A timeline of 130+ historical events that happened in Lakeland, Florida

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Photo via the Lakeland Public Library

Table of Contents

Today, we have two reasons to celebrate. Not only is it the start of a new year (Happy New year, LAL. 🎉), but it’s also Lakeland’s 136th birthday. Though to us, she doesn’t look a day over 100. 😉

DYK Lakeland was established all the way back in 1885? That same year Grover Cleaveland became the 22nd President of the US, when the first motorcycle was unveiled, when Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was published + the first issue of Good Housekeeping made its debut.

To celebrate our little Swan City’s big day, we’ve created a timeline of an estimated 136 “historical” events that occurred in Lakeland (and the surrounding areas), from 1885-2020. ⬇️

*Disclaimer: We know our city has an incredibly rich history + this article by no means covers it all. If we missed something you think we should know about, please email us at hello@laltoday.com.

The 1880s

  • 1885: This was the year The City of Lakeland was incorporated. DYK before the townsfolk of 1885 drew inspiration from the city’s 38 lakes, they kicked around a couple of other naming suggestions? Interestingly enough, after the neighboring town of Acton experienced a mysterious fire to their railroad depot, a more modern depot was built in Lakeland + the town of Acton diminished entirely.
  • 1886: To combat crime, city officials decided that there was to be no “straggling around town” allowed in Lakeland, and an ordinance deeming it prohibited was passed in 1886. The second half of the year, after the ordinance was put in place, there were 30+ arrests – including charges that involved gambling, swearing, public drinking, sanitary violation + peddling without proper licenses. McDermont Housethe city’s first jail, named after it’s initial occupant – was built shortly after.
  • 1887: The Marsh Grapefruit was born on a tree in North Lakeland, thought to have been originated by Lakeland nursery owner Ed Tison. The nursey owner perfected his fruit and thereafter sold his nurseries to C .M. Marsh, who named the citrus after his family.
  • 1889: In 1889, Our neighbors in Fort Meade were building Fort Meade’s Christ Church (Episcopal) in the city’s historic district. The church itself was inspired by the Gothic Revival + designed by architect J. H. Weddell. The Episcopal church was even once used for an HBO movie, titled Judgement. Interested in learning about the history of more local churches? Read on here.

The 1890s

  • 1890: 50+ men joined the Bartow Rifles Battillion Company + had their names added to a muster roll, no doubt to gear up for the Spanish–American War.
  • 1891: Lakeland lit up the sky, as the Lakeland Light and Power Company constructed a light plant near what is now Massachusetts Ave. in 1891. That spring, plant officials turned on a switch to light up Lakeland for the very first time – making it only the third town in Florida (Jacksonville + Tampa being the other two) to have electric lights.
  • 1892: Polk County’s topography obviously looked very different than it does today. In 1892, the county was littered with various railroad lines, running from Plant City, all the way up to Kississimme.
  • 1893: According to the National Register of Historic Places, by this year, the City of Lakeland had become an important shipping and rail yard site with around 20 locomotives arriving and departing daily.
  • 1894: After a brittle winter in the late 1880s, one local grower learned the resilience of strawberries + swapped out his crop – eliciting $600 per acre. By 1894, Lakeland was the no. 1 strawberry shipper in Florida. Plant City, who?
  • 1895-1897: Railroads stole the center stage in the mid-1890s + because of the city’s railroad service, forward-thinking outlook, and location, the community grew + prospered.
  • 1898-1899: In preparation for the Spanish-American War, training camps accommodating 9,000 troops were set up across cities in FL, five of which were in Lakeland. It is known that Camp Morton was located at the northeast corner of Tennessee Ave. + Walnut St., and Camp Massachusetts was at the northeast corner of Massachusetts Ave. + Lake Morton Dr.

