Located directly in between Orlando and Tampa off of Interstate 4 (I-4), Lakeland is one of the many little slices of Florida that still hold true to a lot of the old traditions. First settled in the late 1870s, we developed rather abruptly in 1884 with the coming of the South Florida Railroad and we quickly grew as more and more businesses recognized the value of being equidistant from two of the largest cities in Central Florida and an hour's drive from Florida's largest cargo port, the Port of Tampa.
Polk County is the citrus and cattle capital of Florida (and the Southeastern U.S.) so most of us grew up around cattle, orange groves or some other form of agriculture. We still have men who work as full-time cowboys (I have several in my family) and there are local families who still keep their kids home from school on various harvest days to help with the family farm, although that happens less and less nowadays as family farms have been bought out by corporations over the years or through the modernization of farms and ranches where machinery now does the work in one day what would take a crew 2-3 days to complete. It is a unique blend of the old South mixed with the touristy ways of the entrepreneurs who came through with a dream to put this place on the map.
I've sipped cocktails and listened to the old-timers talk of the days when Walt Disney came through and tales of how he personally sat down with each family to negotiate the purchase of land parcels which is today known as Lake Buena Vista/Walt Disney World. Most of the families here go back as far as the Spanish Settlers, my family included - and from there most are straight from their mother countries of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. These are the four main heritages of Polk County and the Celtic ways are still evident in many parts of business and family traditions. Deals are still made on a handshake and a man's word is his bond. Heck, I once wrote an I.O.U. to a RaceTrac gas station because I foolishly pumped a full tank without checking for card or cash in my bag - of course I was back by the end of his shift to pay up since I gave my word I would return before he clocked out.
The Florida boom resulted in the construction of many significant structures in Lakeland - a number of which are today listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This list includes:
The Terrace Hotel
New Florida Hotel (now the Regency Towers)
Promenade of Lake Mirror
Polk Museum of Art
Park Trammell Building (originally the Lakeland Public Library and today the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce)
The city also has several historic districts with many large buildings built during the 1920s and 1940s. The Cleveland Indians held spring training here from 1923 to 1927 at Henley Field Ball Park. Parks were developed surrounding Lake Mirror including Barnett Children's Park, Hollis Gardens, Munn Park (named after Abraham Munn who purchased 80 acres of Polk County which is now known as "Downtown Lakeland") and the newest, Allen Kryger Park. The "boom" period went "bust" quickly, and years passed before the city recovered.
Interesting fact: During the Boom Years of the mid-1920s, an average of THREE buildings were completed every 24 hours! Not bad for this small city.
Part of the re-emergence was due to the arrival of the Detroit Tigers in 1934 for spring training. (The team continues to train at Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium and owns the city's Florida State League team, the Lakeland Flying Tigers.)
"A few of our claims to so-called "fame":"
Home of the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture on the planet. (9 buildings total - see my "Off The Beaten Path" tip.)
We are mentioned near the end of the Sublime song "April 26, 1992 (Miami)" when lead singer Bradley Nowell lists the cities burning across the United States. Skunk Records co-founder and Sublime’s unofficial fourth member, Michael Happoldt, grew up in Lakeland.
Featured in the hit movie Edward Scissorhands, starring Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder.
Lakeland made national headlines on September 28, 2006 when Polk County Sheriff's Deputy Vernon "Matt" Williams and his K-9 partner, Diogi, were shot and killed after a routine traffic stop.
The feature film, "Endure" starring Judd Nelson, Joey Lauren Adams, Devon Sawa, and Tom Arnold was filmed entirely in Lakeland. They held a premiere at the historical Polk Theatre, supported by local residents. The film was not that great, in my opinion, but it offered beautiful shots of Lakeland including some of its less notable neighborhoods which I thought was wonderful.
Home to one of the first Hindu temples in the United States.
Location of the Publix Super Markets' headquarters. Yes. One out of five friends works for Publix.
