Jacob Summerlin came home to Bartow Friday spreading his folksy business savvy and, above all, his love for cows and the city.
Summerlin appeared in the guise of Pinellas County actor Brian Shea, who showed a packed 1908 courtroom in the Polk History Center a side of the founding father they had not seen nor heard before.
Shea’s performance was presented by the Florida Humanities Council and the Polk History Center as part of the Council’s annual gathering for a select group of 31 Florida school history teachers and those who braved a rainy Friday night to take a trip into the past through Summerlin’s recollections.
Summerlin, according to Shea’s re-enactment, “likes cows and loves calves even more.” Summerlin, a self-made cattle baron whose herds once roamed some 80 square miles of Central Florida, was instrumental in founding both Orlando as Orange County’s seat of government and Polk’s government center.
“Cows are in my blood,” Summerlin/Shea told the full house. “They are in my nature, in my soul,” and he used his cattle ranching earnings to endow Orlando with a county courthouse and Bartow with the Summerlin Institute, one of its first and finest schools during the 19th century.
Called the ‘King of the Crackers,’ Summerlin was reportedly the “first white child born after Florida was ceded to the U.S. from Spain” and claimed “near Lake City” as his birthplace. Born into relative poverty, he owned his own cattle by age 16 and in the next several decades parlayed that into a fortune by raising cattle and selling and shipping them to off-shore markets in the Caribbean.
Boasting only a Ph.D. in survival, Summerlin turned his savvy to other pursuits, said Shea as he performed as Summerlin, and owned a grand hotel in Orlando and other smaller boarding houses that stretched from Orlando south to what was once Punta Rassa, near Fort Myers.
“I was obsessed with cattle,” Summerlin/Shea said. “I wanted more and more cattle. And, I got them.”
The resurrected Summerlin, clad in a homely costume of collarless shirt, vest and rumpled trousers topped by a well-worn cowboyesque hat, recounted that his life, while fruitful monetarily, wasn’t all rosy. He told of an attempt on his life by one of his cattle-baron rivals, allegedly Baron Collier where he and a number of his guests at his Punta Rassa boarding house were poisoned. He spent almost a month hospitalized and went so far as to offer an astronomical $50,000 reward for proof against his poisoner.
“I spent 20 days in a hospital bed after that, but it affected me the rest of my life,” he recalled leaning slightly on a weathered cane. “I know it was Collier,” he said. “I was the top man on the pole and he wanted to be.”
Summerlin/Shea also told of his “Waldorf Astoria of the South,” the Summerlin Hotel in Orlando.
“It was really pretty and really nice, but way more than an old cattle man like me needed,” he said.
The late-in-his-life Summerlin also recounted tales of his Civil War involvement where his cattle ships ran the Union blockades to supply both the Confederate Army and its Caribbean supporters. He also told how he set aside 200 cows for Confederate widows and orphans and had them branded W and O so there could be no mistaking their purpose.
“War wasn’t good for business or for our families,” he said, “but we got by.”
Summerlin had a “special place in my heart for Bartow,” he told the history buffs.
“I had 170 acres here and built a home here that housed five generations of Summerlins. I also donated acres of land to the city and to provide churches. But, I’m happiest about the school I provided for the children. Education could give them the tools for their future.”
He also recalled he was asked to make a speech at the dedication of the Summerlin Institute.
“I just told them I was glad to be there for the children and for Florida.”
Shea’s performance was one segment of the Humanities Council’s three-character dramatic presentation called “Dreamers and Schemers.” He has portrayed Summerlin across the state in schools or other historical group gatherings for a year, and remains under an open-ended contract to continue, he said.
“It took me about six months of research to get into the character,” Shea said. “He was a very complex character and is extremely interesting to portray.”
Shea said he opted to depict Summerlin in his later years, so he could include more of the famous founder’s history in the portrayal.
“It is a challenge to portray such a man out of context or time,” Shea explains. “But he was such a fascinating man.”
He added he had performed much of his research in Bartow while preparing for his continuing role.
Shea, a USF theater graduate also performs professionally in various theaters in Tampa and St. Petersburg when not slipping into his Summerlin persona.