The 1900s

  • 1900: At the start of 1900, Wilbur Bert Talleya leading architect in the state – helped build some of Lakeland’s most important buildings of the time. Wilbur worked in Lakeland from 1900-1906 + was responsible for the design of the district’s Kentucky Buildingwhich was owned by Munn’s Lakeland Improvement Company.
  • 1901: Lakeland experienced its first bond election and racked up $110,000 for a local school. The same year, Park Trammell, a local lawyer, became Lakeland’s very first mayor – and soon after, a senator + Florida governor.
  • 1902: The telephone switchboard (or exchange) was first introduced to Lakelanders this year.
  • 1903: You know that castle-looking building, located in Downtown Lakeland? That’s the Clonts Buildinglocated n Kentucky Ave. and Pine St. – and it was constructed in 1903. The structure has seen a collection of businesses, still remains today, and is considered to be a city landmark.
  • 1904: After a fire burned an entire block east of Munn park, many adopted masonry construction. After the fire, business owners had to set up makeshift outside shelters. Also, in 1904, ss the third-largest public power utility in Florida, Lakeland Electric started operations in 1904, making the municipal utility over a century-year-old. Lakeland Electric was built on core values of providing affordable, dependable, and sustainable electricity for their customers – something they still continue to this day. Read more about the history here.
  • 1905: When the circus first visited the city, performers would march in a parade to persuade people to buy tickets. This includes performers like sword swallower, Ajax.
  • 1906: Rev. H.R.Morehead became the pastor of Lakeland’s St. Johns Church + it is believed that the (now-defunct) Moorehead Community was named after him. According to a plaque in the area, “thousands of African-Americans lived in Moorehead at one time or another until 1971 when the city of Lakeland acquired this land in order to built The Lakeland Center.”
  • 1907: Located at 110 S. Kentucky Ave., the Munn Annex was constructed in 1907 + once housed the Postal Telegraph Office. In the mid-1980s, the structure was renovated. Also happening in 1907, R.M. Marler opened the Electric Theater, Lakeland’s first movie house. Though the silent film era was in full swing in the days of the Electric, watching a movie wasn’t always a pleasant experience. The theater smelled of banana oil that was used to fix the film when it broke in the projector.
  • 1908: The city’s first fire department was organized in 1908. During this year, major investments were made to the department + by 1909, the fire department was granted “horses, wagons, and the best available firefighting equipment by the city commission.”
  • 1909: The ffsons’ became the first-known pioneer Jewish family in Lakeland after Cy Wolfson moved from northeastern Lithuania. Cy eventually opened a suit manufacturing store in the city on Kentucky Ave.

The 1910s

  • 1910: The Munn Park statue was constructed after the United Daughters of the Confederacy received permission from the Lakeland City Council.
  • 1911: What was known to be the best hotel in Central Florida the Tremont Hotel (built in 1885) – was moved from the location of the site of Terrace Hotel to another block, and enlarged in 1911.
  • 1912: Lakelanders were able to send their mail for free, starting this year, as free mail delivery was finally inaugurated.
  • 1913: The former 1913 landmark, Hotel Thelma, was built at 313 + 321 N. Massachusetts Ave. The hotel once hosted Cleveland Indians while baseball spring training was held at Adair Field in the 1920s.
  • 1914: A welcome arch was constructed in 1914 to welcome Civil War Confederate veterans to Lakeland. The arch stayed there until mid-1920.
  • 1915: The city started construction on its first hospital and in 1916, Polk County’s oldest hospital, opened its doors on S. Missouri Ave. The building cost $15,000 + had 65 beds.
  • 1916: With an influx of tourists due to its national recognition for road construction, the city created its first tourism center in 1916.
  • 1917: The Federal Building was constructed in 1917, and became Lakeland’s first separate post office building. The building itself is of “Roman architectural elements.”
  • 1918: Lakelanders + Polk County residents alike were impacted by the Spanish Flu of 1918.
  • 1919: In April of 1919, Polk County phosphate workers went on strike, demanding an increased pay + eight-hour days. The strike was finally called off in December of the same year, as an agreement had been met.

