To Fence or Not to Fence

If you get very far off the interstate in Florida, you’re likely to drive past a cow pasture or two. Say what you will about the American West, but Florida has been in the cattle industry for centuries. Many aspects of the business have changed over time, of course. Perhaps the most profound change has been the fence that separates you and your car from those cows as you drive past.

Fenced cattle in Central Florida (circa 1960s).

Fenced cattle in Central Florida (circa 1960s).

A hundred years ago, the idea of fencing the open range was widely considered dangerous to the cattle industry, and any farther back than that it was simply unthinkable. By the 1950s, however, legislators had passed a law requiring cattle owners to confine their animals. This transformation of public opinion on cattle fencing was rooted in the transformation of Florida itself.

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

Until the early 20th century, most cattle owners did not fence their cows at all. They allowed the animals to wander the open range, going wherever they could find the best grass. Vast tracts of land were still held at this time either by the state or by absentee owners who made no effort to prevent cattle ranchers from using their property for range purposes. Stamping the cows with unique brands allowed the owners to distinguish their cattle from everyone else’s. When it was time to move the cattle to market or pen the new calves up for branding, the cattle workers would round up the animals, often with the aid of cattle dogs, and drive them to wherever they needed to go. This was a particularly beneficial system for smaller cattle operations, who often didn’t have much land of their own. With a smaller population and less development, the open range system allowed all cattle owners to take advantage of Florida’s expansive territory.

In the days before cattle had to be fenced, there was no telling where you might find cows in Florida. In this photo, several cows enjoy a drink near Wakulla Springs (circa 1920s).

In the days before cattle had to be fenced, there was no telling where you might find cows in Florida. In this photo, several cows enjoy a drink near Wakulla Springs (circa 1920s).

As Florida’s population expanded and railroads and automobiles became more common, modernity came increasingly into conflict with the open range method. Trains and cars often encountered cows on their respective roadways, sometimes with fatal results. Additionally, sometimes cows wandered into towns or homesteads and made nuisances of themselves. Many Floridians began calling for a “fence law” to require cattle owners to confine their cows. Some cattle owners were unopposed to this, especially those who owned more valuable “blooded” cattle. A number of other ranchers depended on the free range system to have enough land to feed and water their cows. They saw the prospect of a fence law as a serious threat.

An automobile accident involving a cow in Volusia County (circa 1920s).

An automobile accident involving a cow in Volusia County (circa 1920s).

The debate could be nasty at times. As property owners began fencing their land to manage the movements of the cows, some disgruntled fence opponents would cut the wires or shoot the cows the fence was meant to contain. The state enacted laws to punish fence cutters, but the perpetrators were often difficult to catch. One cattleman went to extreme measures and tied live rattlesnakes up near all of his fence posts to prevent his wires from being cut!

On June 7, 1949, Governor Fuller Warren approved Senate Bill 34, which finally enacted a law requiring livestock owners to keep their animals off the public roadways. Cattle owners who did not comply faced stiff fines, and potential liability for damages caused by free roaming cows.

Brahman bull standing next to a fence (circa 1950s).

Brahman bull standing next to a fence (circa 1950s).

Be sure to check out our Florida Cattle Ranching photo exhibit for more images relating to this historic Sunshine State industry!

Spanish Cattle in Florida

There are several obvious places to look for signs of Florida’s Spanish heritage. Place names like Santa Rosa Island, Cape San Blas, and Boca Raton are hard to miss. Then there’s Saint Augustine, home to the Castillo de San Marcos and the nation’s oldest Catholic parish.

These are great places to visit, but there’s no need to travel so far to find living traces of Florida’s colonial Spanish era. Often, a nearby cow pasture will do the trick.

Florida cowman reenactor with scrub cattle at Lake Kissimmee State Park (circa 1980).

Florida cowman reenactor with scrub cattle at Lake Kissimmee State Park (circa 1980).

