Beginning in November, the Polk County History Center will offer a one-hour guided tour of the historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Bartow. The idea of touring a graveyard may seem a little scary, but don’t let that stop you. The markers feature beautiful carvings and funerary art dating back to the 1800s. In Southern cemetery tradition, markers offer insight into their family and community life. Oak Hill is the final resting place for several of Polk County’s founding families, and their history will give you an appreciation for all that they’ve done to create what we now call home.
The cemetery itself, is peaceful. It’s next to a road and a neighborhood with very little traffic. It’s so quiet, I could hear the birds chirping around me. There are several very old, large trees with moss hanging low, and the markers are arranged in a “Transitional Cemetery” form. This was developed in the mid to late 1800s and it features bordered family plots covered with grass and the occasional flowering plants. Religious and military symbols, especially the Confederate Cross, started appearing on markers around the same time. It wasn’t until after WWI that markers were arranged in straight rows. This would be known as the “Modern Cemetery” form that we see today.
I spoke with Cintia Ally, the Curator of Education and Programming at the Polk County History Center to learn more about the monthly tour. “We learn about the different type of funerary art, the different headstones and the more notable people that are buried there.” Some of those families include the Blount, Summerlin and Parker descendents, just to name a few. You will learn the history of these families, and their contributions to making Polk County what it is today. At the start of the tour, you’re given a handy little guide to the symbols on the markers and their meanings. Histories of 10 families that are interred are also given.
Cintia walked me throughout Oak Hill pointing out various markers and the history of the people interred. It is a cemetery, so for me, it was easy to get a sense of sadness walking through. There are children buried and the mysteries about their past remain. However, there are parents, soldiers and other prominent people that had a vision for this area and worked to make a better life for others. Learning the history of these people is fascinating. If you like history, you’ll appreciate this tour. It’s an in-depth look at the founding families of Polk.
Oak Hill began, informally, back in 1860. It is the oldest existing man-made construction in the city of Bartow. In February of 2003, it was added to the US National Register of Historic Places.
Tours of Oak Hill begin in November and are only one day a month, so plan ahead. A few tips: Bring water, wear sunscreen and bug spray. Wear comfortable shoes that are appropriate for walking through grass. The tour meets at the Polk County History Center and then everyone drives to Oak Hill, approximately one mile away.
Polk County History Center
100 East Main Street, Bartow, FL 33830
What was once the Polk County Courthouse now serves as the History Center and houses the historical museum and library.
Polk County History Center’s Mission Statement:
To educate and inspire through the procurement and preservation of historical objects and data, illustrative of, and relating to, Polk County.