The 1920s

  • 1920: The Florida Land Boom was a time that sparked some of the city’s most significant developments – including The Terrace Hotel, The Polk Theatre, and The New Florida Hotel (now Lake Mirror Tower Apartments), among others.
  • 1921: From 1895-1921, there were an estimated 20 lynchings of Black men in Polk County. Read more about this from The Ledger, here.
  • 1922: Home to the world’s largest single-site collection of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, FSC moved from Southerland to Lakeland in 1922. The college is the oldest, private comprehensive college in Florida and was even designated a National Historic Landmark in 2012. Browse the archives – Freshmen proverbs to an oral history projecthere.
  • 1923: The Cleveland Indians held spring training in Lakeland from 1923-1927.
  • 1924: The Lakeland Ledger was established in 1924. Originally published as The Lakeland Evening Ledger (created by Sam Farabee), the paper has had multiple owners and even merged with another local news outlet, the Lakeland Star-Telegram. This award-winning publication has a long history in connection with top state awards given by the Florida Society of News Editors + the South Florida chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
  • 1925: The Palace Theatre opened in 1925. This small downtown theatre once featured an orchestra pit + a full stage, with curved opera-style windows doning it. In its heyday, moviegoers could catch flicks like The Shadow Behind the Mask + Jinx Money and would wait in line for double features.
  • 1927: Two Lakeland residents nearly made aviation history. On October 11, 1927, Ruth Elder and George William Haldeman Sr. left from Long Island, NY in their Stinson Detroiter monoplane in an attempt to make Elder the first woman to fly across the Atlantic.
  • 1928: Built during the golden age, The Polk Theatre has served as a place for community interaction throughout the years. The theatre began thriving in its early years and on opening day, the matinee sold out within an hour of the box office’s opening. During the 60s and 70s, the theatre faced the possibility of shutting down, but in 1982, it was purchased through borrowed money and a state grant, saved by Lakelanders who didn’t want to see the theatre go. The nonprofit theatre continues to rely on grants, donations, and shows revenue.
  • 1929: In 1929, President Coolidge was the first president to visit Polk County. He spoke at the dedication of Bok Tower Gardens and signed the guest register, which can still be seen today. At the bottom of the gardens’ sundial, visitors can read a line from his speech, “…dedicated and presented for the visitation of the American people.”

The 1930s

  • 1930: In September of 1930, Mr. George Jenkins opened the very first Publix in Winter Haven, Florida – which he named “The Publix Food Store.”
  • 1931: While it may sound a little odd, children in Lakeland in 1931 are very similar to the children residing in the city today. The little boy pictured here looks a little less than thrilled to don his costume. Here’s hoping he got a basket of candy in 1931 to make up for it. We salute you, little clown. We salute you.
  • 1932: Temple EmmanuelLakeland’s first Jewish synagogue – opened in 1932, after the Florida Boom brought more Jews to Central Florida.
  • 1933: Canadian tourism was dipping in 1933 according to the Lakeland Tourist Club Annual Report.
  • 1934: The first airmail flight came to the city in October of 1934. The day was commemorated with a photo, where “Lakeland Postmaster Ferrell Smith, at left in the dark sport coat and light pants, accepts the delivery.”
  • 1935: The New Florida Hotel at 128 S. Massachusetts Ave. was officially completed in 1935. At its completion, the hotel featured arched windows
    a bell tower, and bracketed, pent tile roof.
  • 1936: James J. Braddocka heavyweight boxing champion from Florida (known as the Cinderella Man)refereed a match in Lakeland in 1936 between Billy Hood and Texas Joe Dundee.
  • 1937: Before the Lakeland Linder International Airport came to be (aka the other LAL) the Lakeland Municipal Airport was the city’s headquarter airfield. To meet Lakeland’s transportation demands, in 1937 the airport brought its first commercial airline service and soon became the stomping grounds for WWII cadet training.
  • 1938: DYK the Frank Lloyd Wright architecture at Florida Southern College was built in part by students who couldn’t afford to go to college? In 1938, FSC president Dr. Spivey reached out to Wright about re-energizing + expanding the campus. Their collaborated solution involved having students work their way through school by helping build Wright’s designs. See the full story here.
  • 1939: The Lakeland, Francis Beach Pavilion – developed + named by a FL businessmanwas officially torn down in 1939, after being the one-shop-stop for Lakeside entertainment since 1915.

