The “Florida Cracker History” is the first of a planned series of programs where stories and events of historical interest are shared with the residents of Highlands County.
How many of us really know the interesting history of this great state? Judging by the turnout of about 100 interested people, a lot of us want to know. This event was held Saturday at the newly renovated Circle Theater in Downtown Sebring. Attendees were educated, entertained and totally immersed in the rich fabric of local history.
Florida Cracker History was co-sponsored by the Capt. John W. Whidden Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Highlands County Genealogical Society.
The UDC Genealogical Reference Room is located in the Lake Placid Memorial Library and contains over 3,000 books covering colonial to modern records. It is open on Wednesdays from 1 to 5 p.m. and on the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
The HCGS encourages family history research and maintains an extensive research library at 309 Park Circle Drive, in the back of the Greater Sebring Chamber of Commerce office. That collection is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Florida Cracker History was presented by Raymond McIntyre. He is part of the sixth generation of a family living in Florida since 1820. He is the third generation born in Highlands County. He is also Tax Assessor of Highlands County and an early member of the Florida Cracker Trail Association which was founded in 1987.
McIntyre was dressed for the part, complete with cowboy hat, boots and spurs, rifle and whip. “I thought if you heard I was your tax assessor, I might need this here gun,” he said to a laughing crowd.
McIntyre was interesting, entertaining and kept his presentation well-paced for the crowd.
He started back in the 1500’s when Ponce de Leon called the territory, part of which is now our state of Florida, “La Florida,” meaning “the flowery land.”
Before the Spaniards came to Florida, there were no horses or cattle. “These animals were not native and were brought here by ship for the Spaniards to use in Florida,” said McIntyre. “Florida became the shipping station for explorers.”
They brought small livestock. Horses used for exploration of the territory and terrain were known as “traveling horses.” They were small and light-framed. The cattle were also small, lighter, very wiry and hearty so they could survive the climate. Also called “scrub cattle,” they only weighed about 600 pounds.
“In 1819, the United States bought La Florida from Spain for $5 million dollars. Of course, the dollar value was much different than it is today. But being the tax assessor, it was really a good buy, kind of like a fire sale,” said McIntyre, getting a hearty laugh from the audience.
“Many people came to this area to homestead. There were a lot of wild horses and lots of land,” he said. “They were granted 160 acres of land. Homesteaders had to reside on the land for seven years. If they survived the swamps, mosquitoes and alligators, the land was deeded to them.”
Punta Rassa, on the west coast, became the main commercial shipping port for cattle in the mid-1800s. Cattle were shipped to Cuba after the Civil War for leather goods and beef. Cattlemen were paid in doubloons. Punta Rassa was home to the “King of Cattle Cowboys”, wealthy rancher Jake Summerlin.
Kissimmee was a huge cattle capital of Florida. It took 10 days or so to travel to Punta Rassa. There were 10-12 cattlemen to drive 500 to 600 cattle. The cattlemen would sometimes buy additional head on their way there. They had to travel slowly to keep the cattle hearty and healthy.
One area they traveled through was Arcadia. “Arcadia was known as the outlaw roost. All the bad guys hung out there and ambushed people for their gold. They watched as people brought their cattle to the port and then tried to take their gold on the way back through. Every so often the good guys and the bad guys got together for an old-time shoot out,” said McIntyre.
The Civil War had a huge impact on cattle and beef. The south created the “Cow Cavalry.” Their job was protection and shipping of the primary source of leather goods and beef for the Confederacy. They would drive the cattle to Baldwin (by Jacksonville) and load them on rails to take them to Georgia for processing and slaughter.
McIntyre demonstrated the use of the bull whip. “Bull whips are unique to this state. They are made totally by hand in Florida. The handles are wood and the whip is made of nylon parachute cord. Today, they are about 10 feet long; in the past they were sometimes up to 18 feet long. The handle swivels so that rotation is easy,” continued McIntyre.
He said that there were several uses for the bull whip: obviously to drive cattle, to kill game (like snakes or rabbits) or to communicate (within about a one mile radius).
The Florida Cracker Trail is from Bradenton on the west coast to Fort Pierce on the east coast. The trail is about 120 miles long. It was designated by the Florida Legislature in 1988 to be as close to that historic cattle trail as possible and spans routes such as state roads 64, 17, 98 and 66.
“Cracker is a culture and a legacy,” said McIntyre. “The term goes back to those wild days. These special people wanted to understand and tame the state of Florida and learn to make a living there.”
He laughed and said, “My granny was from Georgia. She said Georgia Crackers were people who made moonshine and corn bread.”
The HCGS is planning its second event for March of 2014. If this is any indication of the quality of the presentations they offer and the interest of the community, it is sure to be another exciting and entertaining afternoon.