High above the skyline in eastern Polk County sits one of the great sites in North America.
Bok Tower Gardens, situated at the top of what is commonly known as “Iron Mountain” in Lake Wales, is truly a national treasure.
The Gardens and the magnificent singing tower celebrated its 85th anniversary this past weekend with a celebration that brought visitors in the thousands to our county.
Back in 1929, crowds of people traveled to the top of Iron Mountain to see President Calvin Coolidge and Edward Bok dedicate the gardens and tower. News accounts put the crowd that day at about 50,000, a sight not often seen in Lake Wales — then and now.
Looking at President Coolidge’s remarks that day, we are struck by something he said that is true of Edward Bok and all others who seek to leave the world a better place than they found it. Coolidge described an America where the people are in charge, where the work government, artists, authors and architects do is ultimately for the people.
On February 1, 1929, at 4 p.m. President Coolidge said:
“It is for them (the people) that our songs are made, our books are published, our pictures are painted, our public squares are adorned, our park systems are developed, and the art of the stage and the screen is created. While these things are done by individuals, this movement is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” It is no accident that this superb creation, which we are dedicating today, is the conception of a man whose only heritage was that of good breeding, an American by adoption, not by birth, who has felt the pinch of poverty, who has experienced the thrill of hard manual labor, and who has triumphed over many difficulties. Edward W. Bok is making this contribution in recognition of his loyalty to his sovereign, the people. It is another demonstration that when they are given the opportunity the people have the innate power to provide themselves with the wealth, the culture, the art, and the refinements that support an enlightened civilization.”
On February 1, 2014, former Florida governor and U.S. senator Bob Graham spoke at the anniversary ceremony. Graham spoke of the beauty of Bok Tower Gardens and how Edward Bok’s gift to our area and the nation provides a welcome respite from the daily distractions of the modern world. Graham recalled being captivated by the tower and the gardens when, as an 11-year-old boy, he toured the gardens with his family and took a tour of the tower. Later, as an adult, he would wind up on the board of directors of Bok Tower Gardens, helping to ensure its survival and continued beauty.
David Price, president of Bok Tower Gardens, has done a superb job of preserving the legacy of Edward Bok’s vision. His leadership has been appreciated by Bok members and the Polk County community. We are thankful that he is a tireless cheerleader for the gardens and the environment in our area. He and his staff have made sure that we continue to have a peaceful, natural oasis in our midst.
Graham and Price, and the other speakers at Saturday’s event, were also kicking off a campaign to raise more money for a $12 million expansion of the gardens. The expansion and update of the facility will include refurbishing the garden’s walkway and realigning it to put it more in line with what legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. had in mind when he originally designed the gardens. New gardens, a few (million dollar) updates to the tower and a more interactive visitors center are included in the expansion plans. It is an ambitious plan but one that will allow the gardens to flourish throughout this century as it did for most of the 20th century.
Edward Bok’s story is a great one. An immigrant who came to his new country with nothing, worked hard and became successful. Not content to keep his good fortune to himself, he devised a plan to use his wealth and fame to leave the world something beautiful. We are the beneficiaries of that plan.
Bok’s grandmother had a saying that he adopted later in his life and has become something of a motto in this part of the world.
“Make you the world a bit better or more beautiful because you have lived in it,” are the words Bok adopted. Eighty-five years later we still thank Edward Bok and the stewards of Bok Tower Gardens for doing just that.