The 2016 Great Florida Cattle Drive is over but far from forgotten. After five days, some of them rainy and miserable, the cattle drive ended on January 30 in Kenansville at the Silver Spurs Rodeo Arena. Hundreds of people showed up for the Frolic, the traditional celebration held at the end of cattle drives, to watch the herd arrive. There were singers and artists, barbecue and flags, cupcakes and preteen rodeo queens in jeans and cowboy hats, not fancy dresses or tiaras. At the arena in Kenansville there was a Florida Cracker Camp, historical booths, re-enactors, whip makers and more.Riders came from Parrish and Lutz, Chiefland and Riverview, Newberry and Zolfo Springs. Not big towns, maybe towns you never heard of, but all towns with people who have ties to the state’s colorful past in the cattle industry. Some are still in the business six generations later. About 400 hardy souls came together riding Quarter Horses, Cracker Horses and mules or driving wagons pulled by teams to take part in the cattle drive this year.
The drive is a throwback to the 1800s when cowboys, usually called cow hunters, went into the unfenced scrub to round up cattle and drive them to market.
At this year’s Frolic, high ground was at a premium following a soggy week. Organizers struggled to get the onlookers parked in and around the pickup trucks pulling big horse trailers that were waiting for their riders to arrive.
The herd was a little late getting there which was a good thing since it gave people time to get through the crush of cars trying to make it down the narrow road to the rodeo grounds and find a somewhat dry spot to park the car. People wandered through the muddy fields getting ever closer to the break in the woods where the herd was supposed to appear. And finally, it did. People were so happy that you would have thought everyone in the crowd had a son or daughter or cousin on one of those horses. They waved and applauded and waded further into the mucky ground.
The herd was brought up close to the arena and held there for a while. Riders trotted over to the crowd picked up kids they knew and rode back to the herd, giving the young ones a real thrill. One daddy rode over and got his little girl from his smiling wife and let the tiny tot hold the reins and put dad’s quarter horse through its paces, twirling sharp to the right and then reversing to the left. The little girl seemed delighted though she did drop the reins, accidentally bringing the horse to an abrupt and well-mannered stop.
Other riders showed off their whip-cracking skills, demonstrating where Florida crackers got their nickname. Those on horseback may have dressed like 1850 but the modern day cow hunters, clearly relishing the event, brandished more cameras and cell phones than bull whips.
Days were long, starting at 6 a.m., and filled with making camp, breaking camp, taking care of the horses and riding with the cows. At the end of each day a big tent was set up waiting for them with a hot meal on the table.
Riders from each of the three groups that took turns herding, were introduced and rode into the arena to applause. No one was in a hurry to leave and they hung out for a last chat like people on a date that had gone especially well.
Visitors slowly untangled their cars from the mishmash of parking and made their way back out to the road and down through Kenansville with its old bank building and oddly named Heartbreak Hotel.
The back story of the Cracker Cow
Florida has been very important in the cattle industry and was the first state in the nation to be known for raising cattle. Most people think of Texas or some other western state when they think of cattle and cowboys and chuck wagons but Florida was there first.
Florida’s cow history goes back to the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon who brought seven head of Andalusian cattle with him in 1521. Each time a Spanish ship set out for the new world it brought settlers, missionaries, soldiers, supplies and more livestock. In the latter category, the Spaniards brought compact Iberian horses to ride and cattle and pigs to eat. By 1700 there was a string of Spanish missions across north Florida and over 30 ranchos had sprung up nearby to manage the livestock. The ranchers started to ship cattle to Cuba for sale, something that would continue for many generations. As the Spanish left, many of the cows and horses were just turned loose to fend for themselves. When the American settlers started to stake their homesteads, they hunted the stray cows themselves and another wave of cattle ranching began. The Seminoles had large herds of Cracker Cows and Spanish horses. It was a big business and in the 10 years following 1868, over 1.6 million cows were shipped out of Florida ports.
Over the next 100 years there were lots of changes. New breeds were brought in and crossbred with the Cracker cattle and finally there were almost none left. But in 1970, sisters Zona Bass and Zetta Hunt, daughters of pioneer cattleman James Durrance, donated five Cracker Cow heifers and a bull to the state to begin a herd to save the breed. Since then several documented authentic herds have been created and in 1988 the Florida Cracker Cattle Association was formed to document and preserve the ancient bloodlines. The Spanish cows brought to Florida are also the ancestors of the Texas Longhorn.
In addition to the cracker cows there are cracker horses, another distinct breed that has been brought back from the brink of extinction and is now thriving. I’ll write about the cracker horse in a separate post. They are beautiful little horses with their own particular gaits. They are derived from the Iberian horse of Spain and are direct cousins to the Marsh Tacky ponies of the mid-Atlantic, the Paso Fino and the Mustangs of the far west. Prior to the arrival of those horses back in the 1500s, there were no horses in America. Oddly, horses may have originated in the Americas and then spread over what is now the Bering Straights to Asia and on to Europe. For whatever reason horses did not survive in the Americas and the last died out about 7600 years ago. Fortunately, 7100 years later the Spaniards brought them back.
Photos from the Cattle Drive
© Copyright 2016: text Sue Harrison; photos Sue Harrison and Lee Brock for MyOldFlorida.com.
Writer and photographer Sue Harrison is a fifth generation Floridian who left for many years but came back still calling it home.