The 1940s

  • 1940: Between 1940–1945, the Lodwick school trained more than 8,000 Army Air Corps cadets, with more than 6,000 graduates. In 1941 the facilities also trained 1,327 British Royal Air Force cadets. The Lodwick School of Aeronautics closed in 1945 having offered insurmountable historic contributions to our country and the war.
  • 1941: People in Polk County could hitch rides on The Tamiami Champion, as it “provided regular passenger service from New York City to St. Petersburg, Florida, with a number of stops along the way, including Lakeland, Florida.”
  • 1942: Lakelanders – far + wide – were collecting scrap metal like aluminum pots + pans to support the war effort.
  • 1943: As Lakelanders continued their involvement in WWII, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs initiated a “Buy A Bomber” campaign to raise funds to help the purchase of bombers. The Lakeland’s women’s clubs ended up collecting enough funds to secure two bombers.
  • 1944: Lakeland residents, like Charlie Yaist, were fighting in WWII.
  • 1945: The City of Lakeland secured its spot as the headquarters for Publix when Mr. George Jenkins purchased the Lakeland Grocery Company (with its chain of All American grocery stores). Part of this deal came with an office + warehouses, creating Publix’s distribution system.
  • 1946: To commemorate locals that died in the war, the 1946 Highlander was dedicated to the thirty-four graduates of Lakeland High School who passed away during their service. Read about them here.
  • 1947: Lakeland started its construction on the Charles Larsen Power Plant on Lake Parker in 1947. The plant went into operation in 1950.
  • 1948: I. Q. Mize and M. G. Waring opened the first-ever drive-in movie theatre in Lakelandwith an admission fee of only 35 cents per person –and it was deemed in the morning’s paper as “FLORIDA’S NEWEST MOST MODERN OUTDOOR THEATRE.” In 1952, the property was sold to Carl Floyd, who added the iconic flashing neon sign + marquee that visitors can still view from the highway, today. Read the full history here.
  • 1949: Along Main St. in 1949, The Negro Benevolent and Paternal Order of Elks performed a march as part of the organization’s twenty-fifth annual convention.

The 1950s

  • 1950: Dating back to the 1950s, this family circus act known as “The Four Bernadinos” performed acrobatic, tumbling, and balancing acts, throughout Polk County.
    “Publix built a new 125,000-square-foot warehouse and office complex in west Lakeland.”
  • 1952: Check out this image of a parade float, sponsored by the Engle Electric Company in Downtown Lakeland.
  • 1953: DYK swans have been around Lakeland for nearly a century now? The earliest records date back to 1923 (the same year of the Yankee stadium grand opening + Time Magazine’s first issue). In the 1950s, the swans slowly disappeared and Queen Elizabeth received a request to donate two royal swans, after which Lakeland raised money to have more swans transported overseas. Read the full story here.
  • 1954: The Juinor Welfare League of Lakeland brought the very first bookmobile to the city.
  • 1955: No drive through Dixieland is complete without a glance at the Southside Cleaner’s quote of the day. Though the sea-foam green + sunny starburst sign has been around since 1962 (and is curated with different phrases on the marquee throughout the week) the business first opened up in 1955 as Florida Drive-In Cleaners.
  • 1956: On August 6, 1956, Elvis Presley gave what will be remembered as an iconic performance at the Polk Theatre. That night, he sat in an overheated dressing room, chatting with a reporter about his “wigglin’ and quiverin’” + his nickname ‘Elvis the Pelvis.’ The three-part series from TV Guide Magazine is called “He Tells How the Little Wiggle Grew.” Read more about what the King of Rock thought of his public reception. Rumor has it that Elvis also autographed the dressing room wall during his visit, which was later damaged by flooding. Read more about that night here.
  • 1957: Founder Joe P. Ruthven came from S.C. to FL, where he met his wife (who was from Lakeland). Joe moved to Lakeland to open and build his tire business. The business was carried out by his family and opened several other stores throughout the area. In need of his own storage for his business, he began building spec warehouse space. Watch this video to learn more about this local family business.
  • 1958: Pictured here in 1958 is a rare aerial glimpse of what the City looked like.
  • 1959: What was once called the Lakeland General Hospital (on Lakeland Hills Blvd.) opened a new wing in 1959. Here’s what it looked like.

