BARTOW, Fla. — If you’re a homeowner in DeLand or Bartow, there’s a chance your house might have a little more history than you realize. Especially if you didn’t build it yourself.
A book recently published on the life of a former slave turned successful entrepreneur might get you wondering where your house might have come from. You also might want to look to the Historic L.B. Brown House for those answers.
“Here’s an important story on when Clifton first realized this house had some real significant historical value,” author Charles Warren said as he opened the book, ‘From Slavery to Community Builder.’
Charles is the author of the book as well as a board member. He was referring to his colleague and friend Clifton Lewis, founding President of the Neighborhood Improvement Corporation of Bartow, Inc.
The important story is about a house that was almost torn down and forgotten forever.
The Historic L.B. Brown House, located at 470 L.B. Brown Ave in East Bartow, is two acres of land bought and built on by a former slave freed when he was 9 years old, Lawrence B. Brown.
But Clifton Lewis, who knew the house was old, almost missed that part in the late 80’s.
“Our nonprofit needed a place to meet and we found this home which was abandoned and ready to be torn down. I knew it was a historical home so I thought I could help restore it,” Lewis said.
The Lakeland Ledger caught wind of the restoration and did a story on it. Lawrence Brown’s only living son (he had seven children and only one grandchild) Robert Brown, who lived in New York City at the time, caught wind of it and traveled down to Florida to see who was restoring the house he grew up in. His son passed away a few years ago.
“As they were walking around the property, Brown commented to Lewis, ‘When my father built this house…’”
A stunned Lewis quickly realized there was something much bigger than both of them happening at that moment.
“If those 5 seconds hadn’t happened, we might not be sitting her today,” Warren said.
Years later thanks to extensive documentation and records kept by Lawrence Brown himself and given to Lewis and Warren by his late son, the story of L.B. Brown has much more detail.
The Story of Lawrence B. Brown
Freed from slavery when he was 9, he spent his younger years on his parent's farm near Gainesville. Around the mid 1870’s he moved to DeLand, Florida where he somehow acquired property and built at least 9 rental homes there. In the mid-1880s, as phosphate was starting to boom and people were flocking to Central Florida, he moved to Polk County. Taking what he had learned in Volusia County, it’s estimated he is responsible for at least 40 to 50 homes in East Bartow alone.
“He had the kind of personality, and he was comfortable around white people. Let’s not forget that at that time, after the Civil War, many white people did not like the idea of Blacks being free but he was able to be someone who was involved in the community, working with and doing business with both white men and Black men,” Warren said.
Besides building homes, Brown was also very handy in many other ways. He owned a business where he repaired umbrellas, silvered mirrors, dug wells and sold bibles. A lot of those artifacts can be seen at the Historic L.B. Home on display.
“Whatever there was a need for, Brown did it. He was kind of an every man,” Lewis said.
Thanks to ledgers and other materials provided by Brown’s late son, Warren and Lewis have made it their mission to make sure his story will never get lost and his impact on the community will live on for generations thanks to the book, ‘From Slavery to Community Builder.’ In it, they have published most of the documentation they have acquired to help tell his story.
The restored home is now a time capsule that showcases a man who was not only business savvy but also interested in a lot of different things.
Documents show a handwritten study Brown did after a butcher shop had opened up in Bartow. He wanted to know if it was cheaper to buy a pig from the butcher or raise his own.
“One year, two months, and 22 days is how long he had the pig,” Charles Warren said with a smile as he read Brown’s notes.
Another shows a note simply stating that his brother Joe owed him $40 and telling someone to get it from Joe and give it to his mother as well as a contract for rental,
detailing that with a $5 down payment on a rental, once the resident gets to $45, they can officially become a homeowner.
Inside the home you can find original furniture as well as donated pieces. Pictures of his family line the wall in the front hallway. An old stove still sits in the kitchen along with an old ice chest, or as we would call it these days, a refrigerator.
Outside, original water supplies still sit on the property. A pump handle and a well. There are two homes on the property that Bartow Inc. watches over with another two that are not owned by them. The property consists of the mansion and a rental home.
It’s a living picture of a time that seems not so far away these days.
“He was an example of how we should be living today, I think that should be his legacy,” Warren said
Clifton Lewis wants young people to find inspiration in Lawrence Brown’s story. A story he calls a true American story.
“Look at what L.B. Brown overcame. Born into slavery. Born into nothing. Having no formal education yet becoming a highly successful entrepreneur. That legacy for young people should say, ‘if he can do it, my God, I can do it too,’” Lewis proclaimed.
You can visit the Historic L.B. Brown House anytime and tour the grounds. To tour inside, call 863-944-6136 to schedule a walk-through. You can find more information on their website.