Bartow – All About Polk County

Bartow Florida

There isn’t much information about the Native Americans who made their homes near what we now call Bartow but there is an old Spanish map dating back to 1527 showing that the area was called Rio de la Paz. It is to be said that majority of the people from this small area died from diseases such as smallpox and yellow fever. The survivors probably joined the Creek Indians who came from the north and created the Seminole Indian Tribe.

Redding Blount established Fort Blount in 1851 just west of the where Bartow is now. The name changed a few times in the 1850’s to Peace Creek or Peas Creek, it was a name dating back to that Rio de la Paz with the early Spanish maps. In 1861 Hillsborough County was split up and Polk County was established. There wasn’t a county seat in place until -1862 when Jacob Summerlin, a very wealthy man purchased the property from Blount. Jacob Summerlin donated a large area of land to build a county courthouse, two churches and a school. That same year, the town which had been known formally as Fort Blount, Peace Creek, Peas Creek, and briefly Reidsville was permanently renamed Bartow in honor of Francis S. Bartow. Francis was the first confederate officer to die during the war.

The first Polk County Courthouse was built in the year 1867. From 1880 to 1900, Bartow grew from 386 residents to 1,983!  There were many reasons for the growth. On July 1, 1882 the town was incorporated as a city. In 1885, the Florida Southern Railroad opened in the city. A year later, a branch of the South Florida Railroad was completed. The Summerlin Institute was built in 1887. The Summerlin Institute was the first brick schoolhouse south of Jacksonville, Florida! Did you know that BARTOW was more populated than Miami in the turn of the century!

Bartow become the hub of the largest phosphate industry in the United States. Polk County was the leading citrus county in the entire United States and for most of the 20th century and in 1941 the city built an airport. It was taken over by the government during World War ll but returned to the city and renamed the Bartow Municipal Airport in 1967. The city remained the largest populated city within Polk County until 1910 when Lakeland surpassed Bartow in size.

Did you know that Bartow is located near the center of what we call “Lightning Alley” due to the frequent afternoon thunderstorms in the summer? Government, mining, and agriculture are the major sectors of the area’s economy. The official city nickname is the “City of Oaks and Azaleas”, but the locals often call it “the ‘Tow”.