Polk County History Center by Jeff Roslow

Polk County History Center
By Jeff Roslow

Now exhibiting the county’s arts and culture past.

If the new exhibit that shows the history of arts and culture in Polk County is missing something, it’s only because of the deadline they were trying to meet.

The 20th anniversary of the Polk County History Center was approaching in mid-September and the new exhibit would be a highlight of the ‘Walk Through History,’ as the ceremony was called. Showcased was 11 different categories for arts and culture on the second floor of the historic building, and there are more, one researcher says.

“We didn’t finish because there wasn’t more research, we had a deadline for production,” says Clifford Moore, who volunteered for a number of months. He adds that the proofing and editing ended two days before exhibit opened on Sept. 19.

On the second floor of the 109-year-old building (Polk County’s third courthouse) located in Bartow is the exhibit that not only tells the arts and culture story of Polk County, but also the windows show historic places and landmarks in Polk, such as Bok Tower Gardens and the L.B. Brown House Museum. The images can be seen while walking down Broadway when the sun is shining on the windows.

Historic Preservation Manager Myrtice Young says what isn’t up there will be.

“Don’t use the word permanent,” Young says. “Look at it in the long term. The story always changes.”

For Moore the research took him in different directions and he earned an education of how Polk County has come to where it is.

“I was really surprised by the number of Billboard (music) hits that were written by people in the area,” he says. “I didn’t really associate this area with popular music. And the number of movies… films in Polk County.”

Some he mentioned from Polk County include Gram Parsons, a creator of the alt-rock country music in the 1960s; Bill Braddock, who wrote number one country hits in five different decades; Frances Langford, who appeared in 30 different films; as well as movies that brought to town people like Esther Williams, Susan Hayward, Johnny Depp, Macaulay Caulkin, and John Cusack.

The Historic Building

Polk County’s history is displayed at what is Polk County’s third courthouse on corner of Main Street and Broadway Avenue in Bartow. Built in 1909, it became the history center after a new courthouse was constructed and moved into a new building across the street. Young was hired as the Historic Preservation Manager in 2010 to transform the building.

The 20th anniversary party featured tours in four galleries covering Polk County’s early pioneer life, the history of industry and commerce, leisure and tourism and government services. And now there is the Arts and Culture exhibit.

Young says in her years running the history center, the small staff has been researching, interpreting, writing, and putting their discoveries throughout the building.

The building itself is also a historic site that is on the National Register of Historic Places. Its silver-domed roof with a clock on all four sides has been in some kind of restoration in the last two years. First, the deteriorating mortar and the exterior was done.

The second phase, the Florida Division of Historical Resources granted $100,000 and Polk County paid another $50,000 to repaint stencils on top of the of the rotunda inside.

Young says the county will seek another grant for the final phase.

The building features two-story Corinthian columns with sculpted acanthus leaves. The original courtroom inside has been restored to how it looked in 1909, with oak railings that divided attorneys, jurors, judge and bailiff from spectators. It also has oak flooring and a balcony where where black people were allowed to sit. The courtroom has stenciled colorful swags bordering the two-story ceilings.

Two other buildings sat on the same site since Jacob Summerlin donated the land to Polk County in 1867. Summerlin donated 120 acres to the City of Bartow with the conditions that 40 acres be used to build a school, 40 acres for a county courthouse, and 20 acres each to build a Methodist Episcopal church and a Baptist church. With the donations, Bartow became the county seat as Polk separated from being part of Hillsborough.

The building’s neoclassical style was approved in 1908 and completed in nine months. There was a party when it opened and with the area having about 4,000 people living in Polk, reports show the barbecue drew up to 6,000 people.

With the creation of the new gallery, part of the three-story building was closed as it was being redesigned and reinterpreted. The result is the gallery, which has 10 permanent exhibits and one that will change every three months.

The only gallery that hasn’t changed in the past five years is military history — but that won’t last long.

“We’re upgrading and adding additions,” Young says. “We’re working on a concept that will cover Polk County from the Seminole War to the Desert Storm.”

Another highlight to the history center is upstairs: the Historical and Genealogical Library. It features more than 40,000 items in books, microfilm, and periodicals about Polk County. It has old newspapers, photographs, property tax rolls, cemetery records, marriage licenses and more.

Cultural Art Since Late 1800s

The 20th anniversary Walk Through History was not only limited to the unveiling of the exhibit, but also to induct John R. DeYoung Jr. into the Arts and Culture Hall of Fame, sponsored by the Polk Arts Alliance.

A Michigan native, DeYoung moved to Bartow in 1960 as the band director of the Bartow High School band, which won several state titles. After 24 years he retired but only for a short time. About six years later he started the Bartow Adult Concert Band, an 80-piece orchestra that played seven monthly shows a year for 24 years, and always to a full house at the Bartow Civic Center. DeYoung has been inducted to the Florida Music Educators Hall of Fame and Florida Bandmaster Association Hall of Fame.

Others in the Polk County Arts and Culture Hall of Fame include Richard Powers from Frostproof, Robert MacDonald from Florida Southern University, and Norman Small of Theatre Winter Haven.

In boosting the focus on arts and culture in Polk County the economic impact has skyrocketed in the last decade, says Meri Mass, the executive director of the Polk Arts Alliance.

Mass says that Melony Bell, who just finished two terms on the Polk County Commission, is the one who led the drive in 2012 to split money collected from the tourist tax and direct it toward arts. Before then, most of the money went toward sports and conventions. In 2010 when she joined, the Tourist Development Council collected $4.8 million. It has grown to $12 million.

At the event, Mass said the arts needed a leader, a visionary, for it to have an impact on Polk County. She said the arts now provides about $45 million a year in economic impact in Polk.

In accepting an award for her work, Bell said, ‘They are the visionaries. They talked about bringing me on, but I knew nothing. But they just kept on banging on the door.’

While for that effort Bell earned an award and recognition at the Walk Through History event, Young later pointed out that arts and culture is a longtime staple in Polk County and may be something people don’t necessarily realize.

“One thing I found fascinating is you hear Polk County has no culture,” she said. “We are very cultural. There has been a vibrant culture since the late 1800s.”

In the new display there are exhibits on Architecture, Visual Arts, Community Arts, Literature, Education, Athletics, Music, Dancing, Theater, Film and the Changing World.

With this display, Bell says the future of maintaining a place for the arts and history center is bright.

“It’s going to be an exciting time that we’re going to have a place for the arts and the History Center. What an awesome place it’s going to be.”

The building, located at 100 E. Main St. in Bartow, is bound to bring one back in time when inside. It can be rented for weddings, receptions and banquets. Hours of operation are Tuesday through Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For info visit Polk-County.net/history-center.