A Nostalgic Look at 863 Swimming Beaches
By Merlisa Lawrence Corbett
I miss Polk County beaches.
Polk County is home to more than 550 lakes, rivers and manmade reservoirs. Just drive around any of them, at dawn or dusk and you’ll see residents fishing, boating, paddle boarding or waterskiing.
What’s hard to find now, something I took for granted in my youth, is a freshwater beach along a lake.
Long before Disney World became the premier destination for family vacations, Polk County was home to several beaches. White sand, sliding boards and long docks dotted lakes throughout the county. Lifeguards sat on watch as families gathered along the shores.
In the 1920s going to the beach was a popular activity, and Polk County’s lake beaches were no exception. Families flocked to Kissengen Springs near Bartow, which was fed by the Florida aquifer until it dried up and was declared inactive in 1950. The property boasted a pavillion, diving board, high dive, lifeguards, and docks.
I grew up in Winter Haven and remember heading out to Lake Silver to swim. “We’re going to the beach,” we would say.
That’s when “the beach” at Lake Silver had a long dock where you could get a running start at a leap into cool fresh water. That’s when a swimming lesson meant being tossed into a lake and told to find your way back to shore.
These days, Lake Silver is home to waterski shows, and plenty of people fish and go boating there. But its past, as a local swimming beach, is shared by several lakes in Polk County.
According to Derek Harpe, Polk County Parks and Recreation program superintendent, the county shut down its last public beach, Saddle Creek in Lakeland, at least 20 years ago.
Harpe said that local municipalities maintain lakes within city limits and those with beaches operate under a “swim at your own risk” status.
Area lakes remain popular sites for all sorts of water sports. However, the heydays of freshwater swimming are all but gone.
“I think it was a combination of financial issues and fears over bacteria,” said Harpe.
Richard Weed, 28, remembers his family going to the beach area at Lions Park in Lake Alfred. Now head of the parks and recreation in Lake Alfred, Weed said he wouldn’t swim in the lake.
“If you do, it’s at your own risk.” He echoed Harpe’s view about fears about bacteria and brain invading amoebas.
The gator population in area lakes has also increased over the years.
“Gators don’t bother me so much,” said Weed. “I think it’s more people worried about amoebas going to their brain.”
Gators and nefarious amoebas were never talked about around our house. Back then the biggest concern was lightning and drowning. How I hated to have to exit the lake when storm clouds moved in.
We’d sit on the shore, waiting for the all clear from the lifeguard so we could dash back in.
Paula Walters, 49, of Polk City, recalls swimming at Mac’s Beach on Auburndale’s Lake Ariana. Now she goes down to Mac’s, mainly to take photographs.
No swimming signs are posted around the beach. That doesn’t stop some residents from jumping in for splash.
Walters grew up in a family that took advantage of area lakes. They went fishing and boating on Ariana, Lake Lena and others. She’s even gone through the Chain of Lakes in Winter Haven by boat. Her daughter and her husband go jet skiing on Lake Agnes in Polk City, but she misses the days of lake swimming.
“We went there for senior skip day in 1983. All of our friends would get together and just hang out,” Walters said. “I remember when they used to have slides and docks you could dive off. That was so much fun.”
Frostproof’s Lake Clinch, is still open to the public, but also a lifeguard-less “swim at your own risk,” beach.
Tory Kipe, operations manager at the city of Frostproof, took his family to Lake Clinch this past Memorial Day.
“You don’t have to travel. It’s two hours to either coast for us. If you have limited funds and don’t want to travel, you can just come down the lake.”
Frostproof is situated between Lake Cinch and Lake Reedy, mainly a fishing lake.
Kipe said the city museum features photos of Clinch when it once had white sand stretching the length of the lake. People flocked to the beach on hot summer days.
“Then hurricanes eroded the beach, water levels elevated and native plants came in,” he said. “These days you have to have a permit to pick cattails.”
However, Lake Clinch recently underwent a cleanup that reclaimed some of the beach lost to out of control vegetation.
How wonderful for Frostproof residents to be able to enjoy the local beach. Perhaps more local governments will follow Frostproof’s lead. Along with reclaiming the beach, such an effort could recapture a tiny slice of yesteryear.
Back then you took a selfie with a Polaroid camera and hollering at your brother on the other side of the lake was how you conveyed a “direct message.”
As simplistically refreshing as a Country Time lemonade commercial, local lake beaches allowed people to vacation, at home.