Front Page Brewing grand opening

Johnnie Levin, co-founder and co-owner of Front Page Brewing Co. in downtown Bartow, hands a pair of beverages to a customer March 14. Her husband Bill Levin, the brewery's other co-founder and co-owner, stands behind her to the right.

In 1908, one of Bartow’s newspapers announced the opening of Dial and Read’s Livery Stable, in what is now the 100 block of South Florida Avenue.

In that era, there were as many as three competing newspapers published at the same time in Bartow, which had a population of about 3,000.

As the horseless carriage replaced the horse as the preferred form of transportation, the name of Dial and Read’s Livery Stable was changed to Read’s Garage, arguably an example of the highest and best use for the building.

In the ensuing years, it was home to at least two auto dealerships, including a Buick agency where my parents bought a car in 1954. Highest and best use once again.

Still later, it became a furniture store.

While home from the Army in early 1964 to attend my grandfather’s funeral, I overheard a member of the staff of The Polk County Democrat, which then was located in the Record Building, say she was going down the street to “the new building.”

This was the first I learned that Frisbie Publishing Co. had purchased the former livery stable/ garage/ auto dealership/ furniture store five years earlier as the future home of The Democrat. That same day, I learned that a few months earlier, as Granddad’s health was failing, I had been named vice-president of the publishing company.

Starting at 5 a.m. on a Saturday morning in 1964, a few weeks after I was discharged from the active Army and returned home to join the newspaper staff, we moved the furniture and printing equipment (except for the outdated press, which we replaced with a larger, faster press in the “new” building) to 190 South Florida Ave., two blocks east of the Record Building.

In 2006, Mary and I sold the company, which by then was publishing four papers in Bartow, Fort Meade and Lake Wales. The sale date fulfilled my goal of keeping The Democrat in ownership of four generations of our family for 75 years.

A few years later, The Democrat office was moved to Winter Haven, and The Democrat name quietly faded into oblivion.

Last year, the Democrat building, as it is still commonly known, was bought by Johnnie Levin, who, with her husband, Bill, set out to convert it into a microbrewery.

In the course of the extensive renovation, they found two horseshoes, survivors of the livery stable that occupied the premises a century before.

Earlier this month, the Front Page Brewery opened to a capacity crowd, which included 10 former employees of The Democrat, including Mary and me.

The opening came just in time to beat the ordered closure as part of the coronavirus precautions.

I have been asked many times how I felt about “our” newspaper plant being converted into a brewery. My response: as with prior changes in use of the building, it once again has been put to its highest and best use.

The pressroom that once produced newspapers that sold for a nickel apiece now produces very tasty beer that sells for $5 a glass and up.

(S. L. Frisbie is retired. At the grand opening, several former employees of The Democrat told him that if he had brewed beer in the building, they never would have left.)