Florida scrub cattle, or Cracker cows, are often associated with the U.S. settlers who began tending them in the 19th century. Their origins, however, are Spanish.

When Juan Ponce de Leon arrived on his final mission to Florida in 1521, he brought Spanish Andalusian cattle with him to help provision the growing settlement he hoped to establish on Florida’s Gulf coast. Calusa Indians attacked the would-be Spanish colonists, and they were forced to retreat to Cuba and leave many of their supplies behind.

No records exist to explain just what happened to the cattle, but it’s possible some of them survived and remained in the wild.

Juan Ponce de Leon (circa 1500s).

Juan Ponce de Leon (circa 1500s).

If this didn’t get the herd started, the larger Spanish settlement at St. Augustine certainly did. Once the Spaniards established themselves on Florida’s Atlantic coast in 1565, they began expanding their influence outward into the territory through a series of Catholic missions.

Each became a small village, complete with facilities for ministering to Native Americans and for sustaining the Spanish inhabitants. More Andalusian cattle flowed into the area to serve these missions, and Spanish landowners began raising cattle as well.

These cows were unfenced; they wandered at will in the woods to graze until they were rounded up. Brands were used to keep each owner’s cattle separate. The system worked, although years of conflict between the Spanish, Native Americans, and British settlers from the north acted to scatter the herds across the peninsula.

Old Spanish cattle brands. Date of drawing unknown.

Old Spanish cattle brands. Date of drawing unknown.

The Spanish hold on Florida began to unravel in the 18th century, and new inhabitants began tending the cattle roaming around the region. Years of free range living had toughened the herds, making them less vulnerable to parasites and better able to tolerate life in areas with less than an ideal food supply.

Native Americans began using the cows as an auxiliary food supply. When U.S. settlers began arriving in the area, they bought (or took) scrub cows to improve their own herds. As the 19th century progressed and the Seminoles were pushed farther south, the herds they had once tended came increasingly under the control of these newcomers.

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

Cattle drive at Bartow (circa 1890s).

A variety of other breeds have been introduced into Florida herds in the past two centuries, but the Cracker (or scrub) cattle can still be found on ranches across the state. To the untrained eye, they might not look much different from any other Florida cows, but in reality they’re a testament to Florida’s Spanish heritage.

For more photos of the Florida cattle industry, check out our Cattle Ranching photo exhibit, or search the Florida Photographic Collection.

Somebody Give That Cow a Bath!

Why in the world would someone want to bathe a cow? Better yet, why would someone bathe an entire herd of cows? They’re just going to get dirty again anyway. Yet for a number of years in the early 20th century, it was very common for cattle ranchers to lead their cattle, one by one, through a vat designed to douse them from top to bottom. The practice was called cattle dipping, and it had little to do with keeping the cows clean.

Chart illustrating the effects of ticks on cattle (1913).

Chart illustrating the effects of ticks on cattle (1913).

Cattle dipping was a major part of an all-out battle to eradicate Texas tick fever from Florida’s otherwise prosperous cattle industry. The fever, actually a blood infection caused by parasites, was spread through ticks, which presented a big problem for Florida ranchers, who still largely practiced the free-range system for cattle production. Rather than sticking to one fenced pasture, a rancher’s cattle might roam at will over miles of territory until their owner rounded them up. Branding kept the cattle from different ranches separate in cases where multiple herds mixed together. Under the circumstances, the cattle were bound to pick up ticks as they moved about in the woods, and there just wasn’t much to be done about it.

But they had to try. Texas tick fever was becoming a major drain on the industry’s profitability. Some farmers attempted to control tick infestations by keeping cattle and other farm animals out of a pasture for several months if an infected animal had grazed there. The idea was that if the infectious ticks had nothing to feed on for a long enough period of time, they would die and the fever vector would be gone.

Counties heavily involved in the cattle industry sometimes set up checkpoints to inspect animals for ticks before allowing them to pass, hoping to stop the spread of the fever-causing bugs. These methods had limited success. Ticks preyed on a variety of animals, both wild and domestic, so measures affecting only some animals would not protect healthy cattle from being bitten.

