8315 Florida 33 • Lakeland, FL 33809


(863) 984-2800

A Brief History of Lakeland, Florida

The first inhabitants of Lakeland, Florida were the Tocobago, Timucua, and Calusa Indian tribes, who first settled in the Florida peninsula near the end of the last ice age, some 12,000 years ago. In the early 1500s, Spanish settlers arrived and these original Native Americans were virtually wiped out over the ensuing century and a half by a combination of disease, slavery and outright extermination. Those who were left merged with the Creek Indians, who had emigrated from the north, to become the Seminole Indian tribe.

In 1845, Florida became the nation’s 27th state. Polk County, named for U.S President James K. Polk, was established in 1861, after Florida seceded from the Union and became, for a short time, an independent nation. In 1866, after Florida was reabsorbed into the United States, Jesse and Elizabeth Kern built a dirt-floor log cabin in the area and became the first known settlers of what would become the town of Lakeland, some two decades later. Other early homesteaders were the Hollingsworths, the Powers, the Hamiltons, Elbert Combee, and John Futch.

Settlers continued to arrive through the 1870s, and the region became home to farmers, ranchers, citrus growers, and Civil War survivors. In 1882, Abraham Munn, a native of Louisville, Kentucky, purchased 80 acres of land in what is now downtown, Lakeland, and it is believed that Herbert Drane, a former railroad foreman, was the first settler to permanently inhabit Munn’s original 80 acre plat.

Drane went on to open a drugstore, edit the area’s first newspaper, the Lakeland Cracker, open an insurance agency, and serve as the town’s first clerk and treasurer. He was also the town’s mayor from 1888-1892. Drane also served as a U.S. Congressman from 1917-1933.

Rail lines reached Polk County in 1884, just as the nascent phosphate industry was emerging in that part of the state. In May of that same year, Lewis M. Ballard established Lakeland’s first post office, and on New Year’s Day, 1885, the town of Lakeland, Florida was officially incorporated. Its original 27 voters considered, and ultimately rejected, several other names for their new municipality, including Rome City, Red Bug and Munnville.

In 1891, the Lakeland Light and Power Company built a plant, and the town joined Tampa and Jacksonville as one of the only three Florida cities to have electric lights. Grapefruit and strawberry growers brought money and commerce into the town. By the mid 1890s, rail service had increased to some 25 stops a day at the local train depot, and the Lakeland community continued to prosper with new homes, hotels, churches, banks, and commercial establishments. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Lakeland hosted some 9,000 troops who were awaiting transfer to Cuba.

Lakeland High School, built in 1902, was one of the city’s first brick structures. That year, the city also saw its first telephone exchange. Its first fire department was organized in 1908, and in 1916, the cornerstone of its first hospital was laid.

The 1920s are considered a boom period in American history, and Florida was no exception to the general trend. Many of the city’s historic structures were constructed during the decade that is now considered Lakeland’s golden age. In 1922, Florida Southern College moved into town. Baseball was becoming the country’s national pastime, and from 1923-27, the Cleveland Indians held their spring training in the city. When the economy bottomed out during the Great Depression, Florida’s boom quickly went bust - along with the rest of the country.

Lakeland rebounded in the 1930s. The Detroit Tigers arrived for their first spring training in 1934, and are still there, today. In 1938, Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect, came to Lakeland to design and build a new campus for Florida Southern College. His 12 completed buildings comprise the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright structures in one location anywhere in the world.

In the early 1940s, Lakeland actively participated in the war effort. The U.S. Army Air Corps taught its pilots to fly fighters, bombers and transport planes at the Lodwick School of Aeronautics, and B-24 bomber crews trained at Drane Field in the city’s southwest. In 1951, George Jenkins, the founder of Publix Supermarkets, moved the company’s headquarters from Winter Haven, FL. to Lakeland. Publix is a now a $29 billion corporation.

Today, Lakeland has a population of approximately 100,000 residents and is the largest city between Orlando and Tampa on U.S. Interstate Highway 4. It sits within a half hour’s drive of many of Central Florida’s top tourist attractions, including Disney World, Busch Gardens, Bok Tower and Legoland. 70 percent of the phosphate produced in the U.S. is extracted and processed within a few dozen miles of the city, and Polk Country is still the top citrus producing county in the country’s top citrus producing state.