Bartow High School traces its institutional heritage to the one room log schoolhouse built in 1858 by pioneer Redding Blount. The community at the time was called Fort Blount after the small civilian stockade built for refuge during the Third Seminole Indian War. The primitive school served the needs of the local pioneer families. The community was also known as Peace Creek. The
first professional educator was Dr. Daniel Waldron whose salary was paid for by Blount. The advent of the War Between the States interrupted the educational pace, and brought a new name to the town. Fort Blount received its own postal service and the community was renamed Bartow. Bartow was the name chosen to honor Confederate General Francis Bartow of Georgia. He was the first high ranking officer to die in battle for the southern cause.
In 1862, Dr Waldron and most of the older male students volunteered for military service in the Confederate armies. Notwithstanding classes continued in private homes and at the school house as much as possible. That same year marked a turning point in the history of the school and community. Cattle baron Jacob Summerlin purchased the Blount’s homestead of 140 acres. Summerlin was an enterprising individual and continued to add to his fortune through blockade running. Additionally, he was quick to share his profits with fellow citizens. It is highly probable that the school’s bell, taken from an Anglo-Confederate blockade runner in the Gulf of Mexico in 1864, was the first of his many gifts to education. (That bell is now housed in a display case in the Main Office at Bartow High School.)
One year following cessation of hostilities brought on by the war, Jacob Summerlin made an extraordinary gift. In 1866, he donated 120 acres of land (comprising the present day downtown area of Bartow) to establish a county seat, churches, and a school. He personally donated cattle to insure families wouldn’t starve and donated $1100.00 dollars to build Bartow’s first two story building (housing the Masonic Lodge on the upper floor, and a school on the lower). The school was named Summerlin Institute in his honor, and attendance was by tuition.
Bartow’s population hovered at 300 until the arrival of the railroad in 1885. A boom quickly followed. Population leaped to over 2,000 and following the sale of the original Summerlin School lands, it generated funds needed to commence building a new school. The new Summerlin Institute was a substantial building with a large tower. It was heralded as the only brick “school house” south of Jacksonville. The cornerstone was laid by Jacob Summerlin and the local Masonic Order, with an August ceremony on “Summerlin Day” May 12, 1887. As this was to be a free public institution Bartow High School recognizes the 1887 commencement as its birth. Besides teaching youth the school also housed a Teacher’s Academy to train educators.
At the same time, as the new Summerlin Institute began, Bartowans not unmindful of segregation, met the educational needs of the African American by establishing two additional schools. J.A. Wiley’s Colored Institute coupled with the First Providence Missionary Baptist Church filled the gap. The church school was later known as the Brittsville School. In 1893, leading African American citizens petitioned the City of Bartow for a new school. The Odd Fellows Hall was rented as the school site until a new building was completed in 1897. This school consisted of four large classrooms and boasted an enrollment of 120 pupils. Named Union Academy this school opened on September 14, 1897. The day marked the beginning of a new era for the African American community. Union Academy was named for the fourth African American school in Florida, founded in 1867 by the Freedmen’s Bureau, following the Civil War in Gainesville.
Summerlin Institute continued to grow as well, and in 1902 the upper grades moved into a new facility east of the 1887 structure. In 1917, city growth prompted another move to the site of present day Bartow Elementary Academy, creating a full campus of grades one through twelve.
Enrollment continued to climb in both schools, Union Academy and Summerlin Institute, forcing the addition of satellite school rooms at Union Academy. In 1923, a longtime dream was fulfilled by the Academy’s addition of a secondary department, bringing it to high school status. The year 1928 witnessed Polk County’s first African American high school graduate. The next year the original Union Academy was razed and a new centralized elementary, junior and senior high campus was built on East Wabash Street.
Keeping pace with the growing city necessitated the need for another additional school building. Land once incorporated as part of the South Florida Military College was selected for the site of the new Summerlin Institute. The old military school was a state college that existed from 1895 to 1905 and was one of several colleges amalgamated to form the University of Florida.
The early decades of the twentieth century rounded out the complement of high school activities; such as, the inception of football, baseball, & basketball for boys and girls. This was the beginnings of winning traditions. In addition, English, Mathematics, and Science departments increased. Vocational courses were added, quickly followed by formation of the band, chorus, and academic teams.
The post World War II boom was the catalyst for additional improvements. The 1950s realized the completion of the Bartow Memorial Stadium, more classrooms, and a gymnasium.
The 1964, Civil Rights Act mandated desegregation in public schools and in the fall of 1969 students from Union Academy were transferred to Summerlin Institute. Union Academy became Golfview Junior High.
Since the early 1900’s, Summerlin Institute had been unofficially called “Bartow High School” and in a show of unity, the diplomas for the 1971 graduating class were changed to reflect the new name. Summerlin Institute’s and Union Academy’s proud heritage then passed to Bartow High School.
The addition of the International Baccalaureate School in 1995 is further testimony to the Bartow community’s goal of excellence in scholarship. In the fall of 2005, Bartow High incorporated a military “school within a school,” entitled Summerlin Academy, echoing the heritage of Bartow’s first schools.
A tangible link displaying over a hundred years of the school’s rich heritage is the annual ringing of the ancient “Summerlin Bell” at graduation. It’s tolling is a reminder of our rich past and a commencement to a productive future.
Bartow High School’s commitment to provide the very best in education is evidenced by a host of alumni achieving local, state, and national prominence, further inspiring students to achieve any goal in life.