No. Not the ballet.
About 60 miles from where I live is the town of Lakeland, Florida. Its a pretty place, more of a small city these days situated about 40 miles east of Tampa on the way to Disney.
Settlement began in 1870 and the town was incorporated in 1884. The population increased during the expansion of the railroads in the state and the city was used to train troops during the Spanish American War. Growth continued to have its ups and downs over the years and today it’s a medium sized city with all the expected amenities, educational facilities, occasional political drama, diverse population and a location convenient to :area attractions” – meaning everything Disney.
And of course it has lakes. Lots of lakes. And in the middle of downtown sits Lake Morton.
Lake Morton is the home of Lakeland’s swans. One can sit on the shore of Lake Morton and watch over 70 white mute swans tranquilly floating along with three other species of swans who make their home there.
“The earliest records of swans in Lakeland date back to 1923 when mature swans and their young lived along the city’s lakes. They were referred to as the “people’s pets,” maintained and looked after by local residents. Even then, the marriage of the swans and this land o’ lakes appeared a fitting arrangement. In fact, it was often the lakes and their swans that drew many a visitor to the city. Yet within a few decades, due to illness and predators (primarily the less-than-friendly alligators), one by one the swans began to disappear. By 1953, the final pair of Lakeland’s swans had quietly vanished. Though the swans weren’t technically city property, still all of Lakeland felt the loss.”
At the time, one Robert Pickhardt was in the military and assigned to a base in England where he lived with his wife. They had lived in Lakeland prior to Robert’s military service and were heartbroken that the last swans had disappeared. Both of them would spend time on the banks of the river Thames, watching the royal swans, protected by the Queen, gliding by and thinking of home.
The question popped into their heads. Would the Queen be willing to make a gift of two swans to the city of Lakeland? She has so many! Mrs. Pickhardt wrote the letter to Buckingham Palace, asking the Queen to donate a pair of her swans to their home city which now had none.
Within a short time, a surprise letter from the Palace. The Queen wrote back. She would be happy to grant Mrs. Pickhardt’s request and contribute a pair of her royal swans to the City of Lakeland — on one condition. The city would need to pay for the crating and shipping required to transport the swans overseas. The total cost would be $300.
With nothing but a moderate shipping fee and an importation license standing between Lakeland and the opportunity to gain, not just any swans, but a pair of Her Majesty’s royal swans, Mrs. Pickhardt proceeded to pursue the permit, and the City of Lakeland worked to raise the minimum shipping costs.
While Lakeland was trying to raise the $300 however, St. Pete and Orlando put in competing bids for the royal swans. In the nick of time the City of Lakeland received a charitable donation from a Mrs. Randle Pomeroy. Mrs. Pomeroy had spent a mere three days in Lakeland the year prior and had adored the scenic lakes and peaceful wildlife of the city. When Mrs. Pomeroy heard of the loss of Lakeland’s swans and the attempt to gain the Queen’s swans by competing cities, she sent a $300 check to cover the costs and restore swans to Lakeland.
“With Mrs. Pomeroy’s gracious donation, the swans could finally prepare for their trip across the ocean. But, just as the final arrangements were being made, a barge sank in London’s Thames River, home to the royal pair. The birds were left covered in oil and would have to be thoroughly washed before any travels, and their departure was delayed until the following year. By the time the birds were ready in December of 1956, Mrs. Pickhardt’s importation license had expired and another would have to be issued, creating yet another delay.”
“By February 7, 1957, Mrs. Pickhardt’s importation license was reissued, the birds were (mostly) clean and healthy, and that Thursday morning edition of The Ledger reported the pair was expected to arrive in Lakeland the following Saturday morning.” On February 9, 1957, Riddle Airlines arrived at Drane Field Airport. Landing at exactly 8:55 a.m., all of Lakeland’s dignitaries were there to welcome the crated pair of mute white swans. After the five-and-a half- month-long effort to bring the Queen’s swans to Lakeland, the large feathery birds with “long yellow beaks and fancy black patterns around their eyes,” as The Ledger first described them, were escorted to their home on Lake Morton and encased in wired cage.
The next morning, the Sunday headline reported “The City’s Royal Swans Are Settled in New Home on Lake Morton.” Though, come Sunday morning, much to readers’ surprise, this appeared inaccurate. By Sunday morning, the swans were nowhere to be found. Before the dawn broke through the foggy air, the swans had broken free from their caged pen and flew off to explore the other nearby lakes.
Helicopters and crews were soon combing the lakes for swans. Soon the female came back on her own and settled in to Lake Morton but the male was no where to be found. Firefighters in paddle boats searched every lake while the female was captured and returned to her modified cage to ensure she wouldn’t escape again.
Four days later the male was spotted hanging around his caged love and he too was captured – his bachelor days now over.
Today, some 70 swans, no longer confined to wired cages, occupy the lakes throughout the city. Lakeland’s Park and Recreation Department is staffed to care specifically after these birds on a daily basis. No longer the people’s pets, they are now, in essence, the city’s pets. All of the white mute swans are descendants of the Queen’s royal swans, sent by the Palace to Lakeland.
With daily care and yearly checkups, the city’s pets really are, as most pets, like family. At the Annual Swan Roundup, (which occurred last week) each bird is examined and its health recorded. Each swan has its own file, tracking their weight and any ailments, and identifying each family of swans. In addition, every swan is microchipped and tracked. No more disappearing swans.
The biggest health problem the swans face is getting too fat. Life on the lake is good,
Little did a young Queen know that she was endowing a small town in Florida with an irreplaceable icon for the city. If you’re ever in the neighborhood, park your car by the library and walk to the lake. Bring your camera.