both grew up in nearby Lakeland, we actually knew very little of the region’s history and significance. That all changed when we visited the Old Polk County Courthouse in Bartow, which turned out to be a surprisingly detailed historical museum.

About Bartow

Although Native Americans lived throughout the Florida peninsula as long ago as the last Ice Age, European settlers considered modern-day Gainesville, Florida to be the southernmost point that was reasonably inhabitable. Heat, humidity, insects and animals, as well as hostile Native Americans, prevented early settlers from migrating south.

After Florida became a US territory in 1822, however, a series of legislative acts established forts and offered land grants to homesteaders throughout the peninsula. The region around the Peace River was considered Seminole land, and settlement of the area was forbidden by the 1842 Armed Occupation Act. Nonetheless, pioneers realized that the area offered prime farm land. Florida became the 27th state in 1845. In 1851, Fort Blount was established just west of modern-day Bartow. The region grew slowly and was eventually renamed Peace Creek.

Old Polk County Courthouse Exhibits

The museum uses a combination of artifacts and interactive displays to demonstrate Polk County history

In the years leading up to the Civil War, Florida’s economy was primarily plantation-based, and nearly half the population consisted of African-American slaves. In 1861, Florida became the third state to declare secession and a founding member of the Confederacy. With a small population, Florida focused on contributing supplies rather than manpower during the Civil War.

Carved out of Hillsborough and Brevard counties in February 1861, Polk County formed around the Peace Creek settlement. It was one of only two Florida counties created during secession. Ironically, the county was named after James K. Polk, President of the United States at the time that Florida became a state. Due to the war, the county seat moved around several times.

Some Florida cattlemen banded together during the Civil War to create the Cow Cavalry, which provided defense against Union troops. One of the most prominent members was Jacob Summerlin, who donated 120 acres for a town site and county seat in 1867. The new town was named Bartow in honor of Francis S. Bartow, the first confederate officer to lose his life in the Civil War.

Reconstruction was slow in Florida, as it was in much of the South. In the 1880s, however, Bartow flourished. The town incorporated as a city in 1882 and quickly became a railroad hub for lines traveling throughout the Florida peninsula. The twin Central Florida booms of phosphate and citrus helped guide Bartow’s growth. By 1900, Bartow was the biggest city south of Tampa, surpassing even Miami.

Old Polk County Courthouse Rotunda

The courthouse rotunda has barely changed in over a century

During the 20th century, however, Bartow’s growth slowed dramatically. The city was largely boxed in by phosphate mines, making it impossible to follow the model of nearby cities, which aggressively annexed neighboring land. Though it remained the county seat, Bartow soon became a quaint historic town surrounded by much larger neighboring cities. In the 1990s, however, much of the former phosphate land became available for sale. As of 2012, Bartow is undergoing a building boom that is projected to roughly triple the current population in the next three years.

Old Polk County Courthouse

Constructed in 1908-1909, the Old Polk County Courthouse is the third courthouse to sit on its present site. The sturdy Classical Revival building replaced an earlier wooden structure that was deemed a fire hazard. For many years, the courthouse was home to all of the county offices including the courtroom and the school board. In 1926, two wings were added to handle the county’s continued growth.

Haunted Old Polk County Courthouse

The museum is allegedly home to six ghosts

By the 1980s, however, it was clear that Polk County had outgrown the old courthouse. In 1987, a modern courthouse opened across the street from the historic building. The old courthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 and extensive restoration work commenced. In 1998, the Polk County Historical Museum opened in the newly restored courthouse building.

About the Museum

The museum’s ambitious goal is to provide the history of Polk County from the pre-Columbian era through today. The museum offers a number of community outreach programs throughout the year, from lecture series to summer camps. As of 2012, operating hours are Tuesday through Friday from 9 to 5, and Saturday from 9 to 3. There is no admission fee.

Parking in Bartow is interesting, and the museum is no exception. Parking spots in front of the museum are designated for museum permit holders only. As it turns out, getting a permit is as simple as asking for one at the museum’s front desk. We were unsure how the process worked, so we parked in a designated two-hour space around the corner.

Our Experience

Old Polk County Courthouse Puppet Theater

We couldn’t resist playing with the puppet theater!

Stepping into the courthouse rotunda is truly like stepping back in time. It was easy to imagine the daily goings-on of a booming turn-of-the-20th century town, a feeling perhaps bolstered by the six ghosts that allegedly call the courthouse home.

We were quickly greeted by a museum docent at the front desk. As we signed the guest book and gathered a few flyers for upcoming events, the docent gave us a brief overview of the courthouse’s history and current museum layout. Then we were off to explore.

The museum encompasses two floors of former offices and courtrooms, and virtually every square inch is packed with historic displays. Yet the place is remarkably child-friendly, supplementing the artifacts with quiz games, puzzles and even puppets designed to appeal to kids of all ages.

Each room is dedicated to a different segment of Polk County history, from fossils and minerals to Civil War memorabilia. Being RVers, we were especially fond of the displays on “tin can tourists”—the early car and truck campers who took to the open road in the 1920s and 1930s.

Dad grew up in the area in the 1950s and 1960s, when sweeping social changes were occurring all around. I grew up in the same area in the 1980s, and I found it fascinating to see how much Polk County changed (but also stayed the same) between Dad’s childhood years and my own.

Tips for Parents

Polk County Historical Museum Displays

The museum displays are fun for all ages

The Old Polk County Courthouse is a great addition to any Central Florida visit. The museum provides a fun and factual look inside the region as it existed before Walt Disney World, as well as information on the Polk County of today. Most of the exhibits are child-friendly, and several are designed specifically with kids in mind. Dad and I filled the entire two hours for which our parking was valid, but those with a more passing interest could easily hit the highlights in an hour or so.

If you have time before or after your visit, take a stroll through downtown Bartow. Despite its status as a government town, the city retains a quaint small-town charm.

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Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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