To our faithful readers: I inadvertently omitted to send this first installment of “Early Polk History.” You have read Parts II and III. Now for Part 1. My apologies.
The year was 1928 and M. F. Hetherington was the retired publisher of the Lakeland Evening Telegram. It was this year that he published “The History of Polk County” — a 379 page compilation of early Polk history and biographical information of some of the county’s leading citizens.
Hetherington was born in Elkton, Ky., and was orphaned as a child. He would go on to work as a “devil*” in a printing shop, which afforded him attending college. He published several Kentucky papers before moving to Florida in 1900, becoming involved in the publication of the Miami Metropolis — a weekly paper later
to become a daily known as the Miami News.
He moved to Lakeland in 1904, purchased the weekly News and converted it to the aforementioned Lakeland Evening Telegram.
“The History of Polk County” is rare and the Museum of Winter Haven History is fortunate to have a copy. The book captures recollections of Polk’s earliest days. In Hetherington’s words, “The intention of this work has been to present, in chronological order, such incidents as may enable the reader to follow the processes of [Polk] development and to note the progress that has been continuous and consistent.”
The following are interesting notes gleaned from the book.
— The county we call home was born in 1860, when the eastern portion of Hillsborough County was divided off and named for President James K. Polk.
— The first county commission for which records exist included: Reading Blount, James Hamilton, Isaac Waters and Joseph Mizelle. L. W. Cornelius was county judge. — On June 17, 1861 this group met to decide the location of the county seat. The location considered was “a beautiful parcel of land four miles south of present day Bartow on Fort Meade Road.” Though the owners provided inducements for the location, these only created jealousy and Mud Lake would only serve as the site for one year. Though the militia mustered at the site several times, it remained impractical and, following another vote, the county seat was moved to a site about one-and-one-quarter miles south of the present courthouse.
— The site called Jefferson would serve as the county seat for four years. But within that time frame the onset of the Civil War would prevent the construction of necessary county structures and ultimately Jefferson joined Mud Lake as “former” county seats.
— After the war, county commissioners were again anxious to formalize a permanent county government location. The book notes, “After much talk and considerable speculation, ‘Uncle Jake’ Summerlin made his famous offer of 120 acres for county, school and church purposes.” The offer was accepted by the commissioners, who named it in honor of General Bartow, who died at the first battle of Manassas.
— It would be 1867 before county commissioners awarded a contract to build the first court house to John McAulay for $3,800. Most of the timber and weatherboarding was hewn by hand. Every brace tenoned and drawpinned to the sills above and below. It was never painted. The first jail was also built at the same time for a cost of $1600. According to the author, “It was sixteen feet square and two stories high, and utterly worthless as prisoners could not be kept in it. It was soon condemned having become rotten, and was afterwards burned to the ground by some good, law-abiding citizen. The second jail was built a few years later and was worth little more than the first, and was later used as a city calaboose for the city of Bartow.”
We are indebted for the candor — and for the fact Mud Lake is not the county seat.
This information was taken from “The History of Polk County by M. F. Hetherington published in 1928.
Next week: Remembering Early Biltmore Shores
The Museum of Winter Haven History is closed for the summer. Tours are available year round for groups of four or more by appointment. Contact Bob Gernert (863) 206-6855 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Editorial note: A printer's devil was an apprentice in a printing establishment who performed a number of tasks, such as mixing tubs of ink and fetching type.