By Jon Wilson
Florida's history of cattle drives and cow towns began 500 years ago with the conquistadors and Andalusian cattle.
Lake Wales – There is a moment when distant boat motors fall silent. Traffic thrumming has dissolved. Somewhere a cicada rattles, startling a wary visitor. A breath of a breeze meanders an oak stand and gray wisps of Spanish moss sway from twisting limbs. On a dirt path, footprints leave the unmistakable pattern of a 21st century running shoe. But... wait. Where did the tracks go? Did those who made them vanish like phantoms misting into the forest? Or perhaps the visitor has crossed some murky boundary in time...
Two quick cracks slap the visitor's reverie. A pistol?
Then the path opens into a clearing. A man whirls a 10-foot whip around his head, casts the lash and pumps an arm. The whip blasts like a gunshot.
Sometimes called a "drag," the whip is the signature tool of a Florida cowman, and its air-splitting pop is the sound of the Cracker – the folkloric figure who built the state's cattle industry on the rough-and-tumble, 19th century Florida frontier. The drivers used whips not to hit the scrawny scrub cattle, but to control them on drives with the noise of the lash. Tough dogs called "leopard curs" sniffed out cattle lost in the scrub and chased them back to the herd.
To visit the 1876 cow camp at Lake Kissimmee State Park is to travel in time.
Everything about the camp is authentic, including the persona of the whip-wielding cowman. Inside a log fence lounge a dozen head of cattle, descendants of Andalusians originally brought by the Spanish five centuries ago. Nearby rests a smallish cow pony, a quick and nimble beast the Crackers call a "marshtackie." Water from an old-fashioned pump follows grooved log "pipes" into a wooden trough for the cattle.
The cowman's name is Grazer, a name he says he adopted because he likes to eat. He says he works for Jake Summerlin, cattle baron and "King of the Crackers" during the 1800s. Pay's a dollar a day, and that's good wages, Grazer says, enough for a fine time in Tater Hill Bluff, a rough-and-ready cow town that eventually was renamed Arcadia. Grazer is quick to note Florida does not have cowboys. They are called cow hunters or cowmen.
"Some people compare us to cowboys, but we sent all our boys to Texas," he says.
Florida's history of cattle drives and cow towns often surprises visitors accustomed to linking the state with beaches and theme parks. After conquistadors brought Andalusians, making Florida the first cattle-raising state, Spanish missionaries began keeping herds. Later, Seminoles became large-scale cattlemen. Settlers raised beef and built ranches, sometimes with herds up to 50,000.
During the Civil War, Florida supplied beef to the Confederate Army. As in Old West mythology, Florida saw huge cattle drives and desperate rustlers. In the 21st century, the state consistently ranks high in beef production and is among the top three or four most productive beef states east of the Mississippi River.
Grazer keeps a piece of the old way alive. He sleeps in a chickee, a shelter with no walls and a palmetto-thatched roof. Coffee brews over an oak-log campfire constantly burning. Its smoke is a natural mosquito repellant, especially with a handful of dry cow paddies on the fire.
"Skeeters won't bother me all night," Grazer says, "and nobody in that saloon in Tater Hill Bluff will bother me none, either."
If no time-traveling visitors are nearby, Grazer will engage in a 21st century chat. He is one of five park rangers who portray the 19th century cow hunter. His real name is Mark Koruschak, and he has been stepping into the past for five years. He also spins tales at Cracker storytelling festivals.
"But I have a lot of fun doing the cow camp," he says. "I've learned a lot of history just by being here."
If You Go
Where: Lake Kissimmee State Park, 14248 Camp Mack Road. The park is off State Road 60 15 miles east of Lake Wales.
Hours: The cow camp is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every Saturday, Sunday and holidays (except Christmas) from Oct. 1 through May 1. The park itself is open 365 days a year, 8 a.m. until sundown.
Fees: The cow camp is free. Admission to the park is $5 per vehicle with two to eight people per vehicle, $4 for a single-occupant vehicle and $2 for pedestrians, bicyclists, extra passengers and passengers in vehicle with holder of an annual individual entrance pass.
Information: Call 863-696-1112 or visit floridastateparks.org/lakekissimmee.