Polk County FLGenWeb: History
Source "Florida: Its Climate, Soil, and Productions, with a sketch of Its History, Natural Features and Social Condition: A Manual of Reliable Information Concerning the Resources of the State and the Inducements to Immigrants." Jacksonville: Printed by Edwd. M. Cheney, State Printer, Bay St., 1869.
The following communication concerning this county is from Robert La Martin, one of its most intelligent citizens, and a gentleman of superior culture and attainments:
Hon. Dennis Eagan, Commissioner of Immigration, Tallahassee, Fla.
Dear. Sir :—Agreeably to your request, I herewith endeavor to give you, as far as possible, a correct and reliable topographical history of Polk county :
The county of Polk is bounded on the north by the county of Sumter, and on the south by the county of Manatee, and on the west by the county of Hillsborough, and on the east by the counties of Orange and Brevard.
The character of the surface is what may be termed gradually undulating. The lands are of three classifications, to wit: hammock, pine and prairie. The hammock lands are those contiguous to the lakes and rivers ; the soil consists of a dark, moist, soft loam or marl, and one of excellent fertility, covered with a dense growth of timber, the quality of which is as follows: Live and water oak, white and red bay, hickory, gum, orange, cypress and magnolia. The hammock lands are divided into two classes—high and low hammock. The soil of the low hammock is of a dark mold, deep and durable, but requires ditching for successful cultivation. The high hammock has an undulatingsurface with deep soil. The soil of the high and low is of decomposed vegetable matter, resting upon a stratum of limestone or marl, all exceedingly productive and valuable when properly managed, but less favorable to health. The pine lands are covered with pine timber, and on the whole are mostly arable land and very productive, especially when " cow-penned "—the usual mode of fertilizing in this section. The prairie lands are vast plains or beautiful savannas—dressed in luxuriant verdure and living green—dotted ever and anon with clusters of trees, oasislike, from one to ten acres, with a growth of palmetto, &c., giving a romantic view to the eye if " distance lends enchantment to the view." They are yet in an undeveloped state of primeval simplicity, and nothing definite can be reported in regard to their agricultural resources. All these lands are underlaid with marl—an accumulation of marine debris—fifty per cent. of which is calcareous matter. The prairies are the favorite resort of herds of cattle, with deer and other game, which roam and feed on its fragrant herbage. The estimate given of stock cattle in the county is from 65,000 to 75,000 head, constituting the principal product of the county. The stock cattle readily sell at $5 per head, and beef cattle from $9 to $16 per head. The hammock and pine lands are beyond doubt of great productiveness when care and attention is given in utilizing them for plantation purposes. Messrs. Key and Chandler, reliable and responsible gentlemen, give me the following statistics as a fair criterion of the average produce per acre : Cotton, per acre, 500 pounds; corn, 35 bushels : rice, 60 bushels; syrup, 400 gallons ; potatoes, 400 bushels; peas, 30 bushels; ground peas, 30 bushels.
I cannot give an estimate of what amount of tobacco has been made. But you can easily realize two to three crops of the best quality of tobacco from the ground. Also with the potato you can have the same success. The whole vegetable kingdom thrives well. I have known instances of cabbages weighing twenty odd pounds, collards measuring five feet across the top, and the celebrated "Brooker potato" weighing twenty-one pounds. The county is well adapted to the culture of all the tropical and semi-tropical fruits, and npt a little progress is being manifested in their culture. Hogs thrive well; pork sells from, seven to eight cents per pound. But there is great laxity manifested in the attention to swine and too much dependence placed upon beef. The range is good and continues to improve every year, owing to the heavy shipments of beef cattle to the Cuban market. The price of improved lands is from $2 50 to $10 per acre, owing to the state of the improvement thereon. Wild or unimproved lands sell at government price, $1 25 per acre. Clearing of land varies in price—all according to what style done—from $5 to $15 per acre. Rails are worth $10 per 1,000 ; lumber sells at $20 per 1,000 feet. Mills are sadly needed—a most lucrative investment is remaining open. Labor is high. Common plantation hands' wages run from $17 to $20. Mechanics command from $2 50 to $4 per day. In regard to water we have any quantity, and of the finest quality. In the eastern portion of the county there is a chain of many beautiful, clear, and placid lakes, of various sizes, teeming with fish—the delicious trout, perch, cat, "mud," &c. The land bordering on the lakes is, as I before stated, hammock, and of good fertility. The county is also traversed in the southeastern part by Boley's creek, a respectable stream, which forms a junction with Peace creek in a very fertile section, containing a very large amount of arable land and splendid sites.
