15 fun facts about Lakeland

What makes Lakeland the Swan City, and who built all of that Frank Lloyd Wright architecture? If you want to sound like a local or just brush up on your knowledge of Lakeland’s iconic and quirky history, this is for you.

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Encampment near Lake Hunter, 1898 | Photo by Lakeland Public Library

Did you know Lakeland is full of lakes?

Nah, just kidding. If you know us, you know we’re here for the deep cuts — and there are plenty of interesting factoids to go around. As connoisseurs of the quirky and unconventional, we put together a list of Lakeland’s history, oddest characteristics, and more. Maybe you’ve lived here your whole life and know some of this, or maybe you’ll learn something new.

1. In preparation for the Spanish-American War, training camps accommodating 9,000 troops were set up across cities in Florida, five of which were in Lakeland. Camp Morton was located at the northeast corner of Tennessee Avenue and Walnut Street, Camp Massachusetts was at the northeast corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Lake Morton Drive, and The Buffalo Soldiers camped on the north shore of Lake Wire.

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DJ, Bill, and Elvis at the Polk Theater, 1956 | Photo by Jerry Perkins courtesy Laura Milton, Polk Theater

2. On Aug. 6, 1956, Elvis Presley gave what would 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’” and his nickname "Elvis the Pelvis.” The three-part series from TV Guide Magazine is called “He Tells How the Little Wiggle Grew.” Rumor has it that Elvis also autographed the dressing room wall during his visit, which was later damaged by flooding.

3. 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. Ludd M. Spivey reached out to Wright about re-energizing and expanding the campus. Their solution involved having students work their way through school by helping build Wright’s designs.

4. In 1894, Polk County was the world’s leader in the production of phosphate, accounting for almost a third of the mineral processed anywhere. At one point, 70% of US phosphate was mined and processed in the Lakeland area. Nearly three-quarters of it were used in the US, with Japan as the largest foreign consumer.

Lake Parker at sunset with clouds and trees reflecting on the water

Lake Parker Park gives the reflections at Lake Mirror a run for their money.

Photo via @lizleon

5. Of course you know that Lakeland is full of lakes, but do you know exactly how many? There are 38 around the city, with Lake Parker coming in as the largest of them all at 2,108 acres. Even with all of these lakes, Lakeland surprisingly has fewer lakes than the neighboring city Winter Haven, which is home to 50.

6. Lakeland has ties to presidents, performers, and national heroes. Hollis Garden is home to a row of trees grown from cuttings that once belonged to celebrities like Elvis Presley, Abraham Lincoln, and Helen Keller. Admission to the garden is always free, so you can take your own walk of fame and see the trees for yourself anytime.

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Opening the new terminal at Miami for Pan American World Airways featuring Ruth Elder (in white) and Amelia Earheart | Photo by Florida Photographic Collection

7. Two Lakeland residents nearly made aviation history. On Oct. 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. For nine hours of the flight, Elder was at the controls. They were nearly finished with their flight to Paris when a ruptured oil line forced them to ditch the plane in the water, 336 miles off the coast of Spain, where they were rescued by the Dutch oil tanker Barendrecht. Although they did not make it all the way across the Atlantic, their over-water, 36-hour course of 2,623 miles set a new distance record.

8. Built in 1909 on the foundations of the original courthouse, the Old Polk County Courthouse in Bartow dates back to the early 1880s. Haunted claims at this location include screams from the basement, apparitions appearing on the second-floor rotunda (supposedly of the Mann brothers), a Lady in White” on the second floor, and numerous cold spots on the first floor. Read more about other haunted Polk County landmarks here.

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Hungarian Inn | Image via The Ledger

9. DYK there was once a Hungarian Inn in Lakeland? K-Ville was situated beside State Road 542 and originally started out in the 1920s as an inn for visitors either passing through or exploring the area for potential livability. In 1927, it turned into a restaurant and was popular during the 1930s and 1940s, serving a limited menu of chicken and steak. Multiple owners later, the building was demolished in the 1970s.

10. Before Lakeland was officially called Lakeland in 1885, three other names were proposed for the city. Here’s a brief summary: Munnville would have been given in honor of Abraham Munnone of the town’s founders, owner of 80 acres of land, and persuader of the South Florida Railroad making a stop in Lakeland. Redbug was proposed due to the existence of chiggers — harvest mites found throughout the world, but mostly in hot and humid places like Florida. The final name suggested was Rome City — but to this day, no one can explain why.

11. 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 and Time Magazine’s first issue). In the 1950s, the swans slowly disappeared until Queen Elizabeth II received a request to donate two royal swans. A couple of these swans made it across the pond and the rest is history.

12. In 1927-28, John E. Melton started to transform a downtown commercial structure into what we now know as the Polk Theatre. When he ran into some financial difficulty, he sold the project to Publix Theatre Corp. The red brick exterior (described as Neo-Adamesque) had an Italian Renaissance appearance popular in New York in the 1920s. The auditorium was cooled by a 100-ton air wash system, which initially drew so much power that just turning it on caused lights to dim in the town of 15,000.

A black and white photo of the exterior of the first Publix store

In 1940, Publix was only found in Winter Haven.

Photo via Florida Memory

13. You may be surprised to find out that Lakeland isn’t the location of the very first Publix store. While we know Lakeland as the present-day headquarters of Publix, founder George Jenkins opened his first supermarket in downtown Winter Haven in 1930. Today, Lakeland is home to five of the supermarket’s manufacturing facilities, a distribution facility, and corporate offices.

Postcard showing a drawing of Henley Field, winter home of Detroit Tigers, Lakeland, Florida

We’ll send you a postcard from Henley Field, the original winter home of the Tigers.

Image via Florida Memory

14. America’s pastime has a local connection. The Detroit Tigers have held their spring training in Lakeland since 1934, making it one of the longest-standing relationships between a Major League Baseball team and its spring host city. Baseball all-stars like Al Kaline and Miguel Cabrera have honed their skills right here in TigerTown (AKA Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium).

15. Aviation fans, you’re in the right place — Lakeland is home to Florida’s largest annual convention, the SUN ‘n FUN Aerospace Expo. The annual event welcomes 200,000+ visitors to see airshows, workshops, and vendors each year, making it one of the world’s largest aviation events. Year-round, you can visit the Florida Air Museum to browse the Florida Aviation Hall of Fame.

Your turn. Think you can get one over on us? Let us know your favorite local trivia tidbit.

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