The city now Called Bartow was founded in October 1851 as Fort Blount, a stockade established by Readding Blount and his family. In the 1850's, the first permanent new settlers came to the area near the dead-waters of the "Peas River" (or Peace River) and established Fort Blount. This settlement was somewhat stalled by the American Civil War a decade later, although the County government, named after President James Polk, was established in 1861.
After the war, in 1867, the county commissioners decided the county seat should be named after General Francis S. Bartow, the first Confederate officer to die in the war, and so, the name of Fort Blount was changed to Bartow. A bronze marker at the corner of Main Street and Floral Avenue, about a quarter mile west of the Old Polk County Historical Museum and Genealogical Library, commemorates the fort.
Much of the community's history is attested to by the graves in the old Historic Oak Hill Cemetery. Many of the graves have Confederate markers, reminders of the nations’ Civil War. Grave sites include those of Readding Blount and Jacob Summerlin.
City of Champions
It has been suggested that few cities since Jamestown have produced as many prominent leaders per capita as Bartow. Among them are Spessard L. Holland, who served as Governor of Florida and a United States Senator. Holland authored and secured passage of the 24th Amendment to the United States Constitution, which outlawed the poll tax.
One of Holland's childhood classmates was James A. Van Fleet, who would become a Four-Star General and Commander of the United Nations Forces during the Korean War. At the time of his death----at the age of 100----General Van Fleet was the nation's senior general officer.
Chesterfield H. Smith, one of the state's most prominent lawyers, lived in Bartow for most of his adult life. He was Chairman of the Constitutional Revision Commission which wrote Florida's present State Constitution and was the moving force in what is now the Holland and Knight Law Firm. He also served as President of the American Bar Association. One of his law partners----Stephen H. Grimes----became Chief Justice of the Florida Supreme Court. Justice Grimes also lived much of his adult life in Bartow.
Bartow was also the home of Major General Evander McIvor Law, a military leader in the Confederate Army, who later established the South Florida Military Institute in Bartow. The institute later became a part of what is now the University of Florida.
Bartow was the site of the first brick school house south of Jacksonville. Named the Summerlin Institute (Now Bartow H.S.) in honor of its benefactor Jacob Summerlin, it opened in 1887. Summerlin, a cattle Baron gave, 40 acres to be used for an institution of learning----40 acres to be used for the establishment of a county seat, and 20 acres for each of the towns first two churches: the Methodist Church and the Baptist Church. The acreage given for county purposes was to ensure that Bartow would be the county seat.
At the time of his death in Bartow (1979), Charles Smith generally acknowledged to be the oldest living American. Brought to the United States as a young slave boy before the Civil War, he was believed to be 137 years old when he died.
City of Oaks and Azaleas
Bartow, appropriately named "City of Oaks and Azaleas," contains many historic homes built in the late 19th and 20th centuries. With a population of more than 17,000, Bartow remains the county seat of one of Florida's geographically largest counties, Polk County has more than 585,000 residents. Thousands of government and private business employees commute to Bartow, daily. Production of phosphate, citrus and cattle are among the mainstays of the county's economy.
Bartow is 40 miles east of Tampa, and 60 miles southwest of Orlando. It is strategically located at the intersection of U.S. Highway 98 and State Road 60.