Thursday, April 19, 2018
Outdoors

Visit a 'cracker' cowboy camp at Lake Kissimmee State Park

LAKE KISSIMMEE STATE PARK

A loud "crack!" shattered the morning stillness as we hiked down the tree-lined trail from the parking lot.

"What was that?" my daughter, Nia, asked.

"I don't know," I said. "It sounded like a gunshot, but there is no hunting allowed in a state park."

We walked a little farther and heard the noise again. "Was that lightning?" my son, Kai, asked.

"No," I replied. There wasn't a cloud in the sky.

Then we rounded a corner and saw a man who looked like he had just stepped out of 1876. Whip in hand, this Florida cowboy made it crack just like a rifle shot.

"Helps in herding the cows," he said to the strangers he had just met on the trail. "Why don't you sit a spell?"

Living history

Not much has changed here since "cow hunters" ruled the prairie. You'll see white-tailed deer, bald eagles, sandhill cranes and wild turkeys. Anglers can catch bass on lakes Kissimmee, Tiger and Rosalie.

There are also 13 miles of hiking trails, six of which are open to equestrians. The full-service campground is one of the best places in Florida for stargazing.

But while Florida might be known today for oranges, in the 1800s cattle was, literally, the state's biggest cash cow. Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon can be credited with kick-starting the industry in 1521, when he introduced seven Andalusian cows to Florida's ample grazing lands.

Cow country

Life was hard for those cowboys, who drove the cattle through the wild Florida scrubland. In the 1800s, Florida was an open range with no fences, so the great herds of cattle — some with as many as 50,000 head — roamed freely. Florida's first cowboys had to hunt their cows in the cypress swamps, pine flatwoods and hardwoods hammocks. After a while, folks started referring to these hardened men as "cow hunters."

The cattle themselves, skinny by today's standards, were survivors. These "scrub cows" could eke out a living almost anywhere. And by the late 1800s, there were cattle operations or "cow camps" spread across the state.

One of the better-known cow camps was located among the rich grazing lands of the Kissimmee Valley. Locals called it "Cow Town," which was a good fit, since most of its residents had hooves.

Jake Summerlin, one of the state's first cattle barons, hired crews of men to drive these cows from the interior of the state to the Gulf Coast town of Punta Rassa, near present-day Fort Myers Beach. The cows were then put on ships for New Orleans, Key West and Cuba, where they were traded for the staples every homesteader needed: tobacco, sugar and flour.

Cracker Florida

"Coffee?" the cow hunter asked, grabbing the pot off the open fire.

"Thanks," I said, wondering if I'd be pushing it to ask for some hazelnut non-dairy creamer.

The bitter black brew tasted good on this cold winter morning, and I tried to make small talk as I savored each sip. "Do you think U.S. Grant will run again?" I asked, thinking that the cow hunter would stay in character.

"Don't have much time for presidential politics," he said. "Don't much care."

I sat in silence thinking about all those long, lonely nights those cowboys must have spent on the Florida prairie. I'd be a little grouchy too if I had to spend 24/7 in a thatched hut on the edge of a swamp.

The cow hunter, a retired ranger who goes by the name "Chet," had undoubtedly gotten used to wise guys like me trying to trip him. An airboat whizzing across the nearby lake, prompted me to give it one more try.

"Okay, now what was that?" I asked.

Chet just smiled. "Skeeter," he said. "We grow 'em big 'round here."

Comments

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