Lakeland, Florida was incorporated January 1, 1885. The town was founded by Abraham Munn, who purchased 80 acres of land in what is now downtown Lakeland in 1882 and platted the land for the town in 1884. Munn was a resident of Louisville, Kentucky. Among the names considered (and rejected) for the town by its residents were Munnville, Red Bug and Rome City.
For a short time, Lakeland had a rival town on the south side of Lake Parker, the largest lake in the city. That town was called Acton. It had a church before Lakeland did, and more importantly, a railroad depot. Under mysterious circumstances the depot burned, and shortly thereafter a larger, modern structure was built in Lakeland. Acton began to decline and was gone by 1906. By the mid-1890’s some 25 trains were stopping in Lakeland each day. Because of the excellent railroad service, progressive outlook, attractive location and elevation (227 feet), the community grew and prospered.
In 1885, the Tremont Hotel, said to have been the best hotel in Central Florida at that time, was built by Munn. It remained Lakeland's finest hostelry for years. It originally stood on the current site of the Lakeland Terrace Hotel, but was moved down the block and enlarged in 1911.
City fathers knew how to deal with crime in early Lakeland. In 1886 they passed an ordinance prohibiting "straggling around" the town. The mayor's report for the second quarter of that year shows 36 arrests; offenses included fighting, gambling, boisterous cursing and swearing, public drinking, lewd conduct, discharging firearms, sanitary violations, petty larceny and peddling without a license. The first jail was called the McDermott House -- named after its first occupant.
In 1887, nursery owner Ed Tison claimed to have originated the Marsh Seedless Grapefruit from cuttings on a tree growing on property of J. H. Hancock, north of Lakeland. About the same time he perfected this fruit, he sold his nurseries to C .M. Marsh, who gave his name to the new variety of the citrus family.
In the winter of 1888, H.S. Galloway demonstrated the profitable character of the strawberry crop and its adaptation to this area by netting over $600 from a single acre of strawberries, thus originating the strawberry industry in this county. By 1894 Lakeland was shipping more strawberries than any other place in the state.
The Lakeland Light and Power Company erected a light plant at the corner of Cedar Street and Massachusetts Avenue in 1891. In May of that year plant manager Harry C. Sloan threw the switch which turned on the current, and Lakeland was lighted by electricity for the first time. It was the only town in Florida besides Jacksonville and Tampa to have electric lights.
In the summer of 1898, some 9,000 troops were quartered in Lakeland, awaiting embarkation for Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Regiments camped on Lakes Wire and Morton. Lakeland's steady growth continued during the early 1900's. The town's first bond election in 1901 secured $110,000 for a school building. In that same year Park Trammell, who had been practicing law locally since 1899, was elected mayor. Later he served as governor of Florida and then U. S. senator.
The city's first telephone exchange was built in 1902, the city's first fire department was organized in 1908, free mail delivery was inaugurated in 1912, and in 1913, the city government changed from the aldermanic to the commission form. In 1915 the cornerstone of the first hospital was laid, and in 1922 Florida Southern College moved here from Sutherland.
The Florida land boom of the 1920's resulted in the construction of many significant structures in Lakeland, a number of which are today listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This list includes the Terrace Hotel, New Florida Hotel (Lake Mirror Tower Apartments), Polk Theatre, Park Trammell Building (formerly the Lakeland Public Library and today home to the Lakeland Chamber of Commerce), and others. This was Lakeland's golden age. The Cleveland Indians held spring training here from 1923 to 1927. The Cleveland Heights subdivision was developed and the Carpenters and Joiners Retirement Home was constructed.
During this same time, two Lakeland residents nearly made aviation history as the first man and woman to fly across the Atlantic. Shortly after Charles Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic, George Haldeman and Ruth Elder attempted to duplicate the feat. Taking off from New York, the couple's aircraft developed engine trouble a few hundred miles off the coast of Spain and they were forced to ditch in the ocean. They were rescued by a Dutch tanker which took them to Europe, where they were received with much fanfare.
The "boom" period went "bust" quickly, and years passed before the city recovered. Part of the re-emergence was due to the arrival of the Detroit Tigers in 1934 for spring training. The team continues to train here to this day. The development of the Lakeland Municipal Airport as a major facility in central Florida transportation was another factor.
The 1930’s also featured the arrival of renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In 1938 he came to Lakeland at the request of Florida Southern College President Ludd Spivey to design a "great education temple in Florida." For 20 years Wright worked on his "true American campus" creation. He planned 18 structures, 12 of which were completed and six left on the drawing board. He called his project "A Child of the Sun," so named from the architect’s own description of being "out of the ground, into the light, a child of the sun." It is the largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright designed structures in one location in the world.
The Lodwick School of Aeronautics, owned by aviation pioneer Albert Lodwick, opened in 1940 and trained several thousand men to fly for the U.S. Army Air Corps. At the same time, Food Machinery Company was researching and developing amphibious tanks. Drane Field, in southwest Lakeland, was the site on which B-24 bomber crews trained. The community was solidly behind the war effort.
After the war, George Jenkins rapidly expanded his Publix Supermarket chain and installed his corporate headquarters in Lakeland. The citrus and phosphate industries, though not within the city limits, contributed significantly to Lakeland's economy. Seventy percent of the phosphate produced in the U.S. was extracted and processed within 25 miles of the city. Citrus growth and production made this area the "World's Citrus Center." Through the 1980's Lakeland and its surroundings produced 25 percent of the nation's citrus. The Florida Department of Citrus and Florida Citrus Mutual are located here.
With a current population of 100,000+ Lakeland continues to grow. It has been designated a Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area by the U.S. Census Bureau for over 30 years. With tourist attractions such as Disney World, Busch Gardens, and Bok Tower all within an hour's drive, Lakeland is capitalizing on its ideal central Florida location. With its commitment to downtown development, redevelopment and historical preservation, and keen insight into its past and present, it is a model for other cities.