Phosphate played an important role in development of all of Polk County but particularly to Mulberry, named for the Mulberry Tree, which in the late 18th century had become the center point of the community.
Mulberry joined the Polk family of communities when it was incorporated in February 1901, but history traces the first settlers in the area back to the late 1840’s.
When the phosphate industry began moving back away from the water beds, the community became more stabilized; the industry also had brought the railroads and by 1904 the relatively new city boasted a population of about 2,000.
In 1898 the first school, with a class of three, was built on the corner of Canal and Church streets, one block north of the Mulberry Tree on a site now occupied by the city hall.
The first high school, the third oldest in Polk, was built in 1907, but the greatest developments in the community school system were launched after World War II and aided largely by the phosphate industry.
The city’s first electricity also was made possible that year when the Town Council granted a 20- year franchise to Ose O. Hubbard. The company grew into Mulberry Electric Co. which was purchased by Tampa Electric Co. in April, 1926. Around 1919 the Tampa firm began supplying electricity to the phosphate industry around Mulberry.
The city, with a population now of 3,300, also received its first telephone service around the turn of the century and in 1907 held the third exchange to be constructed in Polk by the Peninsular Telephone Co., forerunner to the General Telephone Co. of Florida. In 1907 the Mulberry exchange had 24 subscribers.
Mulberry may look like any other little Florida town, but its history sets it apart. It has the distinction, not only of having grown from a tree, but of possessing a unique past that reads like a saga of the Wild West.
In its beginning, Mulberry was sparsely settled and forested with longleaf yellow pine. The principal industry was logging. Abstracts in Polk County records show that Disston & Company owned most of the land.
The district had no name. Train crews put off passengers and mail at the mulberry tree beside the railroad tracks. In 1886, phosphate ore was discovered at the mouth of the Peace River, and sawdust soon gave way to phosphate. The Atlantic Coast Line purchased most of the smaller railroads. Goods were still marked to be put off at the mulberry tree on the Bone Valley Branch. In time, these shipments became so numerous that the railroad built a station next to the tree and, of course, named it Mulberry.
Gradually, log houses, stores and saloons were built. A real town appeared, but one which, back in the 1880’s, was as wide-open as any boom town of the old West. Almost every man carried firearms. Shootings were common events, with the lawless element frequently in control. A coroner’s inquest was held each Monday morning, it is said, for victims of the Saturday night troublemakers.
With no jail in Mulberry and the nearest sheriff hours away at Bartow, mob justice ruled. The Innocent tree, legend says, stood for several years bare as a tombstone and apparently as lifeless, as though ashamed to canopy such violence. Then, one spring day, green leaves sprouted from its branches, symbolizing a new day for the town of Mulberry. Law-abiding newcomers arrived to take over the town from gamblers and outlaws.
A town that hasn’t forgotten yesterday, The over 100 year old City of Mulberry moves ahead with a glance back at its origin.
To see more photos of Mulberry’s history, visit Florida Memory Photographs.