Get Cracking and Experience Florida’s Rich Cowboy Culture

By: Jon Wilson

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Jacob Summerlin was a Seminole War veteran, a Civil War blockade runner, and an astute businessman who made so much money with cattle that he became one of 19th Century Florida’s richest men. Summerlin was born to the cowman’s saddle, learning to crack a whip by age 7.

“I am nothing under the sun but a native-born, sun-baked old Florida cracker,’’ he once told a New York journalist.

Though never elevated to the mythic level of the American West, Florida was every bit the rough-and-ready cattle country. Its cowmen used whips that produced a crack as loud as a gunshot. Range wars and rustling brought violence and vengeance. The men took pride in being “crackers,” and Summerlin led them all.

Today, Summerlin’s spiritual descendants still ride the Florida range, working cattle from earlier-than-dawn to later-than-dusk. Cattle ranches throughout the state cover 7 million acres;  their herds total 1.1 million head, consistently placing Florida among the nation’s top 15 beef-producing states and ranking it third among states east of the Mississippi River.

Not far from Disney World, the Crescent J Ranch keeps the world’s largest herd of “cracker cattle,” descendants of the tough beasts the Spanish first brought to Florida 500 years ago. Rodeos still bring crowds to Arcadia, Homestead, Bonifay and a dozen other cities.

Thriving long before cattle came to the American West, the cowboy culture lives on in Florida.

But there is a caveat in terminology. In Florida, cowboys – a term popularized in Western lore – have been called cowmen or cow hunters. Old-time cowmen draw a prideful distinction. Read the words of poet Doyle Rigdon, a fifth-generation Florida cattle man:

“I’ve seen the west, and sure, it’s rough

But let them cowboys come here

and see if they’re tough enough

To work all day in sugar-sand cowpens

The heat and humidity hot enough to purge sins

Or fight skeeters in hordes thick enough to kill cattle

Or race breakneck through a hammock

and try to stay in the saddle.”

Nineteenth-century artist and writer Frederic Remington noted a difference also, but his love affair with the Western way poisoned his Florida perspective. Wrote Remington of the cow hunters:

“The mists, the miasma, and the mosquitoes settle over their dreary camp talk. In place of the wild stampede, there is only the bellowing in the pens, and instead of the plains shaking under the dusty air as the . . . vaqueros plough their fiery broncos through the milling herds, the cattle-hunter wends his lonely way through the ooze and rank grass, while the dreary pine trunks line up and shut the view.”

In an ironic twist, much of the land that the short-sighted Remington denigrated now is cherished because so much of it has disappeared. Often, cattle ranchers and their families are in the vanguard of conservation movements.

“I just hope that (people in the future) can see a Florida like I have seen it,” rancher Bud Adams told conservation photographer Carlton Ward Jr., whose recent 1,000-mile, 10-day trip to establish a Florida wildlife corridor took him and his party through more than 20 ranches.

“If I could come back here 50 to 75 years from now and see a working ranch with cowboys and horses and cattle and that sort of thing in that sort of clean environment, that would be my greatest hope,” Adams said.

If the rancher’s dream comes true, it will continue a way of life that had its beginnings when Europe had barely emerged from the medieval era. When Spanish settlers brought the first cattle to La Florida in 1521, Henry VIII ruled England, Machiavelli’s The Prince was still new and Jamestown would not be settled for 86 more years.

Calusa Indians, a pre-Columbian tribe, attacked the settlers, mortally wounded their famous leader, Juan Ponce de Leon, and scattered the cattle. But more Spanish cattle arrived in 1565 when Pedro de Menendez de Aviles established St. Augustine. Settlers created ranchos while a chain of missions brought priests who herded cattle as part of their agricultural work. Paynes Prairie near Gainesville became an extensive grazing area.

On that savanna two centuries later, the Seminole chief Cowkeeper established a stronghold and a huge herd.                

But not all Indians liked cattle. The free-roaming bulls, calves and cows sometimes trampled the Indians’ crops, and such incursions could spark battles between settlers and the Native Americans. One such collision occurred as early as 1647, when Indians attacked Spanish ranchers and padres in their missions. Ranching historian Joe Akerman Jr. wrote in his book, Florida Cowman, that the episode might have been the first clash between “cowboys and Indians.”

