Day-tripping: Polk County History Center

The Polk County Courthouse in Bartow is now the Polk County History Center. It’s about an hour north of Arcadia.

Dedicated in June 1909, the Polk County Courthouse is now the Polk County History Center. This wonderful museum features Polk County’s history in the context of Florida’s heritage, including DeSoto County.

Established in 1861, Polk County was named for James K. Polk (1795-1849), the 11th U.S. president from 1845-1849. Florida had already seceded from the Union when Florida Gov. Madison Starke Perry (1814-1865) signed the legislation.

Jacob Summerlin (1820-1893) donated 120 acres at the county’s center for the county seat: named for Francis Stebbins Bartow (1816-1861) of Georgia, the first Confederate officer to die in battle during the Civil War. The first courthouse was built in 1867; second in 1884; and third in 1908 that became the history center after the fourth was built in 1987.

Standing in the rotunda, museum assistant Lois Sherrouse-Murphy explained the beautiful stencils—with colors matching the decorative mosaic floor tiles. A judge who had served in the courthouse bought a nearby historic home, and when remodeling, he found the original blueprints for the 1908 structure inside a wall. One detail never executed was the stencils, so they were added during the 10-year restoration. She also showed an area where the white tiles were dyed brown from the coffee urn at a concession stand operated by the Florida Council for the Blind. Such snack counters in government buildings—including the state capitol—were operated by the council from the 1940s to the 1960s to employ those with visual impairment.

The first floor has nine galleries, offices, a gift shop, and restrooms. The “Industry Gallery” provides information about three businesses also present in DeSoto County: Badcock furniture, Coca Cola bottling, and Publix Supermarkets. The Florida Southern Railroad as well as the Charlotte Harbor and Northern Railroad connected Polk and DeSoto counties as did the Dixie Highway and Peace River.

“Florida’s Natural World Gallery” includes the skull of a giant crocodile living 5-7 million years ago when Florida was mostly submerged. Although smaller in size, crocodiles are native to the state. A Paleo Indian Gallery upstairs showcases many lithics donated by Alvie Davidson, who in 1955-1956 lived in the original Ingraham Seed House with his brother, James, and parents Ollie Davidson and Mary Lee Davidson.

The Polk County Medical Society’s charter members of 1910 include Dr. Murdock L. Crum (1873-1929). He was “the only charter member who started his practice in an automobile—a one seated Reo, the third car in Polk County.” However, he had an office in Arcadia, according to the 1926 city directory, upstairs at 15 W. Oak St. in the “[Owen Henry] Parker Building.” Crum was the nephew of Rhoda Crum Parker, wife of Jasper Newton Parker, a brother of Owen Parker. In 1897, Crum had married Lilla Lee Futch (1876-1929). He served as a major with U.S. Army from 1917 to 1920. He is buried in Oaklawn Cemetery, Plant City, Fla.

“Together We Win WWI” is an exhibit commemorating the centennial of the “Great War.” Artifacts, reproductions of wartime posters, and Polk County men who gave the ultimate sacrifice are featured. They served with men from DeSoto County in the 31st Infantry, known as the “Dixie Division,” as well as in 116th Field Artillery and the 124th Infantry, which is included with military history in an upstairs gallery.

The second floor includes a 1908 courtroom with some judicial history and photos of the judges of the 10th judicial circuit, including some who served in Pine Level. A photo of and the famous quote from Chesterfield Harvey Smith (1917-2003), born and raised in Arcadia, is also displayed. As president of the American Bar Association (1973-1974), Smith said of President Richard Nixon that “No man is above the law.”

Accessed from the courtroom, the Historical and Genealogical Library since 1940 has offered researchers a quiet space and shelves full of genealogical research about Florida counties, plus other states and countries.

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