A Community Rich in History
Lake Wales has a long history. Its first inhabitants were attracted to the area for its bounty of fish, game and natural vegetation used for food and medicine. Native Americans found the area ideally suited to farming, hunting and fishing, and later for trading with their new neighbors from the north and west.
New settlers raised cattle, farmed and began planting citrus. This became the greatest citrus-producing area in the world and citrus is still an important industry in Central Florida. Beginning in the 1880s, settlers also lumbered the virgin stands of pine to extract the sap for turpentine stills. Although the early forefathers and city planners could not have foreseen the tremendous growth in the past 80 years, they had the vision to create a basic community design that works well today.
A frontier town in its formative years, Lake Wales became an area leader in cultural arts and tourism in the early 1900s, with the building of the Mountain Lake Community, which catered to wealthy northern industrialists seeking a winter refuge. The famous Bok Carillon Tower was erected in 1929 and dedicated by President Calvin Coolidge.
Paved highways enabled the first tourists to visit this tranquil retreat. The Atlantic Coastline Railroad reached Lake Wales in 1911. It served as transport for the naval stores coming out of the turpentine stills, and opened the way for land development and tourism. More and more people began traveling by automobile in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
After the Great Depression, tourism and growth picked up in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. Although many historic buildings were torn down to build accommodations for tourists during this time, the Lake Wales historic downtown was spared. The success of nearby Disney World in the 1970’s further impacted the surrounding communities, bringing both tourists and employment opportunities. A community redevelopment movement was organized in the 1970’s and 1980’s to preserve the architectural heritage of the city. In the 1990’s, historic preservation became part of the city’s comprehensive plan so that future changes will reflect and preserve the city’s historic past.
Lake Wales is proud of its historical and architectural heritage, and is committed to preservation. “Preserving the Past for the Benefit of the Future” is the motto of the Lake Wales Historical Society.