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After Work: Looking For The Past

Drive out past Florida’s condos and the super-size oceanfront mansions. Past the beaches. Past the water parks. Past the strip malls’ neon. The pawnshops. The tattoo parlors. The franchise fast food restaurants. You’ll have to go beyond the gated communities where one entrance has more fountains, more waterfalls and just plain more than the next…

Then you’re in cattle country.

Dona Gibbs tells us what goes on in the heartland of the Sunshine State.

For more of Dona’s sunny columns please visit After Work in the menu on this page.

If most newcomers down here were asked to use “history” and “Florida” in the same sentence, they’d answer with a disbelieving chortle. Or at best smugly reply, “Florida has no history.”

They’d be wrong, of course.

To find it you have to get past the condos and the super-size oceanfront mansions. Past the beaches. Past the water parks. Past the strip malls’ neon. The pawnshops. The tattoo parlors. The franchise fast food restaurants. You’ll have to go beyond the gated communities where one entrance has more fountains, more waterfalls and just plain more than the next.

Yes, there’s another Florida you have to seek out.

Florida is cattle country. That’s right. There are four million acres of pasture and one million acres of gazed woodlands. From the Florida Turnpike you can see a glimpse or two of cows that have sought the shelter of a massive live oak tree. This, while you’re speeding along to Disney World, the other Florida.

Today Florida cattle ranches are cow-calf operations where cows (both beef and dairy) are bred and their offspring shipped off out of state, but the Florida cattle business has had a long colorful history.

Juan Ponce de Leon claimed Florida for Spain upon his arrival in 1513 and returned in 1521 to establish a settlement. He brought with him several Andalucia cows and Barb horses. Soon after the unloading of the cows and horses from the small caravels, he and his party were met by Calusa Indians and an unwelcoming rain of arrows. The Spaniards fled; Ponce de Leon with a fatal arrow in his side.

The cattle and horses stayed, much to the delight of the Calusa -- who let the cows roam free and hunted them like deer. No doubt, they found hunting easier astride the tough little horses the Spaniards had also put ashore.

The cattle and horses that survived the heat, the insects and the scrubby land are some of the oldest European artefacts. And their descendants are alive and walking around, albeit in parks and private conservancies.

Now we come to the time of the Florida Cracker. Be careful where and when you call somebody a “cracker.” It can be an insult. It can be affectionate. It can be a label of regional pride. Like some other loaded words. I wouldn’t call anyone a “cracker” myself but if a ten-generation cattleman wants to call himself a “cracker”, it’s fine with me. I’m not about to argue with a cattleman. I wouldn’t call him a cowboy either. In Florida they say it takes a man, not a boy, to raise cattle.

Shakespeare used “cracker” to describe a loudmouth. Others trace the word to cracked corn, the food of poverty. That’s where the pejorative takes hold of the word. The cattlemen say the word derives from the 10-foot whip the cowmen brandished to drive the cattle. They cracked the whip while riding their “cracker” ponies in the company of their “cracker” herd dogs, who are said to have controlled errant cows by grabbing their ears.

But a word to the wise, be careful when you call someone a “cracker”, especially up around the north Florida-Georgia border. It has racist overtones – and undertones.

Through the mid-1800s there was plenty of whip cracking. In 1840 over 30,000 cows were driven to Punta Rassa, south of Tampa. During the Civil War 50,000 head were delivered to the Confederates.

Cuba proved to be big market for Florida cattle until competition from Texas and South America had all but obliterated it in the early 1900s. By that time scientific crosses with other breeds from India and Europe had gained favor over the smaller cracker cattle.

The Dust Bowl and the Depression came in the 1930s. Cattle from the southwest were brought to Florida. With them, the old time cattlemen claim, came screwworm. Screwworm decimated the herds, but the tough little “cracker” cow hung in, although fewer in numbers.

Today there are only about 1,000 cracker cattle left and only 900 registered cracker horses. There are places where you can ride a horse and herd a cow. Right in the middle of Florida. You have to get off the Turnpike, pull on your boots and leave your preconceived notions of Florida behind.

I’d like to leave you with this except.


Cracker Cowboys of Florida.
By Frederic Remington

One can thresh the straw of history until he is well worn out, and also is running some risk of wearing others out who may have to listen. So I will waive the telling of who the first cowboy was, even if I knew; but the last one who has come under my observation lives down in Florida, and the way it happened was this: I was sitting in a “sto’ do’” (store door) as the “Crackers” say, waiting for the clerk to load some “number eights” (lumber), when my friend said, “Look at the cowboys!” This immediately caught my interest. With me cowboys are what gems and porcelains are to some others. 

Two very emaciated Texas ponies pattered down the street, bearing wild-looking individuals, whose hanging hair and drooping hats and generally bedraggled appearance would remind you at once of the Spanish-moss which hangs so quietly and helplessly to the limbs of the oaks out in the swamps… They had on about four dollars’ worth of clothes between them, and rode McClellan saddles, with saddlebags, and guns tied on before….



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