Polk City: Family & Community Values at its Core by Elizabeth Morrisey

Polk City: Family & Community Values at its Core
By Elizabeth Morrisey

Fantasy of Flight, balloon rides, biking trails, and a corn maze are just a few of the reasons that Polk City is a place that more and more families are calling home.

Despite some struggles back in the early 2000s, Polk City is making a comeback with new neighborhoods and generations of country charm. Polk City, just north of Interstate 4, is the fastest growing city in Polk County with the start of two new housing developments, which will have close to 1,000 homes.

“This little city is flexing its muscle,” says Mayor Joe LaCascia. “We are positioned where people can be close to the I-4 corridor, but they can still be in a country atmosphere.”

Polk City has a population of 2,088 and prides itself on family and community. The city has a Halloween get-together for children each year at Freedom Park with games, candy, and vendors. Santa and Mrs. Claus give out hundreds of gifts to kids each Christmas at the parade in early December, and at the Watermelon Festival each July there are carving contests, music, and vendors for families to enjoy.

In the Beginning

Bostonian Isaac Van Horn was instrumental in the start of Polk City when he visited the area in 1922. He believed there were oil fields nearby and brought in an oil drilling company. That sparked more interest in the area and Polk City was incorporated in 1925.

When he realized there was no oil and the Great Depression hit, the population dwindled from 600 to 203 people between 1930 and 1960. But they started coming back.

“Some families have been here four and five generations. We are a family-value oriented city and very traditional,” LaCascia says. “We like to live a life of church and hard work. We have a lot of blue collar workers.”

Things are, however, starting to change around town. The new communities, Fountain Park and Holly Cove, will appeal to many who work in Lakeland or at Florida Polytechnic University. The homes will range from $200,000 to $300,000. “We are becoming a bedroom community for Lakeland and Orlando,” says the mayor.

General James A. Van Fleet Trail

In the heart of Polk City is its biggest attraction – Van Fleet Trail for walkers, runners, and bike riders. The 29.2-mile path is known as one of the state’s most rural, paved rail-trails and is part of Florida’s Statewide System of Greenways and Trails. It runs through the Green Swamp and all the way up to Lake County.

“It’s a transformative experience in nature,” says Park Manager Aldin Mathews. “It has abundant wildlife, such as alligators and deer, and it connects to other trails.” Landscapes include the bottomland forest, pine flat woods, former citrus land and cattle ranches and the river swamp. Mathews says it may eventually connect to the Cross Florida Greenway, which stretches from the St. Johns River near Palatka to the Gulf of Mexico.

“The sport of cycling has increased,” he says. “The trail allows people to go on a paved trail in a safe environment. It has benches at some overlooks and even tire repair kits for bicycles.”

There is only one curve on the otherwise straight pathway and restrooms and picnic pavilions are located at each of the four trailheads – Polk City, Green Pond, Bay Lake and Mabel. Mayor LaCascia says people come from all over to use the free trail. “They can ride to their heart’s content.”

Freedom Park

At the busy intersection of State Road 33 and Berkley Road is Freedom Park, which is  tucked among beautiful, shady oak trees. City events are held at the park and there are picnic tables, grills, restrooms, a playground, and bandstand. It’s open from dawn to dusk and is also available for private events.

“Freedom Park is our hub for events,” says City Manager Patricia Jackson.  “We are currently working on a master recreation plan for the city.”

The city plans to enhance and better publicize already existing areas and provide a cohesive network of parks, trails, and open space, says Jennifer Codo-Salisbury, Deputy Director with the Central Florida Regional Planning Council. “Polk City is such a beautiful area and it’s really an opportune place for recreational experiences,” she says. “The city is growing pretty rapidly, so parks and recreation is a focus for them.

“The city is located in the Green Swamp, which offers unique opportunities to experience nature and outdoor recreation activities,” Codo-Salisbury explains.

Fantasy of Flight

Looking for vintage aircraft and intrigued with flight? Fantasy of Flight has a museum open in the fall and spring, as well as 100,000 square feet of first-class event space for rent year round. From Veteran’s Day through the beginning of April, the museum will be open on weekends with tours available. Check out the website, FantasyOfFlight.com, to see which aircraft are on display.

“Everyone resonates with flight,” says Kandice Stephens, operations and events manager. “People are intrigued by it. It’s a natural fascination.” There are currently 21 airplanes on display in the museum. During the season, it is open Friday, Saturday and Sunday 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Waldo Wright’s Flying Service, which offers biplane rides, will be available as well.

Harvest Holler Corn Maze

As pumpkins, hayrides, and cooler weather arrive in Polk County, many head over to Polk City’s Harvest Holler for a romp through the corn maze, a ride on the cow train and a visit with real farm animals.

“Our goal is to get people to see what it’s like to live on a farm,” says owner Jerry Roberts. “We are family oriented and it’s a laid back setting.” Roberts says their target audience is birth through sixth grade and their families.

Concessions are on the property with hamburgers, hot dogs, corn on the cob, Nettles sausage, sweet tea, and lemonade. Visitors can have a picnic by the pumpkin patch while watching the children play in the corn bins or slide down the 30-foot Frankenslide.

An on-site country store called MawMaw’s sells homemade jams, local honey, and fresh pies and cobblers. The corn maze is open September 21 through November 11, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Harvest Holler is also a venue for school field trips, birthday parties, and other special events.

Balloons and Beyond

Polk City is one of the many takeoff sites for a local hot air balloon company, Balloons and Beyond. As the sun begins to rise, adventure seekers can float up to the sky for an aerial view of Polk County and the surrounding areas in a hot air balloon. The company offers trips seven days per week (depending on weather) for anniversaries, birthdays and celebrations. The one-hour trip flies in different areas of Central Florida, such as Disney, Kissimmee, Tampa and Polk.

“It’s like sailing,” says Bob Carlton, owner. “It’s so peaceful and gentle.” The company opened in 1998 and Carlton has been flying balloons for more than 40 years. Adults are $175 and children are $125. Group rates and private flights are also available.

For more info on Polk City visit MyPolkCity.org.