Updated March 7, 2021
Bartow, Florida is a Central Florida city of about 20,000 people located about 50 miles southwest of Orlando and 40 miles east of Tampa.
It is not located on an interstate highway, but is a crossroads city where US-17, US-98, and State Road 60 all intersect. It is an easy place to get to from anywhere in Central Florida.
It is the county seat of Polk County and is part of the Lakeland-Winter Haven Metropolitan Statistical Area with a population of more than 600,000.
Somebody years ago came up with the moniker "Imperial Polk County" and you still hear it used sometimes today.
Native Americans were first to settle in the area, but most were gone by the time white settlers came to the area.
A Spanish map dating back to 1527 shows a native settlement named Rio de la Paz, a reference to the areas location at the head of what would become the Peace River.
Redding Blount was an early settler who brought 21 white pioneers and 12 black slaves to the area in 1851. Their settlement was west of what is now downtown Bartow.
The area began to develop with citrus being an important crop. A few schools and churches were built in the area, along with a stockade named Fort Blount to protect settlers during the Seminole War.
Florida seceded from the Union in 1861, and established Polk County from the eastern section of Hillsborough County. This area of Florida provided food to the Confederate armies fighting further north.
Cattle was the main product and a "Cow Cavalry" was formed to round up cattle and drive them to the north. There were no railroads back then, and it was just like the old west.
The cattle drovers used whips that made a cracking noise, and became known as Florida Crackers. The "King of the Crackers" was Jacob Summerlin who became a wealthy man from his cattle operations.
Summerlin bought land in the area and donated it for a county courthouse, churches and schools.
In 1862 the settlement was named Bartow for Francis S. Bartow, the first brigade commander in the Confederate Army to be killed during the Civil War.
In the 1880s and 1890s railroads began to serve Bartow and the town began to grow. In 1887, Summerlin Institute was built. It was the first brick school house in the state south of Jacksonville.
In the early 1900s phosphate companies began buying huge tracts of land around Bartow. The town became the hub of the largest phosphate industry in the country as well as being a center of the thriving citrus operations in the area.
A popular tourist attraction came to town in the 1920s when Conrad Shuck built the Wonder House. He built the house out of reinforced concrete and it grew to become four stories tall with 18 rooms. It was his family's home.
The home was an architectural wonder and he opened it to the public for tours in 1934. Many tourists and Floridians visited the home during the 30 years it was open to the public.
The phosphate mining companies began to move south in the 1990s and put their land up for sale. Much of it had been reclaimed after the disruption of the strip mining operations.
Bartow is a pleasant city that has an economy still based on agriculture, government, phosphate mining, and tourism.
Since Bartow is the county seat of a very large county (Polk), there are many government employees here. For example, the Polk County School Board has 12,000 employees.
Government always attracts lawyers, and one of the largest law firms in Florida was founded here in 1929: Holland & Knight.
Spessard Holland was a local Bartow boy who grew up to become the Governor of Florida and a prominent United States Senator.
The famous Miami department store, Burdines, actually started in Bartow in 1896 as Payne and Burdines.
Downtown Bartow has a good selection of shops and restaurants in addition to many offices providing services to the government.
Bartow is in the area known as "Bone Valley", the richest deposits of phosphate rock in the world. One quarter of the world's supply of phosphate comes from this region.
Polk County is the top citrus producer in Florida, and Bartow is home to many packing and processing corporations.
Cattle is also an important activity in the County, as is honey production, blueberry farming, and many other agricultural products.
The Bartow Wonder House is still standing and is open for tours. New owners are in the process of restoring the building and grounds to its previous splendor.
Bartow has done a good job of historic preservation. There are three historic districts in the city. Many notable buildings have been preserved.
An example is the Lawrence Brown house, built in 1892 and on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mr. Brown was a successful Bartow businessman who began life as a slave when he was born in 1856. His house may be the only one in Florida still standing that was built by a former slave.
A current development underway that will undoubtedly mean more growth for Bartow is Clear Springs on 18,000 acres of former phosphate land south and east of the city limits.
Clear Springs has the potential for 11,000 new homes, three schools, a golf course, and one million square feet of commercial space.