florida cowboys

The Great Florida Cattle Drive ’16, held last year, attracted 500 participants who, like the original Florida cowboys, slept on the range as they drove 500 cattle about 30 miles. That month was one of the wettest Januarys in state history. / Photo by Nic Stoltzfus, Live Oak Production Group; all other photos by J.D. Vivian

The history of Florida cowboys is long and colorful — and continues to this day.

Two gates slide open with a metallic clank, and a bull enters from the outside covered pens, dark due to the rainy weather. Most of the bulls entering the inside holding area look around for a few seconds, dazed, eyes adjusting to the bright lights. A few charge in and immediately start exploring the small area.

Cattle at the Okeechobee Livestock Market - Florida cowboys

One of the 70 cattle at the “Black & White Bull Sale,” held at the Okeechobee Livestock Market in January 2016, checks out some of the buyers attending the event. Long poles are used to guide the cattle to the correct exit gate once bidding ends.

In the meantime, the bidding has begun. Auctioneer Aubrey Bailey delivers rapid-fire bursts of what sounds like a foreign language. Obscure gestures from those in the buyers’ gallery indicate a bid. About 90 seconds later, the bull exits through another gate.

In less than an hour and a half, 70 bulls – two-thirds Brangus, one-third Charolais – have been loaded into trailers for trips to their respective ranches. All will serve as breeders.

Of course, selling cattle hasn’t always been as quick and organized as this special “Black & White Bull Sale,” held at the Okeechobee Livestock Market. But then, neither has raising them or moving them to market.

The cattle industry in Florida

Credit the original Florida cowboy – Spaniard Juan Ponce de Leon – for introducing cattle to what became the Sunshine State. In 1521, eight years after discovering “La Florida,” de Leon returned, with oranges and cattle, from southern Spain. Those animals – seven, by one historical account – served as the foundation for Florida’s cattle industry, the oldest in the United States.

By the 1700s, as the state grew in population, ranchers who were concentrated in the Panhandle and near the St. Johns River faced many challenges. They included a lack of roads and fences; swarms of mosquitoes so thick, they could clog the nostrils of the animals; ticks that caused deadly cattle fever; raids by Native Americans; and severe weather, including hurricanes.

Today, most of those challenges are gone. One of them, however, remains: severe weather. At the start of 2016, the state endured one of its wettest and stormiest Januarys in history.

Heavy winds and monsoon-like rains disrupted Joe Stein’s schedule of feeding and caring for his 10 Angus cattle, a female donkey, 30 hens and nine roosters.

Joe Stein, who owns "Let's Go" Ranch in Arcadia, feeds a tangerine to one of his cows - Florida cowboys

Joe Stein, who owns “Let’s Go” Ranch in Arcadia, feeds a tangerine to one of his cows during a break in the bad weather of January 2016. He named his ranch “Let’s Go” because, when it’s time to feed his livestock, that’s the call he uses so they’ll follow him to their feeding area.

So he did his tasks in-between squalls. “You have to do what you can, when you can,” says Stein, a full-time bookkeeper who owns “Let’s Go” Ranch in Arcadia.

The Civil War years

By the early 1860s, railroads in Florida were carrying beef cattle to market, and the industry flourished. Thanks to new towns that developed along the tracks, so did employment opportunities: blacksmiths, shops, saloons and ranches. Workers of all kinds were needed: cowboys, carpenters and ranch hands.

Because Florida sided with the Confederacy, the state, founded in 1845, became one of the South’s main suppliers of cattle, both for meat and leather.

“During the Civil War, white and black Florida cowboys drove herds north to supply Confederate troops. In fact, many of the skirmishes with Union soldiers during this period were aimed at putting an end to this activity,” says Mary Herron, director of development for the Florida Agricultural Museum in Palm Coast.

Following Reconstruction, due to a steady erosion of their rights, many of Florida’s black cowboys joined the huge exodus of “cowpunchers” to the American West, Herron notes.

Myth vs. reality

In TV shows such as Rawhide and The Rifleman, with a few notable exceptions, the men (and in the 1950s and ’60s, “cowboys” meant men) looked fairly clean and well-groomed. But what was life really like for those who were tasked with persuading big, hard-to-manage animals to saunter toward their own eventual destruction?

Frederic Remington, a writer and artist known for his accounts of the Old West, wrote this about Florida cowboys for the August 1895 issue of Harper’s magazine: “The last one (cowboy) who has come under my observation lives down in Florida … I was sitting in a sto’ do’ (store door) as the ‘Crackers’ say … when my friend said, ‘Look at the cowboys!’ …

“Two very emaciated Texas ponies pattered down the street, bearing wild-looking individuals, whose hanging hair and drooping hats and generally bedraggled appearance would remind you at once of the Spanish-moss which hangs … to the limbs of the oaks out in the swamps.”

