TAMPA — Cowboys and cowgirls mounted horses Saturday and drove 18 wide-eyed cattle through downtown Tampa, past hundreds of people who lined up outside the Tampa Bay History Center.
Nick Dotti brought his 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter — each decked out in little cowboy hats and boots — from South Tampa to the cattle drive, which was held to promote the museum's traveling exhibit about Florida cattlemen.
He held one child in each arm as the cattle ran past, and he explained to daughter Maggie that she need not worry about cars entering the blocked-off road and hitting the animals.
Her favorite cow handler was "the one with the earrings," she said. That was Chass Bronson, 23, cousin of Florida Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson. She arrived in patent-leather cowboy boots, dark red lipstick and rhinestone-encrusted belt and earnings.
Though she's handled cattle for years on her father's ranch, Bronson said it was her first time driving them through a city.
"It was exciting, to say the least," she said.
At one point, she was worried the cattle dogs would drive the herd onto Channelside Drive, but the group herded the animals safely into a temporary pen. The crowd cheered.
Although a cattle drive in downtown Tampa was an odd sight Saturday, it wouldn't have been unusual 100 years ago. Beef cattle were regularly driven to local ports, often to be shipped to Cuba, said curator Rodney Kite-Powell.
"It wasn't a daily occurrence. We weren't like Tombstone," he said. "But cattle were very common around downtown."
Jim Handley, vice president of the Florida Cattlemen's Association, said the exhibit is important because it highlights a hidden industry. The Florida Cattle Ranching exhibit is on display through Dec. 19 at the history center.
Cattle first arrived in the United States through Florida in 1521 with Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, said Handley and Kite-Powell.
Now, there are about 1.7 million head of beef cattle in the state. They're raised on about 7 million acres mostly between interstates 75 and 95, Handley said.
The event drew a wide range of people — from toddlers to seniors, city folk and a few local ranchers. Jack Cannon, 79, a third-generation rancher from Pasco County, said he came to see how younger people drive cattle.
"It was alright," he said, smiling. "I would have controlled them better, though."
The children loved watching the cattle and stared at the beasts long after they were penned. After an hour, they had another treat: firefighters with powerful hoses. Someone had to clean the street.
Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2443.