Log in Subscribe

Sunday Favorites: From Butcher Shop to Bucking Broncos

Riding High in a Rich Heritage


Archie Rutledge, born Aug. 11, 1913, was one of 10 children born to Butch and Ella Rutledge of Gainesville.  The family moved to Palmetto that same year. In those days, the schooling for African American children in Florida was limited and deeply entrenched in racial segregation and discrimination. During this period, black students attended separate facilities than white students, and their schools were often privately funded with limited resources. They used mostly secondhand materials to operate.

While his six sisters were encouraged to attend school, Archie and his brothers left after third grade to help his parents support the family. When he was 11 years old, Butch got him a position at Harrison’s Packing Plant where he worked as a butcher. Archie’s main job was to skin the cattle in the slaughter pen before they were cut up, according to a 1980 document entitled “Interview with Archie Rutledge” by the Manatee County Historical Society.

At the age of 17, he was recruited to join a cattle crew tasked with gathering strays in the woods. It didn't take the foreman much time to observe Archie's talent—particularly his skill with horses, especially those that were agitated or untamed.

Shortly thereafter, Archie became a cow hunter. During that era, untamed cattle freely wandered the vast open range, and pioneers, recognizing the high demand for imported beef in Cuba, corralled and slaughtered them to meet the growing demand and generate income.

The work was challenging, but Archie enjoyed the freedom of being on the open range. His day began well before dawn, so he’d use a torch he tethered his horse to see in the dim light. Then, he hung a feed bag on its head and made a quick meal for himself. As light ascended from the horizon and visibility increased, he’d harness the animal and set out to hunt cattle on the vast prairies.

In the interview, Archie said his wages amounted to one dollar per day, supplemented by meal provisions. In addition to cow hunting, he also frequently cooked, while riding, and hunting. He said he contributed a large amount of time to cooking meals for his colleagues when a designated cook wasn’t available. Sundays were their only days off.

Driving an old chuck wagon pulled by two mules, he traveled from camp to camp preparing meals for the crew. Using what he described as a “lighter knot fire made from fat, dead pine knots,” that served as coals, he would place iron pots and a Dutch oven on three bricks for support. He also prepared biscuits with every meal.  On special occasions, like Thanksgiving, the crew would purchase a turkey, which he would boil and add rice to create a dish called perlou. These celebrations often occurred in remote locations, where the crew had no family for miles. No family but each other.

There were a few times when he didn’t know if he’d make it home to see his family at all. Dealing with skittish cattle was not uncommon, and there were instances when they would stampede, especially at night. To prevent such occurrences, he recalled building fires along the perimeter of the herd surrounding a crevasse or holding pen. The fires served as a deterrent, creating a barrier that discouraged the cattle from running through the fence. This practice of building lighter-knot fires around the enclosure was a pragmatic and effective solution to manage and control the behavior of the cattle during these critical moments.

There were occasions, even in daylight, when cattle would stampede. In such situations, the primary recourse was to ride ahead of the running cattle, attempting to intercept and stop them wherever possible. One strategy involved guiding them into a pond or other body of water, where the cattle would naturally slow down. 

He suffered a severe injury on one occasion. While riding out into a pond on the Myakka flats the horse proved difficult to control, and it eluded his grasp, running into a swamp with him dragging behind. The incident resulted in significant injuries, including a broken collarbone, three fractured ribs, and various other injuries.

He lost consciousness and was placed on a cot by members of this crew. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, he was forced to endure painful discomfort for days until a doctor could transport him to Myakka City. Afterward, he rested for two weeks but resumed his normal activities after that.

When WWII broke out, Uncle Sam came calling and Archie was shipped overseas. When he returned, he took some time to be with his sick mother. When she passed away in 1952, he returned to cattle ranching, but a major threat called the screwworm was causing significant devastation.  

Seeing cattle infested with screw worms, where half their heads were eaten with parasitic larvae, was a devastating reminder of the scenes he encountered during the war. The introduction of the screwworm brought about a shift in cow hunting methods. New mandates, which Archie described as “screw worming,” required infected cows to be dipped in insecticide vats regularly. If a cow proved difficult and would not get into one of the many vats set up across the county, they would have to be culled, or killed.

It was during this time that Archie developed a proficiency in roping or lassoing cattle. Roping became the preferred method for attending to and treating cattle in need of medical attention. Even when he was retired, he kept a rope in his truck as a constant reminder of his abilities.

Archie was a cattle rancher in his late 60s when he interviewed with MCHS. Archie Rutledge's life story reflects the challenges and resilience of African Americans in Florida during the early to mid-20th century. Archie's dedication to his work, even in the face of significant injuries and wartime experiences, exemplifies the strength and determination required in the cattle industry of that era. His story sheds light on a bygone time, when individuals like Archie played pivotal roles in shaping the history of Florida's cattle ranching.


No comments on this item

Only paid subscribers can comment
Please log in to comment by clicking here.