By Charles Nelson
Unquestionably, Henry Plant’s railroad put Tampa on the map in 1884. That railroad also ran through the small town of Cork in eastern Hillsborough County. One year later, Cork was incorporated and appropriately renamed Plant City. In 1911, a new Plant County, with Plant City as its county seat, was proposed—again honoring the man whom one magazine named as ‘the King of Florida.’
Wait a minute! Plant County? That’s not on any list of the 67 Florida counties! True, but in 1911, there was ample reason to believe that a few, well-heeled Plant City boosters might be successful in creating a new Plant County out of the vast expanse of rural eastern Hillsborough County.
In 1911, progressive-leaning members of Plant City’s Board of Trade were encouraged by the successful five-year effort to create a separate Pinellas County. They were very sympathetic to national ‘Good Government’ ideas of smaller, more efficient governmental units. As a result, these men petitioned the Legislature to create three counties out of the existing Hillsborough County. From this idea, a new Plant County would arise in the eastern third of Hillsborough County along with Pinellas in the west.
Plant County would include 540 square miles and a population of 9,625 people, ranking 32nd in the state in 1911. Pasco, Polk and Manatee Counties would serve as the northern, eastern and southern borders. The western boundary would be drawn in a straight, north/south line just east of the towns of Mango and Limona (near today’s Providence Road in Brandon).
The plan’s major flaw (which likely doomed the idea from the start) was that the new county would embolden Plant City’s political and economic dominance of the region. Opponents included rural farmers and ranchers who feared rising taxes necessary to offset the exorbitant costs of building government infrastructure in downtown Plant City.
One ‘anti-divisionist’ meeting involved 200 Woodmen of the World picnic-goers who gathered at Sydney to unanimously pass a resolution opposing the creation of the new county. Opponents, such as these, were delighted when the Florida House of Representatives defeated the bill authorizing the new county in May 1911.
In March 1921, a larger group of Plant City-based businessmen proposed a new bill to the Legislature. This time they proposed the creation of an even bigger Plant County with a population that would exceed 20,000. Proponents argued that Plant County would become the richest of Florida’s interior counties. They believed that the time was right for separation from ‘Mother Hillsborough.’
Again, there was stiff rural opposition. ‘Anti-divisionist’ factions met in Brandon, Valrico and in Plant City to sign petitions against the creation of the new county. To emphasize their objection, they adopted a new slogan: “It’s a Long Way to Plant City” sung to the tune of the popular wartime song: “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary.”
Plant City organizers quickly realized their petition would never survive a plebiscite by rural, eastern Hillsborough residents. To counter this likely loss, proponents insisted on a vote of ALL Hillsborough County voters. In this election scheme, the ‘pro-divisionists’ believed they could entice Tampa area voters to the ‘yes’ column with promises of better local control. They also assumed that they could convince Latin voters to support the new county effort in a bloc ‘yes’ vote, increasing Latin influence in a much smaller Hillsborough County.
This voting plan, though abandoned, didn’t even matter as Florida Legislators showed little appetite for creating new counties. Rising concerns among North Florida legislators, based on the notion that new members, from newly created South Florida counties, would seriously threaten northern Legislators stranglehold on legislative power. As a result, the Legislature did not consider a new Plant County.
There were weaker efforts to revive the Plant County plan in 1925, 1958 and 1971. They, too, failed to gain any traction, and the idea of a Plant County faded into history.