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Bartow, Florida
Old Polk County Courthouse
Old Polk County Courthouse
Official seal of Bartow, Florida
Nickname(s): City of Oaks and Azaleas
Location in Polk County and the state of Florida
Location in Polk County and the state of Florida
Country United States
State Florida
County Polk
First Settled Pre-Columbian Era
Nearby Black Seminole settlement Late 1810s
Resettled 1851
Incorporated July 1, 1882
 • City 52.34 sq mi (135.56 km2)
 • Land 47.35 sq mi (122.64 km2)
 • Water 4.99 sq mi (12.92 km2)
Elevation 121 ft (37 m)
Population (2009)
 • City 16,959
 • Density 324.02/sq mi (125.10/km2)
 • Metro 584,383
Time zone Eastern (EST) (UTC-5)
 • Summer (DST) EDT (UTC-4)
ZIP codes 33830-33831
Area code(s) 863
Slogan(s) Our History Comes to Life
FIPS code 12-03675
GNIS feature ID 0278138

Bartow (/ˈbɑːrt/ BAR-toh) is the county seat of Polk County, Florida, United States. Founded in 1851 as Fort Blount, the city was renamed in honor of Francis S. Bartow, the first brigade commander to die in combat during the American Civil War. According to the U.S. Census Bureau 2000 Census, the city had a population of 15,340 and an estimated population of 16,959 in 2009. It is part of the LakelandWinter Haven Metropolitan Statistical Area, which had an estimated population of 584,383 in 2009. As of 2016, the mayor of Bartow is Trish Pfeiffer.

Located near the source of the Peace River, Bartow is approximately 39 miles (63 km) east of the Tampa Bay Area and 50 miles (80 km) southwest of the Greater Orlando area. The city is near the center of "Lightning Alley" and has frequent afternoon thunderstorms in the summer, but typically has sunny and mild winters. Government, mining, and agriculture are the major sectors of the area's economy. The primary roads in the Bartow area are U.S. Route 17, U.S. Route 98 and State Road 60, which provide access to locations throughout Central Florida.

The official city nickname is the "City of Oaks and Azaleas". Three districts within the city are on the National Register of Historical Places. Other historic landmarks include the Old Polk County Courthouse built in 1909 and Bartow High School, formerly Summerlin Institute, the oldest high school in the county. The current school within the school, Summerlin Academy, is named in honor of the former school name. Although Bartow has been eclipsed in population, importance and name recognition by other cities in the county, particularly Lakeland and Winter Haven, the city has retained its small city heritage and its distinctive Southern culture. With the annexation of 18,000 acres (73 km2) of former phosphate mining land owned by the Clear Springs Land Company, Bartow's population is projected to increase to over 25,000 by 2015 and over 45,000 by 2030.


See also: History of Florida

A Spanish map of the Florida peninsula drawn in 1527 shows a native settlement called Rio de la Paz near present-day Bartow. Little is known about these Native Americans who made their home near present-day Bartow, but it is likely that they suffered the same fate as pre-Columbian natives elsewhere – death by European diseases such as smallpox and yellow fever. The remnants of these pre-Columbian peoples probably joined Creek Indians who arrived from the north and become the Seminole Indian tribe.

The first non-Indian settlement in the area was a colony of Black Seminoles who established Minatti south of Lake Hancock in the late 1810s. These "maroons", as they were commonly called, were escaped slaves from Georgia and the Carolinas. The Black Seminoles of Minatti were allies of the Red Stick Creek in Talakchopko, near present-day Fort Meade. The Seminole leader Osceola had strong ties to Talakchopko, and many of the events leading up to the Second Seminole War were associated with Osceola and the Minatti war chief Harry. By the end of the Second Seminole War in 1842, both Minatti and Talakchopko had been destroyed.

Bartow S Res Dist Holland BF01
The Benjamin Franklin Holland House located at 590 East Stanford Avenue

The Armed Occupation Act of 1842 facilitated settlement of the Florida peninsula in the 1840s, although the act did prohibit settlement near the Peace River as that was considered Seminole land. Enforcement of that part of the act was not strictly enforced; however, and settlers eventually moved out of the Tampa Bay area and into the area. As the settlement grew, the residents began to plant citrus trees and build one room school houses and churches. In 1851, Fort Blount was established by Redding Blount just west of current downtown Bartow. At some point in the 1850s, Fort Blount became Peace Creek or Peas Creek, a name dating back to the Rio de la Paz of early Spanish maps.

