photography by mike potThast
From Cypress Gardens to the first settlers, the Bob Gernert Jr. Museum of Winter Haven History aims to preserve the city’s history. As a curator of the museum, Gernert brings to life the city’s most memorable moments.

“You will get a great appreciation for what this community values, from its natural resources in our lakes to our natural resources in our children,” says Bob Gernert, the volunteer curator of the Bob Gernert Jr. Museum of Winter Haven History and 50-year resident of Winter Haven.

A Winter Haven historian, Gernert preserves the city’s story through the museum. The pink historic building, situated on Lake Howard, is hard to miss. Built by the Woman’s Club, the structure is now home to memorabilia dating as far back as the Civil War. From a Civil War horse saddle to a room dedicated to Cypress Gardens — the museum proudly boasts the city’s story.

The museum was named in honor of Gernert upon his retirement, having served 18 years as executive director of the Winter Haven Chamber of Commerce. The highlights of his tenure included community visioning efforts, working to save Cypress Gardens and welcoming LEGOLAND to the site, and advocacy for the CSX intermodal terminal. Prior to serving in the Chamber, he worked in public relations.

“You will get a great appreciation for what this community values, from its natural resources in our lakes to our natural resources in our children.”

Gernert  got his break in public relations while working at Lakeland Regional Health. A position opened in the community relations department, and he applied. “I spent time with the people who published the newsletter, and I really enjoyed that. I was in the right place at the right time, and they decided to give me a shot at working in community relations,” he says. For the next 10 years, Gernert grew the department into public relations and marketing.

Without any formal training in public relations, he joined the Florida Public Relations Association (FPRA) in 1978 to learn all that he could about the field. It didn’t take long for him to go on to become the president of the local Dick Pope/Polk County chapter, followed by serving as the state treasurer, president and, eventually, the executive director.

Now retired, Gernert dedicates his time to sharing the city’s history through tours in the Museum of Winter Haven History. Walking around the museum, he brings life to the antique pictures hanging on the walls. The photographs highlight the city’s most prominent figures, including its earliest settlers, F.A.K. and Adelle Harris, who moved to the city in the 1880s, building the first residence and commercial structure within city limits. Peter and Anna Eycleshimer named the city Winter Haven believing people would recognize it as a place with a pleasant climate. The city incorporated in 1911.

Many of the pictures in the museum highlight the Florence Villa Hotel, first owned by Frederick and Florence Inman who had moved south to a warmer climate for Florence’s health. They purchased the land where Spring Lake Shopping Center currently sits, adding to their home until it became a 120-bed hotel. Following Frederick’s death, Florence’s sister Mary Jewett came to live with her. Although rare for the time, Jewett was a doctor. She founded the Woman’s Club where the museum is now housed. Her notable work included efforts for the African American community as she fought for sanitary conditions and schools for their children. Later the schools were named in her honor.

The museum’s photographs also highlight the highs and lows of the city, including the real estate boom of the 1920s. From 1920 to 1926, the city experienced a growth spurt through real estate. Traveling by trains, people came to purchase real estate, paying only $99.75 to stay for eight days and seven nights in the city. “When the real estate market got really hot and real estate was way overpriced for what you were getting, the bottom fell out. A lot of people were financially ruined; the city was financially overextended as well,” says Gernert.

It was during that time that George Jenkins moved to Florida to make his fortune selling real estate. Instead, he soon found himself working at a Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Winter Haven. Over time, garnering a new perspective of how to sell groceries, Jenkins opened his own grocery store and rented the space currently occupied by the Tempo 1930 restaurant. That first Publix store opened in 1930, stocked with groceries from a warehouse in Lakeland. “In 1941, he opened a new store — one he designed from the ground up — that featured such novel ideas as air conditioning and electric-eye doors. He would soon buy a chain of ‘All American’ stores and that Lakeland warehouse, which explains their corporate location today,” says Gernert.

Although Jenkins eventually moved Publix’s headquarters to the neighboring city, he remained in Winter Haven during the 1940s and served as the president of the Winter Haven Chamber in 1948. “He was a very generous man. I feel very fortunate to have met him three or four times during my life. He was just a really interesting and humble person and a grocery merchandising visionary,” says Gernert.