Of course, long before Remington described his cowboy encounter, the Seminole Tribe had already established a thriving cattle industry. In the late 1770s, William Bartram, a British naturalist, observed this scene near what is now Gainesville: “(There) are seen innumerable droves of cattle … The hills and groves re-echo their cheerful, social voices.” The cattle were tended by, in his words, “uncontrouled and free Siminole.”

member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida's "Cow Crew" helps lead cattle

Not long after sunrise in early February 2016, a member of the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s “Cow Crew” helps lead cattle to holding pens. There, they’ll be tagged, inoculated and given medical supplements. Shot at the Brighton Seminole Reservation, on the northwest side of Lake Okeechobee.

Keeping the tradition alive

“It ain’t fer sissies,” quips Michelle Turner, media liaison for the Great Florida Cattle Drive ’16, held Jan. 23-30, 2016.

Staged just once every 10 years – last year’s was the third – the drive attracts about 500 people from around the country who herd 500 head of cattle from Whaley Ranch, south of St. Cloud, about 30 miles to the Silver Spurs Arena in Kenansville.

Among the non-sissies who play Florida cowboys on the historic re-enactment drive: Sarah Bailey of St. Johns, Fla. She and her husband, John, went on the first one. He died in 2000. Bailey also went on the 2006 drive and on the most recent one.

“I’m 90 now, so I need to go on this one,” she said in January 2016, a yellow kerchief around her neck and a Stetson hat, custom-made for her husband, atop her head. “I sleep under the wagon.” Her son, Clark Bailey, drove the wagon and slept under it alongside her.

Sarah Bailey - Florida cowboys

Sarah Bailey was 90 in January 2016, when she braved almost-freezing weather and heavy rains on the Great Florida Cattle Drive ’16. The Stetson hat was custom-made for her husband, who died in 2000.

Laura Jessup of Spencer, Tenn., and her husband, Malcolm, a mule wrangler, also braved the cold, blustery, often-rainy weather on the cattle drive. Some of their Tennessee walking mules have appeared in movies, including The Green Mile. Malcolm and six of his mules appear in the chain-gang segment.

Explained Laura, “We enjoy doing this – camping out and associating with people who love the outdoors. Sad, though – the cattle drive is a dying tradition.”

The industry today and tomorrow

Almost 500 years have passed since Ponce de Leon “landed with the first cattle and horses to set foot in this country,” says Doyle Conner Jr., an administrative assistant in the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Division of Animal Industry/State Veterinarian’s Office. (Conner’s father, Doyle Conner Sr., served as Florida’s ag commissioner from 1961 to 1991.)

Yet despite the explosive growth in the state and its now far-more-diverse economy, cattle remain important, explains Conner, who calls himself a “sixth-generation Cracker cowman.”

“We have five of the 10 largest commercial cattle herds in the U.S., including Deseret Ranch. Cattle sales bring in over $1 billion a year to our state.”

Erik Jacobsen, president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, has worked in the cattle industry since the mid-1980s. The biggest changes he has seen? “Improvements in the science and technology of ‘ag,’ including use of software and GIS (Geographic Information Systems); and a greater concern by the general public about where their food comes from.”

Moving beef today is much different from the cattle drives of yore. Back then, when horsemen performed the task, “you moved slowly to avoid weight loss (shrink) of the cattle,” says Jim Handley, executive vice president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association.

Today, though, “almost all Florida ranches still gather and move cattle by horseback and use dogs to locate and herd them, or to drive them to pens or facilities to administer vaccinations or weigh them,” Handley adds. “But in today’s ranches, there are more sets of pens with scales and better roads, so cattle can be loaded up and trucked long distances.”

Some things don’t change

In St. Cloud, south of Orlando, Deseret Ranch boasts more than 44,000 head and is one of the largest in the country. Here is an excerpt from the help-wanted job description for “cowboy” posted on its website.

“Under the direction of the Foreman, a Cowboy cares for cattle, horses, pastures, equipment, and fencing. The Cowboy should … understand and observe cow condition, be trustworthy and dependable … observe forage conditions for pasture and range management … be willing and able to continually improve ranch infrastructure such as fences and pens.”

That sounds like a job description for Rowdy Yates, the character Clint Eastwood played in Rawhide from 1959 to 1966. One major difference, however: Deseret Ranch’s cowboy position offers medical, life and disability insurance as well as pension benefits.

On the show, set in the 1860s, Rowdy Yates never discussed those topics with his trail boss, Gil Favor.

Florida cattle factoids:

  • Florida has the oldest cattle industry in the U.S.
  • Florida was one of the South’s main beef and leather suppliers during the Civil War.
  • Five of the 10 largest cattle ranches in the country are in the Sunshine State; one of those (Deseret Ranch) is owned by an arm of the Mormon Church, and another by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
  • Cattle bring in $1 billion to the state’s coffers annually.

For information on events at the Okeechobee Livestock Market, visit www.okeechobeelivestockmarket.com.

Father-and-son team Elam and Nic Stoltzfus, who participated in The Great Cattle Drive ’16, will publish a book next month (February). The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles is set to publish at the same time as a film documentary on the event. For more information, visit www.greatfloridacattledrive.com.

This is a repost of a story that ran in the Spring 2016 edition of Florida Food & Farm magazine.