florida cattle drive

Cow Boss Mike Wilder, along with his grandsons, Max Coggins and Brett Coggins (from left), lead the herd through a flooded field in January 2016 during the Great Florida Cattle Drive. / Nic Stoltzfus

“This ain’t for sissies” — that was the theme of the Great Florida Cattle Drive 2106. Those four words summed up the event very well. After all, the weather during much of the drive, held Jan. 23-30, 2016, was cold and rainy. In fact, that was one of the wettest Januarys in state history. And the low temperature on the morning of Monday, Jan. 25, the day the drive actually began, was 34 degrees and breezy.

In the foreword to The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles, a coffee-table book about the event, Doyle Conner Jr. penned this understatement: “The weather wasn’t perfect … but we carried on.” (Doyle is the son of Doyle Conner Sr., who served from 1961-91 as Florida’s commissioner of agriculture.)

The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles serves as documentary

Elam Stoltzfus and his son, Nic, braved the elements — along with 500 cattle and 450 non-sissies — beginning Jan. 23. That’s when participants began to gather at Whaley Ranch near St. Cloud, about 60 miles southeast of Orlando.

The Stoltzfuses own the Live Oak Production Group in Blountstown. They persevered along with all the others, some of whom (when they could find dry ground) slept under their wagons. Elam and Nic also carried heavy “baggage” that didn’t weigh down the cowboys of yore: cameras and videocameras — and a drone — to record this event, the third of its kind.

America’s cattle industry started here

Great Florida Cattle Drive

This is one book you can easily judge by its cover. / Contributed

In addition to serving as a documentary of the event, The Great Florida Cattle Drive (GFCD) reminds us that the American beef industry began right here in what Ponce de Leon called La Florida. In 1521, the Spanish explorer landed on the west coast — apparently, near the mouth of the Caloosahatchee River.

On board the two boats were “200 settlers, horses, livestock and other necessities for starting a colony in Florida,” the book says. The livestock included several head of Andalusian cattle, bred in southern Spain “to withstand sweltering summers and punishing terrain.” In short, they were perfect for La Florida.

History isn’t always pretty, but GFCD doesn’t shrink from unpleasantries. The arrival of more Spaniards and Europeans also meant the arrival of diseases to which the Native Americans had no immunity or defenses. So “by the early 1600s, disease had decimated the Native American population in Florida, allowing the Spanish to extend their reach further into now-depopulated areas.”

Great Florida Cattle Drive has a daily journal

The book also includes Nic Stoltzfus’ day-to-day journal of his impressions and experiences during the nine days of the event. On Monday, Jan. 25, when the actual driving of cattle began, his cell-phone alarm rang at 5:30 a.m. “I groaned. My tent was dark … I shivered.” The temperature was 34 degrees.

Wednesday, Jan. 27, dawned like most of the other days. “It still was raining,” Nic writes. “I laced up my boots and mucked through the slushy ground toward the food tent.” He also details the cause of a ruckus the night before that woke up nearby campers. A mare with a feed bucket attached to her became spooked, and ran. “The rope attached to the bucket became entangled in an electric fence keeping a few other horses in: the clanking of the bucket scared those horses, and they started a stampede through the camp.” Fortunately, no one — human or animal — was hurt.

Nic’s account of the final day of the drive, when the group arrived at the Silver Spurs Practice Arena, about 30 miles south, in Kenansville, is dated Saturday, Jan. 30, and titled “Trail’s End.” He notes how times have changed in the Sunshine State: “here we are in 2016 with 3 million cattle, 100 million visitors from around the world and over 20 million inhabitants. … On land where orange groves and cattle pastures once existed, theme parks now stand.”

Florida Cattle Drive

Morgan Bonaparte “Bone” Mizell (1863-1921) is believed to be the “Cracker Cowboy” in this 1895 Frederick Remington drawing. This image is on page 11. / Courtesy Florida State Archives

The photos

GFCD contains hundreds of high-quality photographs of the drive. They include close-ups of cattle and cowpokes, panoramic views of driving the animals through flooded fields, aerials, night shots of Seminole Bobby Henry leading a tribal dance beside the fire. Historical images are also included.

About those “Unbroken Circles”

Co-author Elam Stoltzfus began life in the late 1950s, in Lancaster, Pa. “I was born into an Old Order Amish family,” he writes in the afterword. “Horses were the source of transportation to Sunday church, to the local store and equipment supply center.”

At 8 years old, he was given a Shetland pony, “an ornery stud” that he rode bareback. Elam still bears the “scars from a few wrecks, a crooked nose … and scars on my knees from a few falls.” Later, he got his own horse.

In his teens, he traded in his 1-horsepower ride for a 1970 Plymouth Duster with “over 200 horsepower … black with white racing stripes.” For almost 30 years afterward, he “had very little to do with horses and cattle.” Then, in 2013, he rode a horse during the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, and “being back in the saddle brought back fond memories of riding horses.”

In late 2015, Elam allowed his neighbors to build a fence and barn on his land for their horse, Lefty. Elam began riding him frequently. That same year, the organizers asked him to photograph and videotape the Great Florida Cattle Drive and to create a documentary about it.

So Elam and Nic went along for the entire event. They spent the first two days at Whaley Ranch, as the cowpunchers began arriving; then went along for the six-day ride.

Today, Elam writes, “For me, things have come full circle: I’m back in the saddle riding the trails, making memories, and making sure the circle will be unbroken.”

For more information on the book and accompanying video, visit www.greatfloridacattledrive.com.