During the 1860’s, the first known American settlers in Winter Haven were the Thornhills, who sought homestead in the rural Florida landscape because of stories they heard from veterans of the Indian War. These veterans boasted about the warm climate and lush surroundings of what is now Winter Haven. These stories attracted not only the Thornhills but also other homesteaders with similar dreams of starting a new life in a beautiful, sunny place.
Soon after, these families followed:
These first American families began growing different types of fruits and vegetables, including peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, strawberries, peaches, and even guavas. It was not until 1884 that Blount and Whitledge platted the land.
By 1885, the railroad was being constructed, and the first mercantile was opened by Hovey & Harris. The Harris’ lived above the store, and Mrs. Harris often fed the railroad workers, who aptly started calling the area Harris Corner. However, P. D. Eycleshimer proposed the name Winter Haven based on the mild climate of the area in the winter months. The name was accepted, and the name Winter Haven was the town’s official name as of late 1885. By the early 1900’s, the population in Winter Haven had increased to 400. The town was incorporated in 1911 and by then had churches, schools, banks, hotels, a post office, a newspaper, a movie theater, and a canning factory, as well as more than a dozen automobiles.
In 1915, The Chain of Lakes canals began, and neighborhoods started being built along the waterways connecting the lakes. This would become a defining event in Winter Haven. The city of Winter Haven has 50 lakes, and The Chain of Lakes crosses the area. Today the lakes are a very important part of Winter Haven.
In 1920, the citrus industry in Florida boomed! It was growing in leaps and bounds, and people were moving in to be part of the prosperity being offered. This was the beginning of big business. By the 1920’s towns were springing up all over Florida. In 1936, Dick and Julie Pope opened Cypress Gardens on Lake Eloise, which was America’s first theme park.
The Great Depression affected the state of Florida, as it did the rest of the country. Growth in the state slowed but did not stop. The next big boom would not begin until after World War II.
By 1950, Cypress Gardens was known nationally. Tourism was growing, and all eyes were on Florida. This was the beginning of Florida as we know it today.
Today there are several major theme parks in the area, and many of them are some of the largest theme parks in the country. Whether you travel to other surrounding cities for the day, you are always within an hour’s drive or less from Winter Haven.
Over the years, Winter Haven has been home to many famous sports players, politicians, and entertainers. Water sports, boating, hospitality and tourism are big business in this city.
There are also many excellent museums in Winter Haven which detail the beginning and growth of the city. Be sure to stop and see the exhibits, photographs, and artifacts that honor the city’s history. There is also a sculpture museum called, Main Street Winter Haven and the Outer Space Art Gallery and Studio.
For more information on this great city, visit their website. Several annual events and festivals take place in Winter Haven, so be sure you check the calendar of events.