LAKELAND, Fla. (FOX 13) - Lakeland is the largest city in Polk County, so it’s hard to imagine it first started out as 80 acres of land more than a century ago.
The city is famous for many things: swans as residents, Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, the annual Sun N’ Fun, and even the famous alligator at Circle B Reserve that went viral for its massive size. Lakeland is nestled between the bustling cities of Orlando and Tampa, but it has quickly become its own destination to live and play. The city is growing, and its past has built a foundation for residents and businesses to thrive today.
Before it was a city, Lakeland was a town. It was founded in January 1, 1885 by Abraham Munn, who purchased the 80 acres of land in what would later become downtown Lakeland. Today, there is plenty of space to explore for both visitors and its 100,000 residents.
From coffee shops, restaurants and museums to sightseeing historic venues and exploring nature, Lakeland is both a day trip destination and a place to call home. Good Day Tampa Bay spent Friday morning exploring the charming city, and learning about its rich history.
LAKELAND’S MOST FAMOUS RESIDENT: THE SHERIFF
Lakeland is a hometown for many people, but Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd may be the most famous. He was born and raised here.
“In fact, at Crystal Lake Elementary, I made it all the way to second grade before I got my first paddling there,” he recalled. “It worked.”
The sheriff said he has yet to meet someone who loves their job more than he loves his own.
“I know I’ll get to help someone who is need before the day is over. It’s the most awesome job in the world. It’s really not a job for me. It’s a way of life," he said”
Maybe at the age of 90, he’ll hang up his sheriff’s badge.
“I’m a long way away from that. I can be here for decades,” he said. “Remember that criminals.”
Over the years, people have wondered whether he could run for government office, probably because he known for his bold quotes, and is a natural on-camera. He said all he wants to be is the sheriff of Polk County.
“I can arrest senators and house members,” he explained. “They can’t arrest me. My mother used to say, ‘Son, if you could just put your brain in gear a half second before your mouth, you’d be better off.’ Well I’ve been practicing that, I still don’t think I got it quite right yet.”
“But I can tell you this, the most dangerous place in Polk County is if you stand between me and a television camera,” he added.
Sheriff Grady started as a dispatcher when he was 18. But before that, he worked at a local ambulance.
“I delivered my first baby at 16, and I’m still scarred for life,” the sheriff recalled.
Back then, when Grady first worked at the sheriff’s office, the legal age to become a deputy went from age 21 to 18.
“But there was one problem,” he recalled. “The sheriff’s office didn’t provide firearms. I had to send my daddy to the store to buy my gun and my bullets because federal firearms’ law says you had to be 21 to buy a handgun.”
“So at 19, I was policing with a gun that my daddy bought me,” Grady added.
Grady married his high school sweetheart, which he said was the best thing he could have done.
“She has been my rock, my supporter and the most wonderful thing in my life. And still is. I love her a little bit more than I did yesterday,” he said, while beaming.
Together, they had two children, and 12 grandchildren.
“When they come over, we have a mini-riot,” Grady said. “I love it.”
MAYOR MAKES LAKELAND HIS HOMETOWN
Mayor Bill Mutz appeared disheveled with some splotches of sweat on his pink dress shirt, but that's because it happens to be "Bike to Work Day." So, that's what he did Friday morning. He said he was challenged.
"By one of our fellow commissioners...who flies F-16s," Mutz explained.
"Oh, at least he didn't tell you to fly an F-16," said FOX 13's anchor Russell Rhodes.
"No," the mayor said with a laugh, "that's right, and I can't do that."
Mayor Mutz came to Lakeland from Indiana in 1996, and he fell in love with the city within weeks. He purchased a business and truly made Lakeland his hometown.
The mayor and his wife, Pam Gaiser Mutz, have been married for over 40 years and are parents of 12 children -- 7 boys and 5 girls. He became president of Lakeland Automall, but none of his kids wanted to take over the business, so he sold it.
"They have all chosen their own careers," he said, adding that he has 23 grandchildren.
It took some convincing from his business friends, but Mutz decided to enter politics and ran for mayor. He was elected and entered the role in 2018. He said his job is all about "preserving the quality life of people in a place you love to live."
"I just absolutely have not done anything I've loved more," he explained. "It's truly the people. The city is very nice. We have wonderful amentities. We do a great job of taking care of our city."
But, he said, there is more to come.
"We are at the cusp of doing some things that are going to be outstanding in growth in downtown. We are going to put a lot of cranes down here -- similar to Tampa," he said. "What we really enjoy the most though is the philanthropic feel of this city, the caring of people that's genuine across sectors of this city."
SWANS, A CITY SYMBOL
Lakeland is the home to beautiful swans, and there's so much history behind why they arrived here.
The first breeding pair came from Queen Elizabeth in 1957. Since then, Lakeland has had quick a flock on Lake Morton. There are about 65 birds today.
Swans like white bread, but officials ask for people to feed them healthier products, like lettuce, carrots or swan food from the swan dispensers around the lake.
"White bread is not good because what does it do to us? It makes us a little plump and fluffy,” said Kevin Cook, a spokesperson with the city.
Earlier this month, city officials were excited to announce the hatching of a rare baby black-necked swan. Unfortunately, it vanished on Thursday from its pen on Lake Morton. It was in the structure to become acclimated before being released on Friday.