The 1960s

  • 1960: The Lakeland Miniple Airport ceased flight operations after The Lodwick School of Aeronautics closed in 1945. Now, the site is home to the Detroit Tigers’ “Tiger Town” baseball complex.
  • 1961: For 70+ years, Nathan’s Men’s Store served clients an assortment of clothing options. From World War II army uniform accessories to Ivy League pants, bell-bottoms, 50s styled suits to leisure suits, Nathan + Mildred Estroff created the staple company specifically “for Dad and lad.” The business was founded in the 40s but was relocated to Downtown Lakeland in 1961. It closed in 2020.
  • 1962: The New Florida Hotel was converted to a senior living facility in 1962.
  • 1963: This was the year the Lakeland Flying Tigers were “officially named.”
  • 1964: Munn Park had been recently renovated, and residents like this one enjoyed spending time downtown, doing various activities – like feeding the birds.
  • 1965-1967: What is now known as Publix Deli, was once known as “the Delicatessen Department.” In 1967, the name was changed.
  • 1968: The Polk County Historical & Genealogical Library (which was established in 1937) hired its first-time employee in 1968. By 1974, the library moved to a new location + added on a second employee. In the 1980s, the library was moved back to its original location.
  • 1969: Curious about late 1960s fashion or just want to reminisce a bit? The Lakeland Chamber of Commerce hosted a fashion show in 1969 – and Lakeland residents modeled pieces such as this two-piece striped summer outfit.

The 1970s

  • 1970: Lakeland’s Candy Striper Program was in full swing + the youth volunteer program helped elevate patient care and introduce students to what a career in the medical field would be like.
  • 1971: The Doodlebug self-propelled railroad carbuilt in 1936 by the St. Louis Car Company for the Seaboard Airline Railroad – officially stopped serving the area in 1971.
  • 1972: Mayfaire-by-the-Lake was first introduced to the city as a small craft fair. Now it stands as the largest outdoor arts festival in the Central Florida area.
  • 1973: A J.C. Penney once made itself at home in Lakeland in 1973, right on Kentucky Ave. It moved in 1990 to the mall + donated the building to the Lakeland Downtown Development Authority.
  • 1974: The Lake Mirror Center was once named The Lakeland Civic Center, In 1974, the Civic Center (now named RP Funding) moved to a larger location. The Lake Mirror venue is now home to the local theatre.
  • 1975: In 1975, the “Florida Southern Architectural District” was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
  • 1976: DYK there’s a piece of history hidden under the ground near the RP Funding Center? Neither did we, but located under a statue near Gate 6 called “Infinity” (by sculptor Al Kriston), is a time capsule created in 1976.
  • 1977: Raise your hand if you remember FL’s “great snowfall” of 1977. ICYMI (or were just a wee little snowflake at the time), here’s what happened: On Jan. 19, 1977, Floridians woke up to snowfall, bringing in two inches of snow in some spots.
  • 1978: The Kress Building at 109 North Kentucky Ave. was once home to one of the S. H. Kress Company’s chain of five-and-dime stores. The store closed in 1978 and the building was sold to Polk County. Today, it is home to the Explorations V Children’s Museum.
  • 1979: The Kathleen High School yearbook called “The Trident” highlights what high school looked like in Lakeland for kids in 1979.