In fact, all our rivers and lakes afford innumerable quantities of fish and water-fowl, such as duck, snipe, crane, water-turkey, marsh-hen, and a variety of others, of beautiful plumage. The forests abound in enough of game to tempt the cupidity of any hunter, such as deer, bear, panther, wild-cat, raccoon, opossum, foxes, rabbits, and squirrels, with thousands of turkeys, partridges, «fcc.; and during the periodical inundation of the flats and prairies of this section, which occur from June the 25th to September 20th, if any one wished to embark into the business, they could gather forty bushels of frogs per acre, and enough of alligators to fence them with. Peace creek is a considerable stream, having its source in Sumter, flowing diagonally through the county, and thence through Manatee county in a southwest direction, emptying into the Gulf at Charlotte Harbor, running partially over an area of 1,000 square miles, whose rippling waters are declared navigable for steam navigation. A company has been incorporated for the purpose of demonstrating the practicability of steam navigation upon its waters, and as the company has of late received a new impetus and additional life, we can safely say the day is at hand when the keen whistle of the steamboat will be heard in the midst of a country rich in natural productions, and natural scenery the most picturesque and romantic, and breathe the breath of new life through the whole of South Florida, reclaiming and making accessible an exceedingly valuable region, known heretofore only to the pioneer and ranger. Accessibility to market and transporting facilities have long been of paramount interest and transcendent importance to our county, Tampa being sixty miles distant, our nearest port of shipping and transit for all produce raised in this county, with the exception of beef cattle when going to Key West and Cuban markets, which find route via Punta Rassa, quite a shipping point for cattle off the coast of Monroe county. All transportation has been, and is at present, carried on with teaming—not a pleasant or satisfactory process at all. Fort Meade is a flourishing, busy, and bustling little town, on a beautiful bluff on the left bank of Peace creek. It is handsomely located eighty miles from the mouth of the river, in the centre of one of the most fertile and pleasant regions of the county, being 108 miles from Punta Rassa, 80 to Sumterville and Okeehumkee, 100 to Mellonville, and 125 to Ocala, and if the sound of the hammer and mallet is a significance of the progressive spirit that pervades its limits, it can freely claim progress. The health and water is fine, and society refined and orderly. C. B. Lightsey, a responsible gentleman, and one of the first business men in the country, who resides at Fort Mcade, gives me the following as a fair financial sample of the amount of business transacted in the town during a year :
Beef cattle bought and shipped, 20,000 head, ($18 per head) $360,000
Merchandise bought and sold 100,000
Country produce bought and shipped 50,000
Also in the same vicinity is located an enterprise that claims notice—the tan-yard, Messrs. Varn & Co., proprietors, who, from a limited amount of capital, through dint of energy and industry, erected a tan-yard, with boot and shoe shop attached, turning out weekly 400 pair of shoes and boots, with an equal proportion of harness and saddlery and other work, besides shipping a large amount of leather—showing what labor and industry can accomplish. Labor is what our section sorely feels the want of—men with bone, muscle and brain.
The population of the county is 3,500. Of these about 100 are colored people. Bartow, the county site, is located in a very fertile and healthy section of the county. It contains a good court house, no jail, a telegraph office communicating with the outer and inner world. The business of the courts is meagre, so much so that the county cannot afford business for two lawyers (not a single case, either civil or criminal, on the docket); one has to cow-drive and the other is an accountant in a mercantile house to make a genteel livelihood, which goes for a sign towards the social and orderly condition of Polk county. The healthfulness of the county is equal to that of the most salubrious clime. The climate is temperate, serene, and genial as any land beneath the sun. The citizens of the county are ever kind, 'hospitable, and generous to a fault towards strangers who come among them clothed with the habiliments of honesty, energy and industry, and those who come to cast their lots with us, bringing such " credentials," will find a home of plenty, peace, and repose, and a hearty good welcome.
Indulging in the hope that the manifestation of your honest zeal in the line of the present publication may meet with the merit it deserves, in creating and putting in force a new impetus in the development of the vast and latent resources of our State, I have the honor to be, yours, &c.,
Robert La Martin.