Florida’s Good, Bad and Ugly
I recently took my children to the Florida Museum of History in Tallahassee – again. Excellent place – I highly recommend it. In fact, I think it should be a requirement of every Floridian. It is a glimpse into pre-air-conditioned Florida from the air-conditioned comfort of a museum.
The museum features permanent exhibits as well as temporary exhibits of Florida’s history. Currently (through August 9th) the museum features an exhibit on Florida Cattle Ranching over five centuries.
While cowboys are most often associated with the Wild West, little credit has been given to Florida’s cattle industry which began five centuries ago. Long before Texas became the Longhorn state, cattle were being bred from Andalusian cattle by Spanish vaqeuros and later Timucua Indians as long ago as 1521 when Hernando Desoto’s ships landed in Florida. For nearly five hundred years, these cattle have survived in the pine thickets and palm hammocks of Florida.
As the western cowboys were being romanticized in novels and newspapers in the east, the Florida Cow Hunter or “Crackers,” with their long whips and small cracker ponies, were snubbed. Roundups, range wars, rustling and main street shootouts were common occurrences in Florida during the second half of the 19th century. Central and South Florida towns were every bit as wild as their storied western counterparts. In fact, the range wars existed in Florida as late as 1935, long after the Wild West had been tamed. It wasn’t until 1949 that fencing laws were finally enacted statewide, ending free-range cattle.
The exhibit features artwork, photographs and oral histories as well as historical memorabilia from Florida’s now quieter cattle industry which still ranks 12th in beef cattle production among all states. Computer chips have replaced brands and ear notches to increase efficiency and produce genetically superior cattle, but the work still falls on the Florida Cowman much as it did five centuries ago – without air conditioning!