About a month after the secession of Florida in 1861, the state established Polk County from the eastern portion of Hillsborough County. A few months later, the American Civil War began with the Battle of Fort Sumter. Because of the turmoil of secession and the war, the county had no official county seat for its first six years of existence. The state legislature had directed the voters of Polk County to choose a site for the county seat and mandated that the site be named "Reidsville." During the war, the area's major contribution to the Confederacy was supplies of food. The Union army and navy had effective control of the west coast of Florida, and many cattlemen retreated inland and formed the "Cow Cavalry" as a defense against Union troops. One of the wealthiest members of the Cow Cavalry was Jacob Summerlin. Summerlin purchased the Blount property in 1862 and donated a large parcel of land to build a county courthouse, two churches and a school. Later that year, the town which had been known as Fort Blount, Peace Creek, Peas Creek, and briefly Reidsville was permanently renamed Bartow in honor of Francis S. Bartow, the first confederate officer to die during the war.

Bartow Brown LB house01
The L.B. Brown House located at 470 South Second Avenue

Like much of the south, Bartow recovered slowly from the war as inefficient and often corrupt Reconstruction governments did little to rebuild the fractured infrastructure. The first Polk County Courthouse was built in 1867 and this did solidify the city's position as county seat. Although Florida formally rejoined the union in 1868, Reconstruction did not end in Florida until 1877.

The 1880s and 90s were a period of growth for the city of Bartow; from 1880 to 1900, the city would grow from 386 residents to 1,983. On July 1, 1882 the town was incorporated as a city. In 1885, the Florida Southern Railroad, a north-south route from North Florida to Southwest Florida opened in Bartow. A year later, the Bartow Branch of the South Florida Railroad which connected Tampa and Orlando was completed. The railroads would become a catalyst to the growth of the area; during the Spanish–American War, the Bartow rail yards became a crucial part of the supply line headed for troops in Cuba. In 1887, Summerlin Institute, the first brick schoolhouse south of Jacksonville was built. By the turn of the century, Bartow had become the most populous city south of Tampa on the Florida peninsula – larger than either Miami or West Palm Beach.

South Florida Military Academy 1895
The South Florida Military College Building

As the city grew, a number of industries moved into the Bartow area. In the first few decades of the 1900s, thousands of acres of land around the city were purchased by the phosphate industry and Bartow would become the hub of the largest phosphate industry in the United States. Polk County was the leading citrus county in the United States for much of the 20th century and the city has several large groves. In 1941, the city built an airport northeast of town. The airport was taken over by the federal government during World War II and was the training location for many Army Air Corps pilots during the war. The airport was returned to the city in 1967 and renamed Bartow Municipal Airport.

For most of the 20th century, Bartow's growth was modest, especially in comparison to the rest of the county and state. While other cities in Polk County aggressively annexed adjacent land and allowed rapid growth, the government of Bartow generally took a more cautious approach. Another reason why Bartow's growth had been slow was that most of the land surrounding the city was owned by phosphate mining companies making residential growth impractical. Although Bartow had been the largest city in Polk county in 1900, by the 1910 U.S. Census Lakeland had surpassed Bartow in population. Bartow remained the second largest city in the county until sometime in the 1950s when Winter Haven become more populous than Bartow.

In the late 1990s as phosphate operations in the area moved southward, and much of the former phosphate land became available for sale. In 1999, Connecticut financier Stanford Phelps purchased the former Clear Springs phosphate lands east and south of city limits and announced plans for the largest development project in Polk County history. After nearly a decade of delays, the plan received final approval in 2009. The Clear Springs Development includes plans for more than 11,000 new homes, 1,000,000 square feet (93,000 m2) of commercial space, three schools, and a golf course. According to the Central Florida Regional Planning Council, Bartow's population is projected to grow to over 25,000 people by 2015. When buildout of the Clear Springs Development is completed by 2030, the population of the city is projected to be over 45,000 residents.

Geography and climate


Kissengen Spring flooded from Peace River backflow after 3 hurricanes passed through the area, October, 2005
Flooding of the Peace River after a hurricane

Bartow is located slightly southwest of the geographical centers of both Polk County and peninsular Florida. The city is approximately 39 miles (63 km) east of Tampa and 51 miles (82 km) southwest of Orlando. The cities of Bartow, Lakeland, and Winter Haven form a roughly equilateral triangle pointed southward, with Bartow being the south point, Lakeland the west point, and Winter Haven the east point. The city is located near the headwaters of the Peace River at Lake Hancock. Bartow is located within the Central Florida Highlands area of the Atlantic coastal plain with a terrain consisting of flatland interspersed with gently rolling hills.

