A Brief History of Mulberry, Florida

By Richard A. Fifer
Mulberry Historical Society

The history of Mulberry begins with phosphate. Phosphorus was long recognized as a vital ingredient in fertilizers, and early sources of phosphorus included bone black and bird guano. However, phosphate rock, also called phosphorite, was found to be a far richer source of phosphorus. Phosphate rock was first found in South Carolina, but, in 1880, Dr. C. A. Simmons discovered phosphate in Alachua County, Florida. The following year, J. Francis LeBaron, a civilian engineer with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, found river pebble phosphate while surveying the Peace River in south central Florida.

Florida phosphate mining began on the Peace River in 1888. At the same time, prospectors began searching westward for other sources of phosphate. In the region now called Bone Valley (because of the many fossils found in the area), prospectors discovered thick beds of phosphate rocks, covered only by twenty to fifty feet of sand and clay. Removing this "overburden," and mining the phosphate layer proved far less expensive than mining river pebble phosphate or the "hard rock" phosphate in north Florida.

Mining in Bone Valley began in 1890. A railroad, originally built to transport the lumber and turpentine produced in the region, ran through the heart of Bone Valley. A convenient location to drop off and pick up goods was a mid-point on this railway, near a large Mulberry tree. This site was centrally located among several phosphate mining companies and soon became the hub of the land pebble mining operations. A town sprang up near the Mulberry tree and naturally took the name of Mulberry.

Mulberry was a mining boom town, with all the wildness of a frontier town. Several hangings took place from the Mulberry tree and, later, the Canal Street bridge. The town grew rapidly, getting its first doctor, A. F. Fletcher, in 1895. By 1896, it was the fifth largest voting district in Polk County. Businesses to support the burgeoning phosphate mining industry came to Mulberry, and, in 1899, the Juanita Hotel opened. On February 12, 1901, Mulberry was incorporated into the Town of Mulberry.

Mulberry businesses prospered. The W. S. Badcock Corporation, now one of the nation's largest privately-owned home furniture retailers, started in Mulberry in 1904. Its national headquarters and center of operations is still located in Mulberry. The Mine & Mill Supply Company, begun in Mulberry in 1909, is one of the oldest continually operating companies in Polk County.

For the next 70 years, Mulberry, despite setbacks like the town fires of 1902, remained the center of the Bone Valley phosphate mining industry. The eponymous Mulberry tree survived until the late 1960's. Around that same time, phosphate mining began moving south, as the nearby mines were depleted.

While Mulberry is still home to many companies supporting the phosphate mining industry, Mulberry has re-invented itself. It is now home to many thriving businesses, such as Food Technology Services, Inc., and Clark Environmental, Inc. The Mosaic Company is developing Streamsong, a 16,000 acres resort, golf, and spa community south of Mulberry. Mulberry's future is bright indeed.