One of the highlights of the museum is a room dedicated to Cypress Gardens, an iconic Florida tourist attraction founded by Dick and Julie Pope. “Mr. Pope moved here in 1912 when he was 12 years old and graduated from Winter Haven High School in 1917 in the third graduating class. He was a promising semi-pro golfer and made quite a name for himself along the way. He met Julie when he was off playing a tournament,” says Gernert.

The Popes were living in New York when the stock market crashed. They moved back to Florida, not knowing what to do, when Dick Pope read an article about a man in South Carolina making a profit by charging people 25 cents to see his beautiful gardens. “So they supposedly talked it over and flipped a coin. And the decision was that they were going to open Cypress Gardens,” says Gernert.

Pope initially proposed Cypress Gardens as public gardens that he would manage. The park officially opened on January 2, 1936. “He was absolutely a brilliant promoter, arguably the best that ever practiced in Florida. He went on to tremendous fame and fortune with the park,” says Gernert. Due to his success, the Florida Public Relations Association’s local chapter is named in his honor.

A picture of the Popes at the height of the garden’s success is included in the museum. “Forty-five million people came to Cypress Gardens. Many people across the country and the world were very familiar with the park due in no small part to Mr. Pope’s promotional skills. He took the ski show on the road around the world as his ‘portable advertisement.’ It became a calling card for Winter Haven,” says Gernert.

Early in his career, Pope made many connections with newsreel companies. In the latter part of the 1940s, they filmed commercials at the Gardens, as many as nine a day. He was building rapport and connections in Hollywood. Pope garnered enough publicity to convince MGM to film a water-based musical, Easy to Love, about the gardens starring Esther Williams and Van Johnson. The museum houses a hand-painted jacket from the movie.

For their efforts throughout their lifetimes, Dick and Julie Pope were both awarded the community’s coveted Banker’s Cup Citizen of the Year award.

The park closed in 2003 due to a decade-long decline in attendance. “I was fortunate to work with Dick Pope Jr. He became very active in trying to save the park, and fortunately for us, the state, county, and a new owner named Kent Buescher stepped forward and through a creative arrangement, temporarily prevented closure. Part of the solution involved the county buying the original botanical gardens, lakefront, and Snively mansion. The park struggled following the hurricanes of 2004 and closed again in 2008. In January 2010, Merlin Entertainments announced LEGOLAND Florida would be created on the 120 acres surrounding the original gardens,” says Gernert.

Now retired, Gernert dedicates his time to sharing the city’s history through tours in the Museum of Winter Haven History. Walking around the museum, he brings life to the antique pictures hanging on the walls.

Serving as the executive director of the Winter Haven Chamber, Gernert was highly involved in welcoming LEGOLAND to Winter Haven. “Cypress Gardens closed, and we worked to preserve the site from 2004 until 2010 when LEGOLAND stepped in. If we had not taken the time to secure the park and protect the land as it had existed, LEGOLAND would have never had the opportunity to open their park here.

“Make no mistake, LEGOLAND Florida is the best thing that ever happened to Cypress Gardens. We wouldn’t have Cypress Gardens if it was not for LEGOLAND,” says Gernert. “I think Mr. Pope would be wildly ecstatic that each year two million people are coming to his beloved Cypress Gardens site.”

For his work in the Winter Haven community, Gernert received three keys to the city, had a day named after him, and, in 2015, received the prestigious Bankers Cup. “For me, for a Winter Havenite, it’s the highest honor you can get,” says Gernert. “This community has been very good to me and my family. I’ve had the good fortune of always having work that I love. And I want to emphasize I couldn’t have done what I have done in my career if it weren’t for my wife, Melea. She is my North Star.”

The Museum of Winter Haven History

Located at 660 Pope Avenue NW

Open October through May

Saturdays, 9 a.m. to noon

Tours of four or more are available year round.

Contact Bob Gernert at bobgernert@gmail.com or

call 863-206-6855.