With what could be the theme of the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit, Polk County Historic Preservation Manager Myrtice Young said at Friday’s opening of Journey Stories, “everybody has a journey … we have pushed and pulled across the United States.”
Journey Stories is a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian that will be on display in the Polk County History Center until Jan. 4. It is on display to show how mobility changed the state and country. It ranges from the 1500s to present day. Excited about the opening that featured an actor as Henry Plant, Young was also excited the Smithsonian chose the History Center to show the display.
“This is such excitement,” she told the 75 people who attended Friday’s opening. “This is also the first time ever we’ve had a Smithsonian exhibit.”
Because of his involvement and knowledge of area history, Lloyd Harris, the Chairman of the Polk County Historical Commission, showed a few pieces of railroad to the crowd. He found them in Bartow when construction work turned them up underground.
In 1999, he said, he found a railroad piece that went down in 1899 on West Main Street.
“It was a standard gauge rail about three feet deep,” he said. “I asked the construction worker if I could have it and he said he didn’t know because he didn’t know who would own it,” Harris said.
Harris left but when he was home, he said, he grabbed some Coca-Colas and headed back to the construction site. He gave the construction workers the sodas and said to them during conversation, “I’d like to get that piece for the museum.”
A construction worker left it by the side, Harris said, and he was able to pick it up.
The rail piece shows how the implementation of railroad in 1882 by Henry Plant on the west side of Florida changed the economy and lifestyles.
“I did well and Bartow did well,” Michael Norton said who was playing Henry Plant told the audience during his soliloquy. “the city of Bartow quadrupled in size.”
Plant moved to Florida when his wife was ill and heard of the advantages of moving to Florida and escaping the Northern winters. Getting involved in the rail system is Plant’s legacy to Florida. His business not only helped his personal wealth but he is largely responsible for the growth and development of cities other than Bartow such as Plant City, Sanford, Auburndale, Trilby and Port Tampa.
Bartow, he said, made it into the growth area with the discovery of “gray gold,” he said, meaning phosphate. And never to pass on an opportunity, he directed rail lines to be built to Bartow. The growth continued when in Bone Valley in Fort Meade a new phosphate was discovered known as pebble phosphate.
“It was shipped north to Fernanada Beach and south to Punta Gorda,” he said.
Plant chalked up his success to how he changed the rail system in Florida. There were two types of tracks, he said and it slowed things severely.
“Your train had to stop and you had to transfer your items to rail that could travel on that line,” he said.
Warfare from the Civil War and neglect were abound. Tracks were red from rust.
“Once I got my hands on the rail I was able to ship west to Tampa,” he said, adding he solved the two track distance in his time. And, because of it cities like Bartow succeeded.
“It built a brick courthouse and a handsome brick courthouse that went to the skies,” he said.