According to the United States Census Bureau, in 2000 the city had a total area of 11.4 square miles (30 km2), of which 11.2 square miles (29 km2) is land and 0.1 square miles (0.26 km2) (1.23%) is water. As a result of the annexation of over 26,000 acres (110 km2) of undeveloped land, primarily the Clear Springs land, the area of the city has quadrupled to over 52 square miles (130 km2) with more annexation still pending.

Physiography and soils

Bartow is located on the South Central Florida Ridge, as classified by the USDA. Most soils in the Bartow area are sandy; other soils have sandy surface layers and clay subsoils, and the eastern outskirts of town have a clay-rich floodplain through which the Peace River flows. Drainage outside of the floodplain ranges from good to excessive for the most part except for a poorly drained band which cuts across the northern part of town. Much of Bartow is built on the Fort Meade soil series, which is well drained, high in organic matter, and rich in phosphorus, an uncommon combination in Florida, much appreciated by area gardeners.


See also: Climate of Florida and Climate of the Tampa Bay area
2004 hurricanes
Paths of hurricanes Charley (blue), Francis (green) and Jeanne (red) in 2004

Bartow, like most of Florida, is located in the humid subtropical zone, as designated by the (Köppen climate classification: Cfa). The climate of Bartow and other inland cities is slightly different than those cities on the coasts of Florida. Typically, the ocean or gulf tends to moderate the climate of cities on the coast. As Bartow is further from the coast than almost any other city in Florida, it tends to have higher daytime temperatures during the summer and cooler temperatures at night during the winter. Regardless, the climate pattern prevalent throughout central Florida is evident in Bartow: hot, humid summers with frequent afternoon thunderstorms and relatively drier and mild winters. On average, a tropical system brings hurricane-force winds to the Polk County area less than once every ten years, although the 2004 hurricane season in which three hurricanes hit within 44 days was a case study in the law of averages. Until 2004, the most recent storm to bring hurricane-force winds to the Bartow area had been Hurricane Donna in 1960. While Florida's vulnerability to hurricanes is well known, hurricanes are not the most common severe weather threat seen in the Polk County area. The area is in the center of "lightning alley", the most concentrated lightning strike area in the United States. Lightning is not the only threat from central Florida thunderstorms. The more severe storms bring the threat of tornadoes, although Florida tornadoes very rarely reach the size of those elsewhere in the United States. Even hail is not out of the question; one storm in March 1996 caused a one-foot accumulation of hail in areas of Bartow.

Freezes are an occasional occurrence in the Bartow area and can be a problem if temperatures remain below freezing for a sustained period of time. On average, the area can expect freezing temperatures every other winter. Snow is a rare phenomenon in the area, perhaps a few times every century.

Climate data for Bartow, Florida
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °F (°C) 88
Average high °F (°C) 73
Average low °F (°C) 51
Record low °F (°C) 20
Precipitation inches (mm) 2.51
Source #1: The Weather Channel
Source #2: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration


Historical population
Census Pop.
1880 386
1890 1,386 259.1%
1900 1,983 43.1%
1910 2,662 34.2%
1920 4,101 54.1%
1930 5,269 28.5%
1940 6,158 16.9%
1950 8,694 41.2%
1960 12,849 47.8%
1970 12,891 0.3%
1980 14,780 14.7%
1990 14,716 −0.4%
2000 15,340 4.2%
2010 17,298 12.8%
Est. 2015 18,972 9.7%
Population 1890-2000.

As of the 2010 census, there were 17,298 people; 6,254 households; and 4,218 families residing in the city. The population density was 377.1 inhabitants per square mile of land (976.7/km2). There were 7,130 housing units at an average density of 155.4 per square mile of land(402.5/km2). Of those who identified themselves with one race, the population was 67.6% White, 23.7% African American, 0.3% Native American, 1.1% Asian (0.6% Indian, 0.1% Filipino), 0.1% Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, and 4.7% from other races; 2.03% were from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 14.7% of the population, including 9.5% of the population who identified as Mexican.

There were 6,254 households, of which 67.4% were families (one or more other people related to the householder by birth, marriage, or adoption), 27.4% consisted of individuals, 35.6% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 43.2% were heterosexual married couples living together, 18.5% had a female householder with no husband present, and 30.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.57 and the average family size was 3.12. Among housing units, 87.7% were occupied and 1.4% were for seasonal, recreational, or occasional use; 63.5% of occupied housing units were owner-occupied and 36.5% were occupied by renters.

