Beneath the Chinaberry Tree

Polk Junior College (now Polk State) first welcomed students to the newly completed Winter Haven Campus in 1968. The campus was built on the city’s first municipal golf course.

Our history is a colorful stream of events that began with the community’s platting in the early 1880s. So far we’ve reviewed historic “firsts” through World War II. This week we’ll look at more recent milestones …

Following the war, Winter Haven and much of Florida grew quickly as military personnel who had trained here, returned with their families as tourists or to relocate. By 1952 the legendary restaurateur Nick Christy served his first meals at the Sundown (now Manny’s Chophouse). Gardens founder Dick Pope was courting Hollywood and in 1953 the first full-length motion picture was not only filmed here but featured Cypress Gardens as the backdrop for a campy love story starring Esther Williams and Van Johnson. October 1954 saw Virginia Foley Miller become the first woman elected to the Winter Haven City Commission.

In 1962 State Farm Insurance opened their first regional office here on US 17 which is now home to a number of functions including New Beginnings High School. Polk Junior College (now Polk State) opened their (temporary) first campus in 1964 at the Bartow Air Base and the Derry Down opened downtown. In March of 1966, the Boston Red Sox would play their first Spring Training game here.

In 1973 Lemuel Geathers became the city’s first African-American City Commissioner. In 1982 the Haven Hotel was converted to condominiums and welcomed its first permanent residents. In 1987 the City made the first major renovations to Central Park since the railroad came through in 1885. The railroad had recently removed the downtown tracks and a fountain became the focus.

MainStreet Winter Haven first opened in 1995 focusing energy on revitalizing the city’s heart. “Our Future by Design” was the city’s first attempt at “visioning” beginning in 1999. The plan, delivered in 2001 became a blueprint for community growth spurring the new police station, downtown library and walking and biking paths, downtown streetscape and more.

Legoland Florida first welcomed visitors in October 2011 and freight first moved through the CSX Integrated Logistics Center in 2015. Soon a dynamic and exciting renovated South Central Park will welcome its first events and visitors completing the city’s renovations of the historic downtown three-block venue.

There are “firsts” happening every day. We’ve tried to share some of the memorable moments. The Chain of Lakes City is making history all of the time.

The Museum of Winter Haven History is closed for the summer while we catalog materials and create new displays. Group tours for four or more people are available by appointment. Contact Bob Gernert at 863-206-6855 or


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