The History of Lake Wales, Florida

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Lake Wales is a lively city with a charming, small-town atmosphere, and is known as Florida’s own “Crown Jewel of the Ridge.”

The city truly has a rich history with some very impressive attributes, and we’re confident this post will have you loving Lake Wales as much as we do!

Founding and Early History

The city of Lake Wales has its roots in a survey of the region conducted in 1879 by Sidney Irving Wailes, a land agent employed by the State of Florida following the Civil War.

During his survey, he changed the name of a local lake from Watts Lake to Lake Wailes. Though this spelling was later altered for the name of the town, the lake retains its original spelling.

By 1911, the area attracted the attention of a group of Florida businessmen, who subsequently formed the Lake Wales Land Company and purchased 5,000 acres of forested land surrounding Lake Wailes.

The Lake Wales Land Company believed the rich wilderness surrounding the lake would serve as an excellent center for the booming lumber and turpentine industries. Additionally, the region’s soil, with its sandy composition, had great potential for growing citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruit, something the area is still known for today.

The city’s original settlers arrived that first year and quickly got to work setting down the foundation for a thriving metropolis.

Onward and Upward

By 1917, the year the city was incorporated, Lake Wales already contained a 100-student school, a local newspaper, telephone service, an electricity plant, and a number of paved roads.

And by 1921, when Lake Wales was granted its municipal charter, it had reached the status of fifth-largest cattle-producing area in the world.

The year 1925 saw Lake Wales connected to its costal brethren, as the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad placed a stop along its route in the city, providing swift travel to Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Alabama and other areas of Florida.

Bok Tower Gardens

This beautiful National Historic Landmark is one of Lake Wales’ most impressive sites and is a beloved part of the community.

In 1921, Edward K. Bok and his wife Mary L. Bok endeavored to create a lush garden and bird sanctuary atop Iron Mountain, the highest point in peninsular Florida. This goal was carried out by 1929 and included thousands of species of local flora, including:

  • 1,000 oak varieties
  • 10,000 azaleas
  • 500 gordonias
  • 300 magnolias
  • 100 sabal palms
  • Assorted fruit-bearing shrubs

In 1930, famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who had overseen projects in the everglades and Yosemite National Park, designed the grounds. He additionally assisted in planning Lake Wales’ expanding borders.

Serving as the centerpiece for the gardens is the Singing Tower, a beautiful structure built at the time of the gardens’ excavation, which houses the Anton Brees Carillon Library. Words cannot do the tower justice, however, for its ornate marble façade, hand-crafted sculptures, and beautiful stained-glass windows need to be seen in person to be fully appreciated.

Today, the Bok Tower Gardens serves as a preserve for more than 126 bird species, including:

  • Cranes
  • Quails
  • Woodpeckers
  • Swallows
  • Cuckoos
  • Owls
  • Ducks
  • Swans
  • Herons
  • Hummingbirds
  • Hawks
  • Eagles
  • Bluebirds
  • Orioles
  • Starlings
  • Mockingbirds
  • Kingfishers

Dixie Walesbilt Hotel

The Dixie Walesbilt Hotel (also known as the Hotel Grand), located in the Lake Wales commercial historic district, is a significant feature in Lake Wales’ local lore.

Built in 1926, this impressive structure was erected with the financial backing of famed silent film stars Thomas Meighan, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson and Clara Bow, along with Hollywood attorney Nathan Burkan and film producer Victor Heerman.

With an imposing façade and a lush interior featuring Italian-made ceilings, marble floors, a wrought-iron balustrade, and several shopping arcades, the hotel was designed to be the epitome of early 20th century American architecture.

After changing hands over the decades and being placed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1990, the hotel closed its doors in 1995. However, ongoing renovations by a group of dedicated locals are underway to restore the hotel to its former glory.

Come for a Visit!

Of course, to truly experience all of the rich culture and history of Lake Wales and the surrounding area, you should come and explore it for yourself.

And while you’re in town, make sure to reach out to Water’s Edge of Lake Wales to schedule a tour of our impressive community and discover all that we can do for you!