Cow hunters pop their whips, driving herds of cattle across the state. It is a wild ride, dodging rustlers, avoiding swamps, finding routes not fenced in and buying cattle from settlers along the way. But the rewards are great. A cow hunter would put out his hand and get a shiny gold doubloon for every live cow delivered. Cow hunters had to buy steamer trunks and a buckboard to carry home all that gold.
Sounds like the Wild West, doesn't it? It can't be Florida.
But it is -- cattle rustlers, branding irons and all. Florida had its own Wild West history, starting in the 1800s, and you can see this way of life today as living history at the Cow Camp deep inside Lake Kissimmee State Park, east of Lake Wales.
As I walk down a trail toward the Cow Camp, I see a sign that reads “Welcome to 1876.” Whoa! That's a leap; we're really stepping back in time.
I arrive at a corral. Inside are huge cows with long horns, descendents of Andalusian cattle left behind by Spaniards centuries ago. In the 1500s, explorers from Spain arrived by boats fully equipped for settlements with live cattle, horses, grain for planting and families. If a settlement didn't work out, they often left the cattle and horses behind.
I ask what life is like for a cowboy, and a park ranger dressed in authentic gear shakes his head. "We have no cowboys here,” he corrects me, never breaking out of character. “We sent all our boys off to the [Civil] war. We are cow hunters."
He goes on to explain how cow hunters rounded up Florida scrub cattle that roamed the state undisturbed by fences. Indians considered them a meal occasionally -- that was about it – but when settlers arrived, it didn't take long before cattle were seen as a crop.
In the 1800s, cattle were rounded up, branded and herded across the state to a cow town called Punta Rassa, just north of Fort Myers. From there, the cows were shipped live by boat to Cuba.
A cow hunter's life was wild, wooly and dangerous. Cow hunters are Florida's version of cowboys. Instead of lariats they used whips, and they trained dogs to herd cattle through marshes, hammocks and flatlands. Mosquitoes bedeviled men and cows. Rustlers were discouraged with guns, and the open range became something to fight over.
This wild and exciting Florida heritage comes alive at Cow Camp. It is well worth a visit, so be sure to bring a camera, and wear comfortable shoes to walk down the trail. See the lean-to camp where fires were built so the prevailing wind would blow smoke at the sleeping cow hunters, thus reducing mosquitoes. Listen to the stories of cattle drives and life at a frontier camp.
Experience Cow Hunter Heritage
• Cow Camp, inside Lake Kissimmee State Park, is open from Oct. 1 through May 1 on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
• Florida EcoSafaris at Forever Florida, located in St. Cloud, has fully guided Horseback Safaris, Coach Safaris and an EcoPark with six ziplines, taking guests on a three-hour tour through the treetops of the 4700 acre Forever Florida Wildlife Conservation area. There are also Overnight Horseback Safaris, camping, and even the Rawhide Roundup, where guests move cattle from horseback like a read Florida cow hunter.
• The Florida Agricultural Museum, in Palm Coast (exit 298 on I-95). With over 460 acres of land, visitors can tour the archaeological site of Hewitt's water powered saw mill that dates from 1770-1815, or ride a tractor pull trailer to tour the property. Guided horseback rides are also offered. Open Wednesday - Sunday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
• The Museum of Florida History, in Tallahassee, focuses on past and present cultures in Florida, and promotes knowledge and appreciation of this heritage, through its ongoing and traveling exhibits. during the regular museum hours of Monday - Friday, 9 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 4:30 p.m.