Tick inspection station at the Baker County line (circa 1920s).

Tick inspection station at the Baker County line (circa 1920s).

Early on, a few farmers experimented with the idea of washing their cattle in some sort of chemical to discourage ticks from biting them. At first, ranchers considered it a far-fetched idea, but it proved effective with a little trial and error. Over time, an arsenic solution was adopted as the most efficient agent for protecting the cattle. So long as the solution was mixed correctly and the cattle did not stay in it too long, the cow would be safe, but any ticks attempting to bite it would be poisoned.

Cow making its way through a dipping vat in Duval County, while a man marks it to show it had been dipped (circa 1920s).

Cow making its way through a dipping vat in Duval County, while a man marks it to show it had been dipped (circa 1920s).

Cattle dipping appeared to be a viable solution for preventing Texas tick fever, except it was difficult to get every rancher in Florida to do it. Setting up the dipping vats was expensive, and rounding up free-range cattle to be dipped every few weeks was time-consuming. Many Florida ranchers at this time had small operations, and barely had the time and help to round up the cattle a few times a year, let alone every time they would require dipping. The tick fever threat was serious, however, and eventually the state stepped in.

The Legislature passed a law in 1923 requiring every cattleman in the state to comply with a full tick eradication program, which included dipping cattle every two weeks. The new law met with mixed reactions from the state’s cattle ranchers. Some believed the state’s actions would help save the industry, while others dismissed the entire affair as needless meddling. To make the cattle dipping requirement less onerous, the State Livestock Sanitary Board contracted with private companies to build dipping vats all across the state, so that even owners of smaller cattle concerns would not have as far to travel to dip their cows.

Dipping was still a chore, of course, and the records of the Livestock Sanitary Board at the State Archives are full of letters complaining about the inefficiency of the system at times. By the mid-1930s, however, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that conditions had improved enough that most areas could be released from quarantine.

Excerpt from a letter to State Veterinarian J.V. Knapp from High Springs farmer C.S. Douglass, dated Jan. 29, 1933. Douglass writes: "The tax payers are becoming awful sore over the reckless and unfair way this tick eradication work is being done and we are figuring on dipping the State Live Stock Sanitary Board if they don't build us a dipping vat in the area they claim to be infested with cattle fever ticks, or release us from dipping."

Excerpt from a letter to State Veterinarian J.V. Knapp from High Springs farmer C.S. Douglass, dated Jan. 29, 1933. Douglass writes: “The tax payers are becoming awful sore over the reckless and unfair way this tick eradication work is being done and we are figuring on dipping the State Live Stock Sanitary Board if they don’t build us a dipping vat in the area they claim to be infested with cattle fever ticks, or release us from dipping” (State Livestock Sanitary Board Tick Eradication files [Series 1888], Box 2, folder 3 – State Archives of Florida).

Most of the cattle dipping vats from the 1920s and 1930s have been filled in or removed, but the tops of a few are still visible. If you choose to give your cow a bath these days, it’s usually to get it ready for a stock show!

Remains of a dipping vat near Natural Bridge in Leon County (1980).

Remains of a dipping vat near Natural Bridge in Leon County (1980).

Cattle and other stock farming is still a major Florida industry. Tell us about your experiences with raising cattle or other livestock by leaving us a comment below or on Facebook!

 

 

Not Our First Rodeo

Lots of people associate the idea of a rodeo with the American West – Texas, Oklahoma, someplace dusty, hot, and dotted with cacti. And while rodeo is most certainly a big hit out west, it has deep roots here in the Sunshine State as well. Florida, after all, has been home to a thriving cattle industry for centuries. Native Americans and the Spanish were raising cows as early as the 1500s, long before organized ranching arrived in what would become known as the American West. As new settlers arrived and the era of Spanish ownership came to an end, the herds remained, changed hands many times, and continued to serve as a valuable source of food and trade.

