LoveLakeland’s April 2022 CityMaker

Stacy Smith

By Jonathan Camargo

Pictured: CREATE at Catapult, Gillian Fazio

For all of life, a name follows us. On birthdays, it’s written in colorful frosting. At graduation, it’s shouted from the bleachers and nosebleeds. On our graves, it’s etched into stone accompanied by a start and end date. Between those two dates lies a solitary dash, a brief summation of our life’s work and accomplishments concentrated to the form of a single character.

How we choose to live every day is another chapter in the story of the dash we leave behind. Though this life is anything but guaranteed, perhaps our words, our actions, and our love for one another will live on, immortalized by the human spirit in which we all share.

Our February 2020 Lakeland CityMaker is a storyteller, keeping our town’s dash alive, lest the tales of yesteryear be forgotten.

The Gardens

On any given day, the banks of Lake Mirror are spotted with friends and families taking full advantage of the Central Florida lifestyle we’ve so luckily been afforded. Walkers, joggers, and the occasional flock of ducks share the sidewalk, flanked by the promenade, the newly opened Joinery, and Barnett Family Park. 

Just a few strides away lies one of Lakeland’s premier picture-taking destinations: a lakefront botanical garden that shares the name of one of our community’s most charitable families.

Opened in 2000, Hollis Garden is home to a variety of exotic plants, fauna, and neoclassical architecture. From the koi ponds to the centerpiece fountain, the garden is popular among Lakeland residents and tourists alike.

Much of what can be seen at the garden today is thanks to former foreman, resident historian, and plant enthusiast Stacy Smith.

Stacy is a lifelong Lakeland resident. Although he’s travelled across the world, he’s always come back, typically with a story or two to share with all those willing to lend a listening ear.

An Individual’s Impact

Stacy started working for the city in 1987. A 17-year-old at the time, it was with youthful vigor and a passion for plants that he was drawn to Lakeland’s rose gardens. Here, he tended to some of our town’s finest flowers, though working for the city often took him elsewhere.

Among the many hats he’s worn in our community, Stacy has done everything from landscaping to working in the city nursery, but there’s always been one common element following him wherever life seems to take him: his unwilted, and unrelenting, love for plants. 

As a child, Stacy knew he wanted to be a farmer when he grew up. In present day, he’s now living his childhood dream, albeit it in a slightly different fashion.

You can look in nearly every direction of our city and see where Stacy’s had a hand in shaping the beauty of our ecological environment, but no one place stands out more than Hollis Garden where he worked for 19 years. 

“I’ve gotten to grow plants for the city that were, in a lot of cases, rare,” Stacy shared. “When I say that, I don’t want to give too much away, but we have a frankincense tree in Hollis Garden and that’s one of the rarest things you can get in the United States.”

Among the multitude of other greenery at the garden are dragon’s blood trees from the Aztec religion and tree-grown fruit that tastes just like peanut butter, to name a few. If you were to visit, however, you may notice that none of the plants at the garden are named.

“We don’t put labels on things because we don’t want things disappearing, but we’re there for information,” Stacy explained.

Although Stacy is no longer the foreman of Hollis Garden, his legacy lives on in the plants he carefully tended to for the years he spent therein.

Hidden History

Nearly 10 years ago, Stacy received an email from Lakeland Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Pam Page. She shared with him an article about cities finding creative ways of making money for their departments.

Stacy, still the foreman of Hollis Garden at the time, was already giving tours of the garden, where he received donations that fed directly into Hollis’ perpetual care fund. Connecting the dots, Stacy’s curiosity grew outside the scope of the garden’s 1.2 acres.

“There were some interesting things I found out about Lake Mirror and the history of it, and then the history of our town. The more I looked into it, the more I found, and it made quite a story.”

“There were some interesting things I found out about Lake Mirror and the history of it, and then the history of our town. The more I looked into it, the more I found, and it made quite a story.”

Stacy pitched the idea of a guided historical tour to management, who greenlighted his plans. Although the tours are facilitated by the city of Lakeland, much of the research and groundwork is done by Stacy himself.

“I spent about five years digging through the archives at the Lakeland library and the library over in Bartow,” Stacy said. “I got some information from Tallahassee, and I even went to the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, which is where all the Abraham Munn and John Morton stuff is located.”

Kentucky businessman Abraham Munn and his brother-in-law, John Morton, are credited as the founders of Lakeland. They each purchased land here in 1882, although it was only during a game of cribbage when they realized they had purchased their acreage directly adjacent to one another.

“They get credit for founding the town,” Stacy shared. “But they never lived here.”

On his tours, Stacy dresses up in a makeshift Victorian-era costume, transporting that day’s audience back in time over a hundred years, all the while telling the story of our town in a way it’s never been told before.

Our Not-So-Distant Past

Lakeland was originally slated to be the Central Florida boomtown as all roads led back to here. It’s for this reason that Lakeland was nearly named “Rome City”. 

For a time, we shared our space with a rival town: Acton. Located on the southern side of Lake Parker, Acton had its own railroad depot, which Lakeland – at the time – did not. Under yet-to-be-determined circumstances, the depot burnt down and the town went into steady decline until it disappeared completely in 1906. 

Over the years, many stories have been told about this town in which we live. From a goat wandering into City Hall, eating 119 pages of city ordinances, to Lake Mirror’s very own “Blinky” the alligator, Lakeland has been shaped by the tales of its past. Even the explosion of Krakatoa in 1883 played a role in our town’s history, with the volcano’s ashy clouds decimating our citrus crop for years thereafter.

Without taking a step back, it’s hard to see just how much our small town has changed since its incorporation. In 2020, we’re richer in history than we’ve ever been, yet we’ve only scratched the surface.

A Path Less Traveled

Although Lakeland’s draw is immeasurable, Stacy’s embarked on many a trip elsewhere. His first time on a plane was to Costa Rica to attend the International Orchid Show. For background, there’s about 70 species of orchid that grow in Florida. In Costa Rica, 70 species of orchid can be found on one tree alone.

Since that first trip, Stacy’s visited Petra (the “Lost City” from the Indiana Jones franchise), the Philippines, South Africa, and even San Luis Potosí, a sparsely visited city located in Central Mexico. He doesn’t always travel to find rare plants and fauna, but it’s guaranteed that he’s got an eye on the horizon (and the ground) for whatever he may find.

Stacy follows the traveler’s code, taking nothing but photos and leaving nothing but footprints, yet his words, memories, and knowledge traverse every border he’s crossed – even that of time.

“Maybe I’m just a storyteller,” Stacy said. “When I was traveling back in the day, I would see these amazing things, but how do you come back and get someone to understand that? You have to explain it to them.”

In Lakeland, his expertise on telling our town’s story is much more than just appreciated. This year, the Lake Mirror Historic Tour is already fully booked through the month of June.

“There’s nothing awesome about me. There just isn’t, sorry,” Stacy shared with a laugh. “It’s mind-boggling to me. [The tour’s] been going on for almost 8 years now and they’re always packed.”

It’s the high standard that Stacy holds himself and his tours to that sets our town apart. In his current role as a city foreman, Stacy travels the city breathing new life into areas of our town that need it most. Although his passion for plants is persistent, it’s his storytelling nature that ultimately brings our community closer together.

“I like people to understand me,” Stacy said. “And I think that’s why I tell stories.”

Lake Mirror Historic Tours are offered every 4th Tuesday of the month after dark.
You can get more information here:
Lake Mirror Historic Tours