Mulberry Phosphate Museum and Homeland Heritage Park: Mulberry, Florida

Lisa Fritscher June 27, 2012 No Comments

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Mulberry Phosphate Museum Exterior

The Mulberry Phosphate Museum is bigger than it looks

Dad and I recently found ourselves stuck in Lake Wales, Florida, a tiny town an hour away from Lakeland, where I grew up. As days turned into weeks, we decided to take advantage of our location and explore the region. It’s a good thing we did, or we never would have discovered the Mulberry Phosphate Museum and Homeland Heritage Park.

About Mulberry

Although the rough-and-tumble lawlessness of the mid-1800s is synonymous with the Wild West, Central Florida in those days was every bit as rough and rugged. The region was dominated by the Florida Cracker cowboys and, by the mid-19th century, the citrus industry had begun to boom. In the 1840s, a small group of pioneers settled near a fully mature red mulberry tree and began logging the plentiful long-leaf yellow pines nearby. The only law enforcement was in Bartow, then several hours’ journey away, and mob rule prevailed.

In the early 1880s, railroad construction throughout Central Florida unearthed a sizable concentration of prehistoric fossils in the region that would become known as Bone Valley. Over the next ten years, testing showed an abundance of phosphate throughout Bone Valley. As it turns out, the area has the highest concentration of phosphate in the United States and one of the highest concentrations in the world.

Mulberry Phosphate Museum Company Store

Most mining towns offered provisions at the company store

Seemingly overnight, mining towns sprang up along the Bone Valley. In 1893, the Winston & Bone Valley Railroad began shipping phosphate from the mines to the Port of Tampa on Florida’s West Coast. The tracks ran just west of the large red mulberry tree, past the logging community. The tree became a mail drop, and the community expanded to serve the needs of the burgeoning mining industry.

In 1901, the community incorporated, taking its name from the well-known tree. In the 1940s, the majority of phosphate mining moved south, while the large fertilizer companies that use phosphate built chemical plants near Mulberry. Although the tree is long gone and most of the nearby mining towns have died out, Mulberry has reinvented itself as a thriving center of business and industry, ensuring that it remains the Heart of the Bone Valley. While nearby Lakeland and Tampa experience urban sprawl, Mulberry is still a small town with a fierce local pride.

About the Mulberry Phosphate Museum

Mulberry Phosphate Museum Fossil Gallery

The fossil gallery was particularly impressive

Opened in 1985, the Mulberry Phosphate Museum is housed in the town’s historic railroad depot and two sets of boxcars. The museum underwent a significant restoration project in 2011. Today the depot building houses an extensive collection of Bone Valley fossils. One set of boxcars holds a collection of exhibits on the phosphate industry, while the other is filled with displays that demonstrate the town’s history.

As of 2012, the Mulberry Phosphate Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 4:30. There is no admission fee, although donations are gratefully accepted.

Our Experience

We never know what to expect when visiting a new small-town museum. What we found, however, was jaw-dropping. Entering the fossil gallery was like stepping into a much larger museum in a big city. Artifacts and dioramas filled the room, each carefully labeled. Informational signs explained exactly what we were looking at and why each item was important, but the fantastic employees were even more helpful. They were excellent at gauging each visitor’s interests and providing tidbits and anecdotes that matched the needs of each group.

Mulberry Phosphate Museum dragline bucket

Don’t miss the massive dragline bucket and the dig pit below!

An employee invited us outside to tour the museum’s railroad car, which contained several artifacts and interesting displays related to the town’s railroad industry. Next up was the history gallery, where we were invited to look through a scrapbook of important events in the town’s life. We ended up spending well over an hour in that gallery, although those with a more passing interest could see the main displays in just 15 minutes or so.

Our final stop was the phosphate gallery, where a collection of artifacts and videos explained the history and importance of phosphate mining. Some environmental concerns about mining have been raised in the past few years, so many of the exhibits are dedicated to clearing up misconceptions and explaining the steps that the mines take to minimize their effects on the environment.

Outside, we found a massive drag-line bucket once used in a local mine. At 44 cubic yards and 72,000 pounds fully rigged, the enormous bucket moved more than half a billion tons of material during its 22 years of service. Kids are invited to dig for shark teeth and other artifacts in the pile of rock at the foot of the bucket.

Lunch Break

Homeland Heritage Park

Homeland Heritage Park offers a look at 19th century Central Florida

We spent nearly three hours at the museum, leaving well after lunchtime. On the recommendation of museum employees, we headed down the block to Carol’s Café. Known for its seafood, the café also offers a full menu of inexpensive and unpretentious choices loved by locals and visitors alike.

Homeland Heritage Park

Homeland Heritage Park is just 15 miles from Mulberry in the town of Homeland, Florida. A collection of 1880’s buildings including a church, a school, a barn and a home, the park is a great place to get a feel for life in the old mining towns. The buildings are fully decorated in period style, but are open for tours only by appointment. You are welcome to look in the windows and take photographs during park hours, Monday through Friday from 8 until 5. There are picnic facilities and a small playground, making this a fun family stop during nice weather.

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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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