Drawing of the

Drawing of the “cow ford” that eventually became the site of Jacksonville. This particular section of the St. Johns River was used for the purpose of fording cattle as far back as the late 18th century (drawing circa 1800s).

Rodeo developed partly out of the practical needs of a farm or cattle ranch, and partly because the tasks involved naturally lend themselves to competition and spectacle. Roping, herding, and branding cattle, breaking wild horses, and overall dexterity in the saddle were all basic needs of even the earliest cattle ranch hands. The events of modern rodeos are closely related to these traditional skills.

A man prepares to lasso a calf at the rodeo in Lakeland. Capturing cattle to brand and sort them was a vital part of the industry (photo 1950).

A man prepares to lasso a calf at the rodeo in Lakeland. Capturing cattle to brand and sort them was a vital part of the industry (photo 1950).

A cowboy struggles to keep his balance as he rides atop a wild horse at the rodeo in Bonifay (1950).

A cowboy struggles to keep his balance as he rides atop a wild horse at the rodeo in Bonifay (1950).

Aside from serving as a demonstration of skill, rodeos have a strong social element that brings together communities like few other traditions can do. In cities and towns where the surrounding region is highly involved in the cattle industry, rodeos are held frequently, and are designed for the entire family to enjoy. Floridians as far south as Homestead and as far north as Bonifay have special annual rodeos with a lengthy past. The Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo, for example, originated in 1928 when the local American Legion post was looking for a fundraiser for a new building. Post officials invited all the local families, including the Seminoles located nearby, to attend a rodeo and parade to raise money for their cause. A band from Wauchula provided music, and even Governor Doyle Carlton rode in the procession. The first rodeo was a smashing success, and even with the arrival of the Great Depression, the people of Arcadia kept up the tradition of holding rodeo events each year. It still continues today.

Rodeo parade in Arcadia (1969).

Rodeo parade in Arcadia (1969).

Riders carry flags around the arena at Arcadia (1971).

Riders carry flags around the arena at Arcadia (1971).

One of rodeo’s most admirable aspects is its inclusiveness. While the crowd may roar at the spectacle of an adult rider using every ounce of strength to stay atop a bucking bull, there’s just as much enthusiasm for the large number of events held especially for the kids. From rodeo’s earliest days, children have been earnest competitors, demonstrating their horsemanship, roping skills, and overall athleticism in a variety of ways. Older kids with a little more size and experience may compete in junior versions of the same events as adults, while a few events are just for the small fry. At Arcadia, for example, youngsters can participate in the “calf scramble” and “mutton bustin’” challenges. In the calf scramble, an entire army of kids are unleashed on the arena where calves adorned with bandannas have been placed. Those participants who successfully chase down a calf and remove its bandanna are declared the winners. In the mutton scramble, young riders hold onto the backs of sheep as they scurry about the arena. Whoever stays on the longest wins.

Patty Blackmon and her horse Buck near Ocala (1948).

Patty Blackmon and her horse Buck near Ocala (1948).

A young man participates in a

A young man participates in a “calf scramble” at a rodeo in Lakeland. This version of the calf scramble had an interesting twist. If a participant could catch the calf and get him over the finish line, he got to keep it (1947).

These are just a few of the hundreds of images in the Florida Photographic Collection pertaining to the rodeo. Is there a rodeo event near your community? Tell us about your favorite rodeo experiences by leaving a comment below. And don’t forget to share this post on Facebook!

Bob Cobb, a rancher and 30-year rodeo veteran, tries to talk Patrolman H.M. Whitworth out of a ticket for illegally parking his 3-year-old Brahman steer in Ocala (1948).

Bob Cobb, a rancher and 30-year rodeo veteran, tries to talk Patrolman H.M. Whitworth out of a ticket for illegally parking his 3-year-old Brahman steer in Ocala (1948).