The median age was 36.2 years; 25.8% under the age of 18

According to the American Community Survey (2009-2013), the median income for a household in the city was 44,297, and the median income for a family was 56,009. Among full-time, year-round workers, males had a median income of $39,540 versus $32,076 for females. The per capita income for the city was $18,994. About 17.2% of families and 22.6% of the population were below the poverty line, including 33.9% of those under age 18 and 13.3% of those age 65 or over.

The estimated population on April 1, 2014 was 17,637.


Homeland FL Methodist Church01
The historic Homeland Methodist Church just south of town

The first two churches built in town, the First Baptist and the First Methodist churches, were constructed on land given by the city founder Jacob Summerlin in 1867. Jacob Summerlin was known as the "King of the Crackers" and own much of the land located around Bartow. These churches, although not housed in the original buildings, are still extant today. In 1919, more than 8,000 people came to Bartow to hear former baseball star and traveling evangelist Billy Sunday preach, which was twice as much as the population of Bartow and more than the population of the county's largest city Lakeland at the time. As of 2010, there are more than 70 churches within the Bartow area.

Like most of the Bible Belt, Bartow has a high number of people affiliated with evangelical Protestant denominations with over 62% of churchgoers belonging to evangelical denominations. According to data published by the Glenmary Research Center in 2000, the denomination which has the largest number of adherents in Bartow is the Southern Baptist Convention with 27%, followed by the Roman Catholic church with 19%. Pentecostal/Charismatic churches are also prominent making up 17% of Bartow's church attendance. The Pentecostal experience known as the Lakeland revival, which attracted controversy for its claims of supernatural healing, was started up the road at the Carpenter's Home Church in Lakeland. Other churches which have a presence in Bartow include the United Methodist Church at 9%, and the Episcopal and Lutheran churches with 2% apiece. While there are no synagogues in town for Jewish Bartownians, Temple Emanuel is a conservative synagogue only 12 miles (19 km) away in Lakeland. There are two Muslim mosques and a Hindu temple in the county.


The sign at the northwest entrance of Bartow on US 98

Annual festivals and other events

There are several annual events in the Bartow area which have a long tradition. Many of these are large events which draw people from other communities to the city such as the Cricket Club Halloween Parade and Carnival held each year since 1942 or the annual Fourth of July Celebration held at Mosaic Park. The Bloomin' Arts Festival is an art show held in early March by the Bartow Art Guild. Every February brings the Annual L.B. Brown Festival at the L.B. Brown House on L.B. Brown Avenue (formally Second Avenue). Bartow's discarded natural Christmas trees are piled around a telephone pole for the annual Christmas Eve bonfire, a unique tradition spanning more than seven decades which has sometimes been covered by national media.

The Polk County Arts Alliance based in Bartow is designated the official Art Agency by the county commission and is in charge of furthering the performing arts in the county. The Bartow Performing Arts Series sponsors five performances every year. The Imperial Symphony Orchestra is an ensemble of ninety volunteer musicians throughout the county who perform a dozen or so events every year including a concert "under the stars." The city also has a volunteer band, the Bartow Community Band, which performs several shows a year. On the third Friday of every month, Main Street is blocked off for Friday Fest at 6 p.m. for a night of live music and entertainment, informally known as "Tow Jam" by natives.

Historic buildings and landmarks

See also: List of Registered Historic Buildings in Bartow, Florida
Bartow Swearingen JJ house01
The Swearingen House
The city's Historic Architecture Review Board is responsible for the preservation, enhancement and promotion of historic buildings, landmarks and districts within the city. Three districts in the city, the Bartow Downtown Commercial District, the Northeast Bartow Residential District, and the South Bartow Residential District have been designated as historic districts. New construction within these districts is regulated by the board and they have the power to veto construction which might alter the character of the neighborhood.

While the towering oaks and ever-present azalea bushes which spawned the city's nickname give many of the historic landmarks of the city a distinctive Southern "look and feel", many styles of architecture are represented in Bartow's historic buildings. The South Bartow and Northeast Bartow historic districts are characterized by masonry vernacular and various revival styles, while downtown is dominated by frame vernacular and classical revival styles. Other buildings on the National Register of Historic Places with distinctive architectural styles include the Thompson and Company Cigar Factory built in a Mission Revival Style and the L.B. Brown House built with distinctive Victorian ornamentation. The L.B. Brown House is notable as perhaps the only house still standing in Florida built by a freedman. The Old Polk County Courthouse, Bartow's most recognizable symbol seen on its city seal, was built in 1909 in a neoclassical style.

