During its first six years, Polk County had no official county seat. The 1861 legislation creating the county directed voters to select a courthouse site. In fact, the legislation went so far as to name the county seat-to-be "Reidsville," possibly after Sam Reid, an early surveyor of the Peace River valley. In 1862 cattle baron Jacob Summerlin purchased the site of Ft. Blount on the Peace River and donated land for schools, churches, and a courthouse. The name Reidsville was abandoned for that of General Francis S. Bartow, recently killed at the first battle of Manassas, one of the first Confederates of high rank to die in the Civil War. Bartow, nicknamed "City of Oaks and Azaleas," has remained the county seat through the present day.
Longtime court official Bill Ruster has compiled a detailed history of the court system in Polk County, including its several courthouses. According to Mr. Ruster, the contract for the first official courthouse was awarded in 1867 to John A. McAulay. The building was constructed of hand-hewed, unpainted timbers and cost $3,800. A second structure was erected in 1883-4 on the site of the present historic courthouse. The original was sold for $100 and hauled away, while the new structure, built by J. H. Thompson, cost $9,000. The most memorable feature of the 1884 courthouse, shown here, is probably its church-like steeple. This building was replaced in 1908-9. Designed in the Classical Revival style by E. C. Hosford, and built by Mutual Construction Co. Of Louisville at a cost of $83,900, the third courthouse is still in use as a museum and historical library. East and west wings were added in 1926.
Some court functions continued in the historic courthouse until around 1995. However, prior to that time most business had been removed, first to the nearby Hall of Justice and then to the present ten-story courthouse, situated across the street from the historic courthouse. The Hall of Justice opened in 1960 and was in use by the courts until 1987. In that year a separate $31 million judicial complex was opened and the Hall of Justice was turned over to the Sheriff. Unfortunately the new courthouse soon gained infamy for the numerous construction and design problems that forced its abandonment for several years. During this period the county and circuit courts sat in a renovated department store several blocks north of the judicial complex.