Passing through Punta Rassa on the way to or from Sanibel Island on Florida’s Gulf coast, you just don’t see many cows these days. It’s mostly condos, marinas, and businesses. That’s a big leap from how things used to be, as anyone familiar with the history of Florida’s cattle industry can tell you. For a good portion of the 19th century, Punta Rassa was a favored port for shipping cattle to Cuba. Read more
Not everyone thinks of the Sunshine State as being cow country, but in reality Florida has been in the cattle business for about five centuries. 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. Even after the settlement failed, the cattle remained and multiplied.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!