You might call it a twist of fate — for all of the parties involved.
The late Lakeland developer John E. Melton, who has descendants living in Trilby; the once-heralded Publix Theatre Corporation; and George Jenkins, founder of Publix supermarket, all have a connection to the widely known supermarket’s chain name.
Publix now has 1,300 locations, operating in seven states, with 225,000 employees.
Of course, Publix also has cooking schools, corporate offices, grocery distribution centers and manufacturing facilities.
It is the largest employee-owned company in the United States.
But have you ever heard how Publix got its name?
John E. Melton, who was a prominent Lakeland businessman, had developments including Cleveland Heights and the 18-hole golf course and country club adjoining Lakeland.
He was the first to plan a multipurpose building anchored by a grand movie palace in Polk County, according to a published history of the Polk Theatre, in Lakeland.
At the time, about 15,000 people lived in Lakeland, which was a predominantly rural community.
It turns out that the timing of John E. Melton’s project wasn’t great.
Florida’s economic bubble burst around 1926 and the developer sold his unfinished building to Publix Theatres Corporation in 1928.
Publix Theatres was the movie group that at one point operated 19 opulent theaters in Florida, according to a report in The Palm Beach Post.
Many of the Publix Theaters ended up closing their doors at a time when borrowing money became nearly impossible.
John E. Melton had experienced the same kind of problems.
The name that had been used by the theater company that purchased his theater ended up being the name that Publix supermarkets would adopt.
Hannah Herring, a media relations manager for Publix told The Laker/Lutz News:
“Mr. (George) Jenkins had an admiration for the name of Publix.”
In a speech on file as a “Florida Memory” at the state library in Tallahassee, and later published as The Publix Story, Jenkins himself explains, “…I liked the sound of the name so I just took it for my store.”
Much of the history of Publix is preserved at its Lakeland headquarters, in Jenkins’ old office, which has been preserved from the 1970s. His original Rolodex is there, as are his eyeglasses. There are receipts from the first transactions after Publix installed ATMs in 1982. There are copies of the first prescriptions written when pharmacies were added to the Publix stores in 1986.
Perhaps the largest historic exhibit there is the 4,200-pound safe that belonged to Jenkins’ grandfather, dating back to 1873.
There are also Publix shopping carts, from the 1940s.
While Publix supermarket would go on to create a sizable presence in the grocery industry, the Melton family has a legacy of its own.
John E. Melton’s son, “Jack” Melton III moved to Trilby, in northeast Pasco, to grow watermelons.
He and his four sons and his daughter created a ranch and farm operation that expanded to include a cow/calf operation, working quarter-horses, citrus crops and seed harvesting.
The family continued to assemble acreage through the years, growing their enterprise to 1,500 acres.
Steve Melton, the grandson of John E. Melton, created his own kind of attraction: Melton’s Machinery Museum, a free museum featuring antique agricultural tools and equipment.
With its array of diverse artifacts, the agriculture museum aims to keep alive the history of the agrarian way of life.
Doug Sanders has a penchant for unearthing interesting stories about local history. His sleuthing skills have been developed through his experiences in newspaper and government work. If you have an idea for a future history column, contact Doug at .
Published on June 28, 2023.