After the Civil War, Florida became a wide-open free range. That’s when the term “cow hunter” came into vogue. Riding their wiry cracker ponies, sometimes called “marshtackies,” the cattle chasers pursued branded and unbranded animals into grim swamps, through tropical storms and across alligator wallows, forever fighting mosquitoes they complained were thick enough to smother campfires.

Because the traditional cowboy lariat was of little use in such an environment, these Florida saddle-whackers used long whips (along with dogs) to control the cattle. Every lash produced a loud crack; hence the origin of the nickname “cracker,” according to some Florida lore.

Like their Western counterparts on, for example, the Chisholm and Goodnight-Loving trails, Florida cowboys drove their animals on shorter but no less strenuous routes across the Suwannee, Apalachicola, Kissimmee and St. Johns rivers. One of the major destinations was Punta Rassa, near Fort Myers, where cattle were shipped to the thriving Cuban market.

Jacob Summerlin, “the King of the Crackers,” sometimes teamed with Tampan James McKay, running a federal blockade in McKay’s shallow-draft Scottish Queen to scoot through the 10,000 Islands and avoid the bigger, slower Yankee gunboats. Summerlin also bought a wharf at Punta Rassa and another 1,000 adjacent acres that he used for pens.

Cattle drives through such towns as Orlando and Lake Wales continued into the 20th Century. In 1949, fencing laws ended the open range. But the ranching culture survives and thrives.      

Experiencing Florida’s Cowboy Culture

Cowboy camp

To get an idea of what 19th Century life was like for Florida cowmen, visit the 1876 cow camp at Lake Kissimmee State Park. The camp is authentic, including the persona of the cowman with a whip. A dozen head of cattle, a tough little cow pony, and coffee brewing over an oak-log campfire help complete the scenario. Park rangers usually act out the part of the cowman. They sleep in a chickee, a shelter with no walls and a palmetto-thatched roof.  The park and camp are open 8 a.m. to sundown, 365 days yearly. Find it at 14248 Camp Mack Road, Lake Wales. Call 863-696-1112.

Rodeos

Florida has lots of rodeos, but the “Granddaddy of  ’em All” is the All-Florida Championship Rodeo held yearly in Arcadia. Events include bull riding, bareback bronco riding, saddle bronco riding, steer wrestling, tie-down roping and barrel racing. In town, you can see reenactments of shootouts reminiscent of old Florida days when Arcadia was known as Tater Hill Bluff. Arcadia also is host to seven youth rodeos from September through April. The rodeo arena is at 124 Heard St., just off U.S. 17.

Museums

Southwest Florida’s Collier County has several fascinating museums, including one at Immokalee.  Immokalee dates to the wild 1870s, when a motley collection of cowmen, trappers, hunters, traders, and missionaries established a settlement. The Immokalee Pioneer Museum and Roberts Ranch is at 1215 Roberts Avenue in downtown Immokalee, just off Main Street and Roberts Avenue W. Reach Immokalee by State Road 29 or County Road 82 E. Call 239-658-2466 or visit www.colliermuseums.com.

Home on the range

You can experience the landscape that challenged early Spanish ranchers and the Seminole chief Cowkeeper at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park near Gainesville. Designated as a National Natural Landmark, artist and naturalist William Bartram referred to it as the great Alachua Savannah when he wrote about his visit to the prairie in 1774. According to the Florida State Park web site, More than 20 distinct biological communities provide a rich array of habitats for wildlife and livestock, including alligators, bison, horses and more than 270 species of birds. The Park is 10 miles south of Gainesville on the east side of U.S. 441.  Camping and hiking, cycling and equestrian trails are available on 22,000 acres. Call  352-466-3397 or visit http://www.floridastateparks.org/paynesprairie/

Bang up time

All are welcome at the Panhandle Cowboys monthly shooting matches in Pensacola. This group is a single-action shooting society, is sanctioned and is listed in The Cowboy Chronicle, a monthly journal. The Cowboys’ monthly matches consist of 40 rounds with a pistol, 40 with a rifle and 14-20 rounds with a shotgun. Here’s more fun: Participants must adopt a shooting alias appropriate to a character of the late 19th Century, a Hollywood western star, or a character from fiction. 1017 Glades Lane, Pensacola. Visit   www.sassnet.com/clubs/Clubs_detail.php?Panhandle-Cowboys-405.          

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