Celebrating Florida’s Roots

500th Anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s Arrival Sparks Renewed Interest in Heritage

Floridians across the state are honoring their roots this year as the state marks the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s arrival. With a Viva Florida 500 initiative, there will be a flurry of exhibits showcasing the cultures that make up the state’s heritage. The event will educate children and adults about significant Florida firsts, from the 1513 landing that preceded the Pilgrims, to the first practice of traditions like Thanksgiving and Christmas, and the establishment of important industries like cattle ranching and citrus farming.

It is hoped that the initiative will generate new tourism on a global scale as state officials work to strengthen the very old ties between the Old and New Worlds.

Polk County’s roots

Polk County’s earliest settlers were Indians and blacks — among them the famous Indians Billy Bowlegs and Osceola. The Indians were cattle grazers and hunters and the blacks were growers; the first tourist industry dates back to the early and mid 1700s, when Indians from all over the southeastern United States came to hunt. At the time, there were “dozens and dozens” of varieties of plumed birds, recalls Dr. Edgar Canter Brown Jr., a descendant of the Browns, Roberts and Cantors who settled here between 1849 and 1885.

In 1835, the area became administrative headquarters for the second Seminole War. That was before Florida became a state in 1845, when the first white settlers began to arrive. “For the most part, Polk’s earliest settlers were … connected with the cattle business,” says Dr. Brown, who authored In the Midst of All That Makes Life Worth Living: Polk County, Florida, to 1940 and None Can Have Richer Memories: Polk County, Florida, 1940-2000.

“That situation really lasted into the 1880s. It really only began to change with the coming of the railroad and the discovery of phosphate,” says Dr. Brown, who is also the executive vice president at Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Georgia.

In the early days, Polk was a rugged frontier community with gunfights in the streets and assassinations. “George Washington Henry wrote to a Tampa newspaper and said, ‘We have to kill men to recruit our graveyards,’ ” Dr. Brown explains.

Before the railroad, the center of the community was Fort Meade. Lakeland, Winter Haven and Haines City did not even exist; Bartow was there, but it wasn’t growing. Everyone had dooryard gardens rather than large-scale farms. While the population increased during the Civil War, community buildings in the newly formed county were burned. “The cattle industry was able to organize to sell cattle in Cuba,” Dr. Brown says.

The modern citrus grove didn’t really exist until after the war, but military accounts show there were mature trees in the Fort Meade area in the 1830s, he says. Citrus growing didn’t expand until the railroad made it possible to transport citrus more easily. “The patterns and practices for growing oranges had been pioneered mostly by black settlers who had gotten homestead land after the Civil War,” Dr. Brown says.

There is some evidence the Franciscans brought the citrus to Florida in the 1500s, however. “The evidence of that is everywhere — wild orange trees wherever you go,” says Dr. James M. Denham, a professor of history and director of the Lawton Chiles Center for Florida History at Florida Southern College in Lakeland.

Celebrating Florida’s roots

The Florida Department of Agriculture is spotlighting the importance of agriculture with “Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making.” While early production was just enough to feed settlers, the state now produces nearly 300 commodities with an economic impact of more than $100 billion annually.

Polk County’s history is directly tied to the Spaniards through its cattle and citrus industries, says Myrtice Young, the Historic Preservation Manager at the Polk County History Center in Bartow. “There’s a rich, rich history.”

Among the special events slated are Historic University Forums, with Commissioner Adam Putnam moderating a panel of experts focusing on a commodity, region or Florida history. A forum is scheduled at 7 p.m. April 11 at the Lawton Chiles Center for Florida History at Florida Southern College, says Kelly White, a spokeswoman at the commissioner’s Winter Haven office.

Middle and high school students from around the state were invited to submit art and essays on the state’s agricultural heritage while grade-school students could enter a coloring contest. Winners will be displayed at the Florida State Fair in Tampa.
A traveling exhibit, “Florida Agriculture Then and Now,” will teach visitors about the evolution of state agriculture. The exhibit is scheduled for the Polk County Farm Bureau’s Agrifest March 8-22, the Polk County Historical Museum in the summer, and the Florida State Fair Feb. 7-18.

Young says the Polk County History Center’s exhibits this year will all tie into the “Viva 500/ Florida Agriculture: 500 Years in the Making” theme. The exhibits include “Spanish Pathways,” the story of the Spanish colonization of Florida, in February; the state’s traveling exhibit this summer; an exhibit on the Seminoles in September through November; and a national Smithsonian exhibit on journeys, which will be localized to include stories about how people found their way to Polk County, she says.

At Circle B Bar Reserve in Lakeland, a recreated Cow Camp exhibit from 1906 done for the county’s 150th anniversary in February 2011-12 will be expanded with an agricultural trail, with completion targeted for the summer’s event. “It started with one celebration and it moves into the next celebration. The history is the history. They all tie together,” Young adds.

History buffs can see an original one-room schoolhouse built in 1878 at Homeland Heritage Park along with a Methodist church built in 1887-89, the Daniel Amos Raulerson house built in the late 1880s, and the English family log cabin and barn dating to the late 1880s and early 1900s respectively, says Daniel Gornoski, the park’s coordinator.

In Kissimmee State Park, which includes part of Polk and Osceola counties, another recreated Cracker Cow Camp from 1876 is open on weekends in October through May, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., says Andi Henry, a park service specialist. The property was used for cattle before some 5,030 acres were purchased from William Zipperer in August 1969. The park opened to the public in August 1977.

“Polk County’s agriculture,” Young observes, “is a result of man’s ability to courageously work in an environment that wasn’t very friendly.” She points out that these events and exhibits are an opportunity to reverence the past and recognize the present while celebrating our state’s rich heritage.



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