In the seven county Tampa Bay Area, Polk County may have the
oldest useable history. A major source of income is the bones and shells of
ten million year old sea dwellers. What is now Polk County was shallow water
in the Cenozoic era, and thick beds of phosphate, a vital ingredient of fertilizer,
remain from the fish and shellfish that died there.
More recently, Seminole Indians and settlers from a farther north region battled
for control of the region. The settlers won, but not without many casualties.
No sooner had the Seminole threat been settled, and the county created by an act
of the Florida Legislature in 1861, that the Civil War Started. The County Seat was
chosen by Jacob Summerlin, a wealthy cattle baron who simply decreed that it would
be at Fort Blount, on property Summerlin owned. Summerlin donated property and endowed
a building for county government.
Throughout the war, very little in what would be called county business occurred.
The first sheriff was also both tax assessor and tax collector. According to reports,
"he made his lists and kept his books according to his own choice of style."
Residents were not much intimidated, it seems, for this man of many parts only
collected a few hundred dollars during the entire war, and he had to split that
with county commissioners, who got $2.00 per day on the rare occations they met,
and with the county's elected wheelmaker, who got $8.50 for each spinning wheel
he made for the wife of a soldier.
After the war, the county languished, capable of producing vast amounts of citrus,
strawberries and cattle, but unable to ship any of it to major markets. Finally,
the coming of the railroad in 1883-1885 change the problem. Towns popped up
overnight. Citrus boomed with the opening of new markets. Phosphate was now
able to be shipped by rail to seaports on the coast. Goods and building materials
were easier to obtain from importing.
The area grew slowly until World War II, when training facilities brought young
men into the county. After the war, many of them decided to stay, and the
facilities, converted into housing and civilian airfields, gave the area a needed
boost. Tourism became a popular market. Polk County is home to several world
famous attractions. Cypress Gardens, The Bok Tower and the Black Hills Passion
Play, which is based in South Dakota but winters here.
Today, Polk County remains an almost mystical place of lakes and orange groves,
of small towns and commercial centers. Squeezed between Tampa and Orlando, the
area is experiencing more growth than it ever has in the past. More and More people
are discovering Polk County's Charm.