Lifestyle

‘The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles’ Highlighting a Dying Breed of Man and Beast

By  | 

We hate spam too, we'll never share your email address

 

 

Father/son filmmakers Elam & Nic Stoltzfus take America on the journey of a lifetime in the companion book and documentary called “The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles.” The story of a contemporary cattle drive organized by the Florida Cow Culture Preservation Committee in 2016, the documentary (which has been featured on PBS, and will be in national distribution on their channels this October and November – check local listings) covers the passion of its riders, the pleasures and pitfalls of the organizers, and the amazing re-enactment of a cattle drive of yesteryear, celebrating Florida’s rich ranching history. From atop a horse, the week-long ride from historic Whaley Ranch (south of St. Cloud) to Silver Spurs Arena in Kenansville (south of Kissimmee,) looks like a cattleman’s dream. The film makers manage to glean the best of humanity out of conditions many would shy away from. The riders traveled through the flatwoods in parts of Florida the average resident and tourist will never see, in the sunshine and monsoon-like rains, through alligator and snake-infested swamps, all the time laughing, learning, and growing close together while they drove 500 head of Florida Cracker cattle over 50 miles.

‘The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles’ Highlighting a Dying Breed of Man and Beast

Photo: Facebook/The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles Via Nic Stoltzfus

Along with cattle drive stories, the documentary and coffee table book teach you about Florida’s ranching history in how it was the first American state to have cattle approximately half a century ago, which originated from Spain and Puerto Rico, shipped over by Columbus and Ponce de León. Once the largest American exporter of cows, Florida coined the term “cow hunter,” referencing settlers that combed palmettos, cypress swamps, and piney woods searching for the remains of unclaimed cattle herds following the forced removal of the Seminole – one of the first Native American nations to populate the area and maintain the cattle herds after failed Spanish colonization attempts. The term “cracker” in reference to the cow itself, is unclear in its derivation. Based on research by the writer and documentarists it could pertain to the Scot-Irish homesteaders that became the first cow hunters, or it could be in regard to the sound of the whips cracking, which Spanish vaqueros used to help herd the cattle. However it developed, it became the name of the type of cow or cattle which were originally ranched in Florida.

‘The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles’ Highlighting a Dying Breed of Man and Beast

Photo: The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles

The amazing details that this documentary and companion book highlight on the history of this breed, its management, and the traditional cow hunter within the state, are extensive and quite enthralling for anyone with an interest in this lifestyle. Over time, the state of Texas and the nation of Venezuela were able to offer a larger, beefier cattle breed to the market. To compete, Florida ranchers began trying to “improve” their cattle, importing the zebu from India and eventually developing the first American Brahman. This, combined with the arrival of the Texas fever tick and the screwworm, proved to be the practical undoing of the Florida Cracker cow. Not only that, but the enormous influx of new settlement in the state resulting from development meant the essential “closure,” if you will, of what was once the Florida frontier, and thousands of acres of traditional ranch lands.

‘The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles’ Highlighting a Dying Breed of Man and Beast

Photo: The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles

By the late 1960s, there were only a handful of the pure Cracker cattle remaining. Thankfully, forethought by a handful of concerned Floridians together with some well-timed agricultural developments made for the saving grace of this animal, the centuries of history it carries with it, and ranching as a whole in the state. In the early ‘70s, the Department of Agriculture formed the Florida Cracker Cattle Foundation herd in the Florida state capital of Tallahassee. By the late ‘80s, the Florida Cracker Cattle Association was developed, and the Livestock Conservancy established an official registry of the animal. Following that, a yearly “Gatherin’” was coordinated by the FCCF at the Withlacoochee Forest for the sale of this specific breed. Herds were placed in locations such as Lake Kissimmee State Park, Payne’s Prairie Preserve State Park, and the Withlacoochee State Forest (their traditional territory) and now number approximately 6,000.

‘The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles’ Highlighting a Dying Breed of Man and Beast

Photo: The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles

The sixth of these annual events was where the original Great Florida Cattle Drive got its beginnings. To honor 150 years of Florida statehood, an historically-minded cattle drive was planned for 1995, recognizing the preservation of Florida’s cow culture. This spurred the creation of The Florida Cow Culture Preservation Committee, who assisted in this undertaking, repeating the event again in 2006, and 2016, for which the documentary was filmed and its companion book was written. The 132-page, full-color coffee table book, together with the fascinating documentary is a great addition to any self-respecting collector’s cache of ranching and cattle culture lifestyle paraphernalia. But more than that, it captures Florida’s forgotten history in an old-fashioned adventure including riders, walkers, wagon drivers, Native Americans, veterans, and young people from the Florida Sherriff’s Youth Ranches, celebrating previous drives, and saluting the importance of this breed and lifestyle for future generations to experience and learn from.

‘The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles’ Highlighting a Dying Breed of Man and Beast

Photo: The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles

Over seven days of riding the trail, driving the herd, sleeping on the ground in historical encampments, and re-living the life of Florida’s ranching ancestors, these “cow hunters” managed 500 head of Cracker cattle donated by the Florida Cattlemen. Experiencing Florida’s Seminole, Timucuan, Spanish, and Civil War era history along the way, and navigating the state’s terrain and often tumultuous weather, the ride wrapped up on Saturday, January 30, 2016. At the trail’s end, a gathering of historians, Seminole elders, dancers and singers, artists of various genres, and re-enactors greeted the group, together with a color guard of veteran motorcyclists saluting the veterans, youth, and other riders that took part in the drive. The motto for the event (which can be found on its website,) reads: “It ain’t for sissies!” The riders will tell you that no truer words have been spoken about this undertaking in what’s known as “the Sunshine State.” There’s a lot that can be learned when you take a chance and step outside of your comfort zone, braving the elements (which can be anything but all sunshine) as a true Florida cow hunter.

‘The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles’ Highlighting a Dying Breed of Man and Beast

Photo: The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles

From January 24 through January 30, the drive followed a trail through both state and private lands, approximately 50 miles in length, and skirting Lake Kissimmee in the process. Seeing Florida’s untamed countryside along the way, they learned how to set up and take down a camp, manage a herd, be thankful for the sun, and appreciate the little things like stars in the night sky, and a good, hot cup of coffee. With the help of hundreds of volunteers from throughout Florida’s horse and cattle industry, this historical event included over 400 riders for the purpose of re-enacting a 19th-century cattle drive, connecting with the land, their mounts, and their fellow riders along the way.

‘The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles’ Highlighting a Dying Breed of Man and Beast

Photo: The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles

The full documentary premiered on Florida PBS stations in February of this year. Florida’s wilderness and ranch lands continue to disappear at an alarming rate, and yet today, close to 2 million head of cattle co-exist with wildlife species (some threatened or endangered) on almost eight million acres of rangeland. Embodying the pioneer spirit, this drive echoed a rancher’s mindset: If the going gets tough, deal. If one of your co-riders or an animal gets into trouble, help them out. As the urgency increases to preserve not only the wilderness but also the ranching legacy that Florida is steeped in, planning is already underway for a reunion of this 2016 group as well as a fourth Great Florida Cattle Drive. The reunion will happen in January of 2018, and further information can be had at www.greatfloridacattledrive16.org or the event Facebook page. The next ride will be held in 2021, marking a full 500 years of the Florida Cracker tradition. To purchase the documentary “The Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles,” or its companion coffee table book, visit www.GreatFloridaCattleDrive.com or follow their Facebook page for video excerpts, soundtrack music, product releases, and updates.