The 1980s

  • 1980: After half a century, President Carter was the second president to come to Polk County and the first to visit Lakeland. The last-minute trip happened during his bid for re-election in 1980, and his campaign rally was held at the RP Funding Center (back then known as the Lakeland Civic Center).
  • 1981: The Carlton Music Centera family-owned music storeopened in Downtown Lakeland at the intersection of Tennessee Ave. and Lemon St. Later the business moved to Harden Blvd.
  • 1982: In 1982, Lakeland resident Willy Wolfson was surprised by a light dusting of snow that occurred in the area. See the photograph here.
  • 1983: George Kella third baseman who for with the Detroit Tigers (Lakeland’s spring training team)made the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983.
  • 1984: The Lake Morton Plaza was constructed in 1984 on Lime St. to serve as a housing center for the elderly. It was once named “Lime Plaza.”
  • 1985: Near Munn Park, the Curtis Peterson State Office Building opened in 1985 + houses several Florida State offices. It was named after Lakeland native and former Florida State Senate president, Curtis Peterson.
  • 1986: Publix’s first pharmacy opened up in Lakeland in 1986, with its first customer being Mr. George Jenkins, himself.
  • 1987: In 1987, Iron Maiden, David Lee Roth, Bryan Adams, The Cult, Stryper, Gordon Lightfoot + Motley Crue, all visited the RP Funding Center. The venue saw many other names over the course of the 80s-today.
  • 1988: Before the Lemon Street Promenade (and all the sculptures that come with it), the location was once home to the Todd-McKay building. In 1988, the building was torn down.
  • 1989: The Polk County Historical and Genealogical Library and Museum took over the space of the old courthouse in 1989.

The 1990s

The 2000s

  • 2000: Hollis Garden was constructed in 2000, and is thought to be a living monument “to the botanical history of Florida where fresh spring waters sustain the trees and plants.”
  • 2001: Publix debuted its first-ever Aprons cooking school in 2001. The cooking school opened in Tampa, Florida.
  • 2002: 62 ceramic swans were painted + distributed all around the city as a part of the art project, titled, Swansation. The purpose of the project was to raise money for a local museum.
  • 2003: Publix first introduced GreenWise products, like apple juice + lemonadewhich residents could find on the shelves of Lakeland.
  • 2004: During his campaign in 2004, President Bush made two stops in Polk County as he and his challenger, U.S. Sen. John Kerry were seeking to get the state’s 27 electoral votes.
  • 2005: In 2005, Lakeland was ranked as one of the best places to live in the US, by CNN Money.
  • 2006: The Allen Kryger Overlook Park was opened in 2006. The park serves as a memorial for Allen Kryger, who used to be the president of Florida Flavors, one of the world’s largest citrus flavoring companies
  • 2007: Chongming County, Shanghai, China became a Sister City to Lakeland, FL.
  • 2008: Then-Senator Barack Obama made an “off-the-schedule-visit” to Lakeland during his first presidential campaign in 2008. He talked with various salespeople + small business owners about Florida facing its first recession in 16 years and that strengthening home sales + repairing the mortgage market were keys to recovery.
  • 2009: In 2009, Gow Fields became the first African-American mayor in Lakeland, FL.

The 2010s

The 2020s

  • 2020: From our hot warehouse scene and apartment complexes (like Swan Lake) to businesses (like Publix HQ’s expansion), and recreation facilities, (like Bonnet Springs Park), we’re experiencing a similar developmental boom. From our hot warehouse scene and apartment complexes (like Swan Lake) to businesses (like Publix HQ’s expansion), and recreation facilities, (like Bonnet Springs Park), we’re experiencing a similar developmental boom. Also, of course, between a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, job loss, the BLM movement + more, we could almost copy + paste 1920 into what Lakelanders have experienced in 2020.