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Sunday Favorites: The Cracker Trail

Celebrating Florida's Cattle and Horse industries


On Saturday, Feb. 17, ranchers on horseback will gather in downtown Bradenton , ready to begin their 37th annual cross-state journey honoring and celebrating the historic Florida Cracker Trail. This seven-day, 116-mile expedition pays tribute to the extensive trek undertaken by Florida cracker cowboys during the era of the Cuban cattle trade, a significant chapter in the state's rich history.

Carol Felts, who participated in the event for 20 years and now helps on the planning committee, said the journey serves to honor Florida's rich agricultural legacy. Additionally, Felts sees it as an opportunity for Floridians to forge connections with newcomers relocating from other states.

"Almost everyone holds a memory of a farm or ranch," she remarked. "Whether it's from Ohio or elsewhere, discussing farming and cowboys sparks curiosity and creates a chance to foster connections and discuss Florida's distinctive heritage.

Cow hunters driving cattle across the state camp in Myakka circa 1892.
Cow hunters driving cattle across the state camp in Myakka circa 1892.

For instance, the term "Florida Cracker" is frequently misunderstood. It originates from a period spanning from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, known as the era of the Florida cowboy or cow hunter. These individuals earned the name Florida crackers due to their distinctive method of rounding up cattle using whips, the crack of which could be heard from miles away.

Back then, a type of Andalusian cattle, the ancestors of today’s Texas Longhorns, roamed the open plains of inland Florida. The cows were the first livestock introduced to North America, along with hogs and horses, in 1513, when Juan Ponce de Leon arrived in the state, according to the Florida Cracker Trail Association (FCTA) website.

For more than three centuries, the cattle flourished in the untamed expanses of arid plains, free from man-made boundaries and urbanization. When pioneers arrived centuries later, they found a lucrative opportunity in the form of these freely roaming herds -- a genuine cash cow waiting to be harnessed, according to the book “Punta Gorda In the Beginning 1865-1900” by Vernon Peeples.

Naturally, there was no market for cattle on the mainland, their abundance meant any settler could easily gather a small herd for their farm. However, situated 90 miles off the coast of Key West, an entire island of people was eagerly craving quality meat.

In 1858, Captain James McKay, of Tampa, initiated a groundbreaking venture by transporting live cattle to Cuba. This pioneering move set off a lucrative trend that propelled numerous local farmers to wealth, as they reaped payments in gold coins. Over the subsequent years, the cattle population experienced a remarkable surge. By 1860, McKay and his business partner, Jacob Summerlin, had overseen the shipment of over 2,000 head of cattle to Cuba. That same year, they relocated their operations from Tampa to Charlotte Harbor, further expanding their enterprise, according to Peeples.

Cow hunters wrangle young cattle in eastern Manatee County circa 1940.
Cow hunters wrangle young cattle in eastern Manatee County circa 1940.

Soon enough, other East Coast settlers eagerly joined the burgeoning enterprise. In Fort Pierce, a collective of crackers cowboys convened each year, coordinating a massive cattle drive towards Bradenton, then onward to Tampa, Punta Gorda, and ultimately Punta Rassa for shipment to Cuba. While this may seem like an odd path by today’s standards, it was the only dry route across Florida at the time.

“To the north, the Kissimmee River and its floodplains blocked the way, said Felts. “Then in the south, the swamps of Okeechobee and the Everglades make the passage with the large herd impossible.”

In preparation for their journey, these crackers, lacking immediate funds, relied on provisioning themselves. Often, they turned to P.P. Cobb's General Store in Fort Pierce. Mr. Cobb graciously allowed them to fill their saddlebags with his goods, with the understanding that they would settle their debts after selling their herds to the Cuban buyers, who were known to pay handsomely in Spanish gold coins, according to the FCTA.

Felts said it was discussions of this incredible trek that spurred the idea for the cross-state ride. However, she said over the years, development threatened to alter the path, often leading to riders traveling alongside a busy highway at some junctures.

Famous Black cow hunter Archie Rutledge on horseback.
Famous Black cow hunter Archie Rutledge on horseback.

Along the way, travelers camp at private ranches and a catering car supplies them with food and provisions. The journey is the opposite of what it was in the past, with Fort Pierce serving as the final destination and riders participating in a parade and celebration at the end of the long journey.

“You have to condition yourself, and you have to condition your horse for the ride,” she said. “The strangest part though is at the end, when you return in a truck, what just took seven days on horseback takes about two hours in a vehicle.

Over the years, the annual event has earned national notoriety, attracting participants from all over the world. Once the group arrives in 

To help preserve the legacy the Florida Cracker Trail earned recognition as a Community Millennium Trail in 2000. The Millennium Trails initiative represents a collaborative effort involving the White House Millennium Council, the Department of Transportation, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as various public agencies and private organizations. The overarching aim of Millennium Trails is to establish a comprehensive network of trails across the nation, aimed at preserving natural environments, interpreting history and culture, and improving alternative transportation, recreational opportunities, and tourism.

The annual cross-state journey commemorates the historic Florida Cracker Trail, paying homage to the intrepid Florida cowboys and their significant role in the state's past. Led by dedicated organizers like Carol Felts, this event not only honors Florida's rich agricultural heritage but also serves as a platform for fostering connections between longtime residents and newcomers, thereby preserving and sharing the unique legacy of the Sunshine State.

To learn more about the trip, visit https://floridacrackertrail.org/


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  • kmskepton

    Carol Felts is also a highly qualified candidate for the Manatee County Commission, District 1.

    Monday, February 12 Report this