The Charms of Lake Alfred
By Elizabeth Morrisey
The small city with a strong citrus history has big plans for revitalization.
Lake Alfred is beginning to find its spark with plans to revitalize its downtown and build more than 1,000 homes over the next several years. Many people tend to pass by the small city, home to 6,000 residents, as they travel along Highway 17 to Interstate 4 or U.S. 27, but Mayor Charles Lake is hoping to change that.
“We need to find a way to get people to stop,” says Lake, who is entering his fourth year as mayor. Lake hopes to have an area for walking through downtown, so visitors can easily have access to the small businesses, including the shops and restaurants that are favorite haunts for many who are already in-the-know.
Don’t be fooled by this small hamlet, though. Its history is rich with 100-year-old buildings and homes dating back to the beginning of the citrus industry.
After being established as a military outpost in 1839, what is now the city of Lake Alfred served as protection from attacks from the Native Americans. Fort Cummings is where the Seminole Indian Chief agreed the tribe would surrender and the fort closed in the mid-1840s. It remained a remote part of Central Florida until the railroad made its way through the area and Lake Alfred Lumber Company was formed.
Then the city began to grow when Frank C. Gardner of Fargo, ND, bought land in the early 1900s and began planting citrus. He and his partners formed Florida Fruitlands Company. Residents couldn’t seem to decide if the town name would be, and over the years present-day Lake Alfred was called Bartow Junction, Wahnetta, and Chubb. It was finally incorporated as Fargo in 1913, but then changed to Lake Alfred two years later.
“The citrus industry kicked everything off,” says Connie White, president of the Lake Alfred Historical Society. “Frank Gardner had the vision to see that. He did so much for the city. The more I get involved in subjects regarding the city and dig, the more interesting it gets,” she says. “I get excited and I try to get everyone else excited.”
Mackay Gardens and Lakeside Preserve
Many plan their nuptials at the beautiful Mackay Gardens and Lakeside Preserve, which overlooks Lake Rochelle. On the National Register of Historic Places, the 7,000-square-foot Mackay Estate was built by Scottish entrepreneur Alexander Mackay in 1917, and is currently surrounded by nature trails that are open to the public for hiking.
In addition to the nature trails, the 112-acre property also includes a playground, fishing pier, a canoe launch site, picnic pavilion and restrooms. The grounds are open from dawn to dusk daily and tours of the home can be scheduled anytime between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. The venue can be rented for weddings, parties and other events. To reserve the House or Pavilion contact the city’s parks and recreation department at 863-291-5272.
In 2012, the city decided it was time to honor its veterans with a memorial at Frank C. Gardner Park. The highlight of the park is the Iwo Jima monument, which was on display off of Interstate 4 for several years, but when the road widening occurred it was put in storage for 10 years. Now after restoration, it sits at the Veterans memorial for all to enjoy.
Three years later, Purple Heart and Korean War monuments were installed. The park also pays tribute to those lost in 9-11 and each branch of the military. A memorial to Vietnam Vets will be next. “It’s important to honor our veterans,” Lake says.
On the same property as the memorial, sits Frank Gardner’s home. Built in 1913, it’s one of the oldest homes in Lake Alfred. The 4,200-square-foot home is a Frame Vernacular style but it needs some tender loving care.
It is now owned by the city and there are plans to fix it up and eventually open it to the public. Lake says the city hopes to receive grants to renovate the home. It may take up to five years to complete, but Lake hopes part of it can open next year.
Despite its smaller population, Lake Alfred is home to several local eateries some dating back many decades. Several restaurants have been a household name in Polk County for 30 years, including Lavender and Lace Tea Room, Gary’s Oyster Bar and Seafood House, Lang Sun Country Groves, and The Back Porch Restaurant.
Lavender and Lace was established in a restored 1920s cottage and serves gourmet lunches, teas and patrons can peruse unusual gift items in the shop after lunch. Gary’s Oyster Bar is known as the “Oldest Oyster Bar in Polk” serving fresh oysters and seafood from Apalachicola in Florida’s panhandle. Langs, also known as the Taste of Florida Café, opened up in 1951 and is famous for their fresh squeezed OJ and grapefruit pie. The Back Porch Restaurant opened in 1986 with Wales family recipes on The Barn Antiques property. You can order soup, salad, sandwich, dessert, and a drink for a low price and it’s served in a charming picnic basket.
The co-inventor of frozen orange juice concentrate was instrumental in helping Lake Alfred’s public library. Lake Alfred resident Dr. Edwin Moore, the library’s namesake, donated $800,000 to the Friends of the Library in 2009 when he passed away.
Lake Alfred library provides many resources to children, teens, adults and seniors and is planning an expansion with a new technology center. “It’s not very big, but the library offers a lot of programs,” says Lake. “And they try to stay very involved in the community.”
Lake Alfred holds several annual events, such as Touch-A-Truck, a Chamber golf tournament, Grillin’ and Chillin’ BBQ Competition, Bluegrass Bash, annual Hoedown, a holiday parade and others. Once the downtown is revitalized and more homes are built, Lake says the city will take off. “It will boom here,” he says.