The Last of the Cowboys

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1935 Cattle Drive - Photo provided by State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory 1935 Cattle Drive - Photo provided by State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

By:  John E. Carter July 20, 2006 Times Edition

The Spaniards brought cattle to North Florida around 1540. Spanish cattle were sometimes called native cattle, woods cows, scrub cows, piney woods cows and the name soon became "Cracker Cattle". The Cracker Cow was small in size but tough and hardy. The Cracker Cow had one strong trait, foraging for themselves and raising a calf for the owner.

The Cracker Cow calved about every third year, sometimes every other year. Winters were rough on any cow that calved after June or a heifer that calved less  than two years of age. They just made it on their own, like wild animals, no supplemental feed. It was survival of the fittest. It took about three or four years for a steer to reach sale size.

A mark, brand, or both defined ownership in the days of open range. Penalties were severe for persons convicted of altering the former.

Cracker Cows provided the owners meat, milk, butter, tallow, and hides. The Cracker steers were used for work animals on the farm, broke to pull a plow, and to ground-slide and wagon.

The cattleman owned 40 acres, sometimes 80 acres and they farmed. Their cattle ranged over thousands of unfenced acres in open range days. Most of the cow pens were built and maintained by the cattlemen. Some pens had 20 or 40 acres of woods and pasture to hold the steers as they were rounded up in the fall to sell.

The cow hunters trusted friend was his trained cow horse. Many horses couldn't stand up to the every day cattle work. Saddle sores, stiff joints, clumsy feet,  thick wind, unable to start, stop, and turn with a cow was too much. It took a special horse to work cattle, preferably one with a tough back, good legs, sound feet, good wind, response to riders command, watching cows, and being able to start, stop, and turn with the cow.

Cattle round-ups would start in the spring and go from summer into the fall. This is when the steers were gathered to sell. Cow hunters would be on the drives for two to three weeks without going home. The cow hunters slept under the stars with their head on the saddle and a raincoat for a bed. It took a skilled cow hunter to ride point. It was mandatory that they had knowledge of the county and the woods where they rode.

Drives had two point riders, one on the left front and one on the right. Behind each point rider were usually two flank riders and then three or four other riders pushed the cows up. This was called riding drag. On long drives, one of the point riders would signal to hold the herd. He would then build a fire, open his saddlebags and get strips of bacon out to hold over the fire. One at a time each rider would come by to get their bacon and a slice of cornbread.

The cow hunter's equipment consisted of a western saddle, saddle bags, raincoats, ropes, whips, cracking whips, and barking cur dogs to let them know when the Cracker cattle were rounded up.

Early markets for cracker steers were Pensacola and River Junction. Herds were driven from Fountain to River Junction, which took four to five days. The herd would travel ten to fifteen miles a day and at night a pen or pasture would be found to bed down. Moving a herd from Chipley to Pensacola would take approximately two weeks. At the end of the drive, cow hunters were paid $5.00 to $7.50 per steer. Some herds were driven to Apalachicola then to Southport and shipped to Cuba.

With the coming of the railroad, market drives were phased out. After the railroad, trucks started hauling the steers. In the early 30's, Gene Nobles of Marianna, Florida rode a flashy mare named Daisey. He was the Panhandle's "First Cracker Cowboy". He could ride, rope and work cattle. Gene worked his family's cattle along with his own herds and he often worked with the Sewells, Neels, and Carters on their many round-ups.

Ambus Carter, a third generation cattleman, was named Wausau's "Favorite Son" in 1995 and as the "Pioneer Cowboy". Ambus was born in a league of his own with the gift of working cattle, pairing cows, and training horses. Many say Ambus Carter was the best "cowboy" to ever saddle a horse.

In 1949 the Legislature passed the Stock Law. This phased the Cracker Cattle operation out of business. In the early 50's a slow moving train left Chipley for New Mexico, pulling cars of Cracker Cattle. As the black smoke faded away, the curtain fell on another chapter of American History known as the "Cracker Cattle"

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