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Clay Sink Cattle Drive keeps Florida heritage alive

CLAY SINK

The cattle folk came from all corners of the state to go back in time.

They met at the Clay Sink Baptist Church in an isolated hamlet seven miles east of Lacoochee for an old-time cattle drive, to run Cracker cows through the woods.

"We're trying to portray what our ancestors have done in the past," said Henry Boyett, whose family settled here in the 1850s. "They left us a legacy that we are keeping alive."

Cattle operations are more pasture these days, less rough woods. It's more profitable that way because you can raise more calves on less land.

Boyett retired after 26 years with the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative. He lives in Dade City and visits Clay Sink almost every day.

His son Brian lives in Land O'Lakes and works in Zephyrhills. He tries to make it up to Clay Sink a few times each week. He's been building a barn for three years and has plans for a house nearby.

"The dream is to one day live here," he said. "There's not many places left like this in Florida."

• • •

Before they made the drive, they had to settle the cattle. Friday afternoon, a dozen riders went to a pasture with about 80 Texas longhorns and Mexican steers. Eight cow dogs did most of the work.

Bob Barthle, a Dade City rancher and former professional rodeo bulldogger, explained the process. The dogs are trained to herd the cattle and keep them in a large group. When a cow runs off, a handful of barking dogs drives it back in.

"When you're driving them to the pen, you don't want them scattered for miles," he said. "You want them in a bunch."

Some of the cows and steers had never before seen a dog. They learned respect mighty quick.

Henry's daughter Candy Nathe noted: "You see all those longhorns in the center? They're dog-broke. They don't want any more of that."

The Boyetts expected about 300 people to show up for the third annual event, including ranchers from Fort Myers to New Smyrna Beach. They drove the cattle five miles Saturday morning before coming back for a cookout that night.

• • •

If you wrote a letter to the church you'd put Webster on it, but this is not Webster. Kids go to school in Lacoochee, but it's not Lacoochee. Ridge Manor's close by, but it's not Ridge Manor. It's Clay Sink, in the Green Swamp.

"I always told people nobody wanted us," said Tim Boyett, Henry's second cousin. And he's fine with that.

Clay Sink has fewer than 100 residents in less than 20 homes. There's a sawmill, the cemetery and a schoolhouse that closed in 1943. Now it's a Sunday school room and fellowship hall.

Then there's the church. The pine building is painted white with a modest steeple. Inside, stained glass windows and polished wood from floor to ceiling give a warm feeling. It draws an average of 80 worshippers on Sundays, from three counties.

Henry Boyett is a tall, barrel-chested man with close cropped gray hair. He stands at a cattle guard and points in all directions, noting tracts owned either by the state Division of Forestry or his kin. He smiles and holds two fingers not far apart.

"No development," he said. "Not one inch is for sale."

Clay Sink gets its name for the huge sinkhole nearby with a solid clay bottom. It's about the size of the cemetery that was founded in 1873 when the Slaughter family buried an infant daughter. Now there's an historical marker in front of scores of old graves.

Henry's grandmother was a Slaughter. His family has nine generations in Florida: "We have five on top of the ground and four under."

Henry's cousin Tim lived in Ridge Manor for 17 years before coming back to live in his granddaddy's house that was built in 1937.

"There wasn't a better place to come back to," he said. "I don't want to see it change."

Clay Sink Cattle Drive keeps Florida heritage alive 10/08/11 [Last modified: Saturday, October 8, 2011 1:44pm]

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