City officials hope for it to return soon.
WHERE SHOPPING IS A PLEASURE
Lakeland shares a lot of history with Publix, going back to the 1940s. The beloved store chain is headquartered here.
The very first Publix store in Lakeland is now the Waller Construction and Design Center building. Another Publix store in Lakeland was the first with a parking lot. Today, it’s now the Polk County Tax Collector’s building.
“It’s so neat because it looks so much like the original building,” explained Jennifer Bush, a Publix historian. “They appreciate the heritage and history of that building. If you drive by at night you’re going to see the neon lights in front of that building reminiscent of those Publix stores of the 50s.”
Tampa Theatre used to be called Publix Theatre, and that is what inspired George Jenkins to name the chain, Publix. Also, the Polk Theatre used to be part of the Publix chains back in the early days.
Southgate Shopping Plaza was the first of its kind for Lakeland. The first bakery was inside the Publix that was there. Also, when you connect Publix with Lakeland, you can’t forget the “cake in the sky.”
“On the west side of Lakeland, when you look up in the sky near Publix’s industrial center…you’re going to see in the sky a big huge birthday cake complete with candles,” Bush said. “That’s our water tower.”
Those “candles” are lit up at night.
“Come over to Lakeland and check out this really neat piece of Publix’s history,” Bush said. “It’s just our love for Lakeland.”
THE BEST PIZZA IN TOWN
Palace Pizza is a family-owned business, and their roots is what makes, as the locals say, the best pizza place in town.
The family has been in Lakeland since 1997, and have won many awards for their pizza. They say they strictly follow traditional recipes and use only fresh ingredients. The restaurant is a staple in downtown Lakeland.
“We try to do our best. We’re from up north, but we originally came from Italy,” explained Sal Schiano. “My parents have been doing this since 1974. So I think that’s pretty much what makes us the best pizza in town.”
FOX 13’s anchor Jen Epstein, originally from Queens, New York, says it’s the best pizza she has had in Florida, hands down.
LINK: You can see for yourself. For more information on Palace Pizza, head over to the restaurant’s website.
A GOOD COFFEE SHOP
Whenever you visit a new place, one of the first things you may do is find a good coffee shop -- and Black & Brew Coffee is one of those businesses.
Chris McArthur -- born-and-raised in Lakeland -- proudly served his country in the U.S. Marine Corps, and now he proudly serves cups of coffee in downtown Lakeland.
"My brother and I were pretty young at the time," he said. "We thought, 'Let's open up a place we would like to hang out at in Lakeland, and that's what we did.'"
Thirteen years later, Black & Brew Coffee still stands in the same building, which is over 100 years old. Inside, the brick walls on display are just as old. They don't just have coffee, they serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. They also have a second location inside the Lakeland Public Library, where they bake all of their pastries.
McArther said they started roasting their own coffee back in 2015. It's been such a delicious hit that Publix is even selling them.
"I just feel blessed every day," he said.
LINK: For more information on Black & Brew Coffee, head over to its website.
TIGERTOWN GOING STRONG FOR NEARLY A CENTURY
You cannot talk about Lakeland without talking about the Detroit Tigers, which has a partnership that runs deep.
"This relationship goes back to 1934. We've been coming here 83 years," explained Ron Myers, director of Florida operations with the Detroit Tigers."We just extended our lease three years ago, so we will be here for over 100 years. We're very proud of it."
He describes Lakeland as a southern, small town with a Midwest flavor. Many from Michigan moved to Lakeland because they've known about the city since they were kids, thanks to the team's relationship.
Joker Marchant Stadium, where the Tigers hold their spring training, was recently named the Grapefruit League ballpark by Ballpark Digest. Myers said when they were renovating the stadium, they tried to keep in mind the needs of the fans, such as adding shade to the stadium, elevators, and enhancing the sound system.
"The fans selected us. We didn't even know the vote was going on," Myers said.
When the baseball team is not in spring training, the Flying Tigers take over the stadium. They've been there since 1967.
"We have the longest-working relationship between a major league affiliate and minor league team. Our history runs long and deep," he said.
They also create bobbleheads of Tigers' fans. This year, they decided to do something different. Rather than pick a former player, they wanted to pick a citizen of Polk County: Sheriff Grady Judd.
"You can stick it outside your house when you go on vacation and you will not have any problem," Myers joked. "This is probably going to be one of the better security devices that you can get for your home."
PROTECTING THE STREETS OF LAKELAND
The humans and K9s of the Lakeland Police Department are vital to the safety of the city. A K9 unit is important for the agency, because their skills are specifically needed for certain situations.
"Some of those things are the ability to search and detect, not just people but evidence," explained Chief Ruben Garcia. "There is a variety of different K9s that are used in police work and one of those would be a K9 that is used to search for missing folks,"
K9 Blizzard is three years old, and is partnered with Sgt. Aaron Peterman. He said Blizzard is always ready to go. The basic patrol school is 480 hours, then it's off to explosive and bomb classes, and that's another 400 hours of training.
Garcia is the new police chief, appointed on February 1, but Lakeland is not a new place for him to live. He was with the department for 32 years before he started leading it.
"The police department has to be part of the fabric of the community. They can't be an occupying force in the neighborhood, they have to be in partnership with the neighborhood," he said. "We'll go a lot farther that way."