A historical marker designating Kathleen Middle School as a Polk County Heritage Site was installed this week at the school, which opened in 1928 as Kathleen School. In its early years, the school served students in grades 1 to 12, extending education in the Kathleen community past the eight grade for the first time.

The Kathleen School marker — the 28th one dedicated by the county — was installed in front of the 94-year old school this week after rainy weather forced Saturday's unveiling ceremony to be held in the school's gym.

Descendants of the school’s first graduating class in 1932 were among the crowd attending the unveiling ceremony of the two-sided aluminum marker that mimics the look of bronze. A brief history of the school is on one side. Names important to the school’s early history are on the other, including principal S.L. Collins Sr. and names of the first graduating class of six.

David Nall, left, and Joe Prine, right, were among the descendants of early graduates who unveiled the marker Saturday in the school gym.

Lois Sherrouse-Murphy, president of the Kathleen Area Historical Society and chair of the marker project, said a physical designation is appropriate because it fits the mission of the society to document, preserve and promote the area’s historical relevance.

“Putting a marker up educates the public about local history,” she said.

Lois Sherrouse-Murphy speaks
Lois Sherrouse-Murphy speaks at Saturday's ceremony.

One of the significant issues at that time, Sherrouse-Murphy said, was transportation. “Until that time students couldn’t go beyond the 8th grade in that part of the county,” she said. “They were impacted in their ability to perform in their careers.”

The school marked the transition from wooden construction to brick, necessitating an architect, she said.

Kathleen School is historically known as a strawberry school, or summer school, that phased out in 1952. Classes were in session April through December to allow students to harvest the strawberry crop January through March.

County Commissioner Neil Combee said at the ceremony his dad, ‘Bo’ who graduated in 1954, worked in the strawberry fields.

David Nall, the great nephew of Stephen A. Cooper, one of the first Kathleen School grads, attended the ceremony. Nall said he’s a sixth-generation Floridian who grew up “with his father farming land that dates back to a great grandfather.“

Cooper, the salutatorian of the first graduating class, benefited from a stable, long career, Sherrouse-Murphy said, “He was a was successful grocer who served as mayor of Auburndale, and was active in the Florida Retail Grocers Association,” she said.

The marker unveiling was also very personal for Darla Bridges Short, a member of the Polk County Historical Commission in district 5, and a descendant of the first graduating class. Short’s father, Glenn Bridges, is the son of a first grad, Rosemary Cox Bridges Mudge (deceased).

Prior to the unveiling, Short detailed some of the key marker topics in preserving local history that include “people, events, buildings, ethnic groups, churches, communities and cemeteries.”

The Kathleen School marker joins three other historical markers in the Kathleen Area: The Carpenters’ Home (2016) – now Lake Gibson Village; Socrum (2017) – historic community; and Kathleen Baptist Church (2021).

The school’s marker project survived several disaster delays Sherrouse-Murphy said.

“We had decided to do the marker before the tornado,” she said. “In 2019 we were working on it and after the tornado there was no way we would put a marker on the building with all the heavy equipment” needed for reconstruction, she said. “We didn’t get back into the school until 2021.”

There were also COVID-19 delays, she said.

The historical society lists Kathleen School as the third school in the historical marker program to be recognized, along with: Fruitlands Institute in Lake Alfred (2018), near the Rosenwald School site; and Union Academy (2019) in Bartow.

The Kathleen Area Historical Society, headquartered at Heritage Park in the Socrum community, 8950 N. Campbell Road, is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kahsatsocrum.

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