Home of the first Red Lobster restaurant; however, the original restaurant has since closed which any Lakelander will tell you was a major mistake and we still use "the old Red Lobster" as a landmark when giving directions to a local.
During World War II, Lakeland made an important contribution to the war effort. Hundreds of young British airmen were taught to fly at Lakeland's Lodwick airfield by volunteer flight instructors, a collection of barnstormers and independent pilots. These British airmen enjoyed the hospitality of Lakeland during their training and then returned home to fight in the Battle of Britain. Their skills in downing German warplanes were crucial to Britain's survival. Later, when America entered the war, the Army Air Corps relied on training fields like Lodwick to train pilots for its fighters, bombers, and transport planes.
Home of University of South Florida Polytechnic - Florida's only polytechnic.
Spring Training home for the Detroit Tigers and home to the Lakeland Flying Tigers, a minor league team owned by the Detroit Tigers.
Historical home of Cypress Gardens - which is the future home of Legoland - opening Fall 2011. (And any girl who grew up here had a secret ambition of hitting high school and becoming a Southern Belle...a girl who was paid an hourly rate to stand on a grassy knoll holding a parasol or sitting under a shade tree on a bench in a flower garden to give the tourists the southern experience at Florida's most beautiful garden. Needless to say, you grow up and realize that wearing 3 tons of lace in the Florida heat isn't worth all the tea in China, much less $8.75 per hour. And who knows if you get dental with that?)
All in all, Lakeland is a great place to live. My generation is a unique one in that we are the last of the old families who settled Polk County and are fighting a slow battle for growth and development in the arts and culture surrounding the area and instead of sitting around bellyaching about it, we have rallied together to spearhead the change we wanted to see.
We had a hardcore punk scene in the mid to late-1980s which was based in the downtown area where most of the buildings and storefronts sat empty and abandoned. We would camp out on the rooftops and in the backs of stores and of course, Munn Park, the heart of downtown Lakeland. Most of us left in the early to mid-1990s to discover new lives elsewhere, but surprisingly have since returned "home" to create changes in the place to which we hold strong ties and hope to make a difference in helping those who wish to strengthen the arts and cultural focus of Polk County - which has a staggering amount of talented local and international artists and musicians who have made Polk County their home.
Downtown Lakeland now has a strong rockabilly and indie scene, a large population of artists and small business owners who have opened up interesting shoppes and restaurants adding lots of flavor and charisma to what I once considered to be a "cookie-cutter town for breeders" - yup, that's what I bitterly dubbed it a couple of decades ago. Now, it is a slowly evolving place where people appreciate the access to madness on their terms, while enjoying the old-fashioned shade of an oak tree and only an hour's drive to any of our beaches. And let's not forget it is just over a 3-hour ride to Miami/Fort Lauderdale/West Palm/St. Augustine/Naples.
Some of my favorite stops are Evolution Records (specializing in vinyl!), Chop Shop (by far one of the best burgers you've ever had), Black & Brew (coffee and of course, beer/brew), The Red Door (wine bar) and the newest warrior to stake its claim on the block, The Hookah Palace (a hookah lounge - good luck boys!).
Most return to Lakeland stating the irony that this is where they want their kids to grow up - and yes we have been featured on the top 10 lists nationwide of best cities to raise a family. The eclectic variety of the outdoor lifestyles, olde world ethics and traditions, blended with a melting pot of art and culture, a strong sense of Community, many opportunities in education (2 colleges and 4 universities) and of course, sports (many a star football, tennis, basketball and baseball player has been harvested from Lakeland).
Lakeland offers a small town feel with convenience of access to larger cities when you just need to get away for something different and ideal for families looking to do the whole Disney/Universal/Busch Gardens/Sea World thing since we are conveniently located in between both tourist meccas. We're only about 45 minutes from both Tampa and Orlando airports offering a getaway to those seeking the thrills at the several theme parks and water parks surrounding us and we provide an inexpensive, quiet alternative for those not wanting to stay in the madness of tourist traps.