Not long after Florida, a U.S. territory since 1822, became a state in 1845, pioneers began settling in the Winter Haven area. Before that time, the area’s earliest inhabitants were Indians of several different tribes, including Seminoles. The first deeded land owners were several men from England who formed a company known as the Florida Land and Colonization Company, Ltd., incorporated under the Companies Acts of 1862 to 1880, and whose registered office was in London, England. By the 1880’s more settlers had arrived, and many of those names are still recognizable today.
In the beginning there were no roads, just sand trails, according to Josephine Burr’s, History of Winter Haven, published in 1974. Arriving from the north, new settlers usually arrived in Florida by railroad at Jacksonville or Cedar Key, then by boat and rail, before finally arriving overland to what would become Winter Haven.
It was in this fashion that by 1884, the Harris and Eycleshimer families had arrived from Vermont and New York, respectively. These families and many other early settlers set up camps near local lakes. Before it was named Winter Haven in 1911, the City was called Harris Corners, in honor of F.A.K. Harris who built the first building in the downtown area where he operated a store.
One of the area’s first ministers was George G. Jackson, a Methodist preacher and school teacher, who purchased land on the west side of Lake Howard in 1881 and brought his family from Kansas. In 1884, the Ecyleshimer family built the first house of sawed board on the west side of Lake Howard next to the Jackson property. According to Burr, it was Peter Ecyleshimer who named Winter Haven, with the idea of a winter resort in mind.
At the turn of the century, the population had grown to 400, and Winter Haven could boast of citrus groves, a school, a post office, a real estate office, a social club, churches, hotels, floral nurseries, a canning factory and the headquarters of Florida Citrus Growers Association.
By 1911, when Winter Haven was incorporated, the town has its own banks, band, newspaper, movie theater and 15 automobiles. Canals, connecting the city’s many lakes, began with the organization of the Twenty Lakes Boat Course Club in 1915.
The 1920’s Florida Boom brought land speculation and a great influx of newcomers. On September 6, 1930, 22-year-old George Jenkins opened the first Publix Super Market on Fourth Street, NW, in downtown. In 1936, tourism became an economic mainstay as Dick and Julie Pope opened Cypress Gardens — and the eyes of the world — to the beauty of Winter Haven. Winter Haven was well on its way to becoming the beautiful, thriving City it is today.
Click for a visual tour of Winter Haven’s history.