Florida Senator Spessard L. Holland was born in Bartow. His home is located on South Broadway 2 blocks north of Bartow High School. Senator Holland was a founding member of the Holland and Knight Law Firm. The firm's original office was located on South Central Avenue across the street from the Bartow Post Office.

There are several other notable buildings in Bartow which are not on the National Register of Historic Places. The Wonder House at 1075 Mann Road features natural air-conditioning (using rainwater), secluded outdoor bathtubs, and numerous mirrors that let occupants see who is at the door from other parts of the home. The Thomas Lee Wilson House, also known as the Stanford Inn, at 555 East Stanford Street was the "Sultenfuss Funeral Parlor" in the movie My Girl. The house at 935 South Oak Avenue known as "Windsweep" was the residence used in the movie China Moon.

Sports and recreation

Many of the recreational opportunities in the area are outdoor activities designed to take advantage of the warm subtropical climate. There are eighteen parks in the City of Bartow Department of Parks and Recreation. Mary Holland Park, named after the wife of former Florida governor Spessard Holland, is a 119-acre (0.48 km2) park with three lakes, a playground, an overnight camping area, and a skateboard park. The Bartow Civic Center is a 31-acre (130,000 m2) complex with meeting rooms, concert facilities and a public pool. Bartow Park is a 95-acre (380,000 m2) complex with softball, baseball and soccer fields and a track for remote control cars. The Bartow Golf Course is a par 72, 6,300 yard course designed by renowned golf course architect Donald Ross, with a restaurant and an area for barbecuing.

The Tour de Tow is an annual cycling tour held in September. The Fort Fraser Trail is a 7.7 miles (12.4 km) path leading from Bartow to South Lakeland. The path follows a converted CSX railroad line and is popular with area cyclists, joggers, and in-line skaters. Plans have been made to build a replica of the historic Fort Fraser along the path, as well as adding historical markers. Five picnic areas and six rest shelters are available along the path.

Polk County has over 550 lakes. Most of these lakes were formerly strip mines; they are closed to the public, only 88 of the lakes are open to the public via boat ramp access. The area has a national reputation for largemouth bass fishing and there are tournaments held weekly almost year-round. Some of the lakes on the east side of Bartow offer anglers the opportunity to catch 50 largemouth bass a day.


The street grid of Bartow is a typical four quadrant grid with Main Street as the east-west axis and Broadway Avenue as the north-south axis. Broadway is co-signed with U.S. Route 98 in the northern commercial district and leads southward into the center of town before heading into one of the older residential sections of town. Main Street is the old State Road 60 leading into the historic heart of downtown Bartow.

The primary numbered routes going through Bartow are State Road 60 and U.S. Route 17 and U.S. Route 98. State Road 60 is a major state highway leading to both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and is the major east-west route through town. Originally traveling along Main Street, State Road 60 now follows Van Fleet Drive bypassing the downtown area, and is commonly known as "the 60 Bypass" by locals. Heading east on State Road 60 leads to Lake Wales and on to Vero Beach, while westbound leads to Mulberry and eventually Tampa. U.S. 17 is the main north-south route on the east side of town. It is a four lane divided highway leading north to Winter Haven and south to Fort Meade. U.S. 98 is cosigned with U.S. 17 until its intersection with SR 60. Briefly cosigned with State Road 60 until its intersection with Broadway Avenue. US 98 then turns northward onto Broadway Avenue heading towards Lakeland. State Road 570, known as the Polk Parkway, is a toll road located (10 km) north of city limits on U.S. 98. The Polk Parkway provides direct freeway access to Tampa and Orlando via Interstate 4.

The explosive growth expected in the area in the next few decades has created a need for a reexamination of the area's transportation infrastructure. The Central Polk Parkway is a proposed limited access highway that would connect the Polk Parkway with U.S. 17 and State Road 60. The Northern Bartow Connector, which is expected to be completed by 2015, is a partial loop around the north part of town connecting U.S. 98 with State Road 60 east of town.

For small aviation needs, Bartow Municipal Airport is available. The airport has three runways and includes an industrial park and warehouse storage. Both Tampa International Airport (TPA) and Orlando International Airport (MCO) are within 60 miles (97 km) driving distance from the center of Bartow.

Bartow has its own bus system, the Bartow Shuttle, which runs from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. The Citrus Connection has buses that serve the Bartow downtown area from Lakeland, and Winter Haven Area Transit serves Bartow from Winter Haven and Fort Meade.

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