great florida cattle drive

Courtesy of Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services

Florida’s cattle heritage came alive during the Great Florida Cattle Drive in 2016 when more than 500 participants – with horses, wagons and about 500 native Florida cattle – traveled nearly 60 miles over the span of a week. The ride started on Jan. 23 around St. Cloud and ended on Jan. 30 with a trails-end celebration at Silver Spurs Arena in Kenansville. Along the way, participants shared a taste of real trail life with primitive camping, sleeping in tents or sleeping bags on the ground.

“The intent of this ride is to bring attention to the 495-year-old Florida cattle industry and the cow hunter, and the cracker [pioneer settler] heritage that’s unique to our state,” says Manny Alvarez, a member of the executive committee that spent two years planning the event.

Florida’s nearly 500-year-old cattle industry started with cattle from Spain. The 2016 cattle drive was the third since 1995, when organizers undertook the first drive which recognized Florida’s 150th anniversary of statehood. “We wanted to expose as many people as possible to a slice of life from the 1850s,” Alvarez says. The Florida “cracker-type” cattle that made the drive are distant descendants of the cattle brought in the 1500s.

Conservation efforts by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services since the 1970s have helped multiply native lines of Florida’s cracker-type cattle and horses. Cattle were acclimated at the trailhead a week before the drive started.

Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam participated in the event. The ride included 13 veterans – 10 on horseback and three in some of the 15 to 20 wagons – as part of Operation Outdoor Freedom, a department program for wounded veterans. The 2016 cattle drive was one of more than 80 annual Operation Outdoor Freedom events connected with FDACS activities.

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“The camaraderie between the veterans and wagon circle participants was really special,” says David Hunt, Operation Outdoor Freedom assistant state program coordinator and member of the cattle drive executive committee.

Some of the wagons and horses were borrowed from the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranches. Hunt says some of the boys from the ranch who participated in the drive developed a special bond with the veterans.

“The night before the drive ended, veterans exchanged belt buckles with the boys, and you could tell that it really meant something to them – to get that belt buckle from a wounded veteran.”

While the cattle drive was historically accurate, the scale of the drive and modern modifications to the land, such as highways and housing developments, required nods to the 21st century. Circle bosses, some cow hunters and others carried walkie-talkies to communicate, and there were no chuck wagons. A fully equipped mobile kitchen cooked 1,500 meals each day along the way.

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