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Cow Hunters and Cattle Barons

Florida has the longest history of ranching of any state in the United States. This exhibit celebrates that long history and the continuing importance of cattle and ranching to the Florida economy and culture. This exhibit is presented in support of the Florida Folklife Program exhibit, Florida Cattle Ranching: Five Centuries of Tradition, currently on display at the Western Folklife Center, Elko, Nevada from January 18 – July 24, 2010. Images from the State Archives are used, along with information from the exhibit and new photographs from folklorist Bob Stone, to illustrate how cattle, the people who raise them, and the cultural importance of ranching have changed since cattle first arrived with the earliest Spanish explorers more than 400 years ago. This exhibit showcases the work, play, tradition, and artistry that ranching represents in Florida.

Florida’s cattle industry, one of the oldest and largest in the nation, is vital to the state’s well-being. Ranching is an essential economic activity that preserves many aspects of the natural landscape, protects water resources, and maintains areas used by wildlife or for recreation. Yet few know about Florida’s unique ranching traditions, which have been adapted to the subtropical climate and influenced by the state’s distinctive history.

In Florida, those who own or work cattle traditionally have been called cowmen. In the late 1800s they were often called cow hunters, a reference to hunting for cattle scattered over the wooded rangelands during roundups. At times the terms cowman and Cracker have been used interchangeably because of similarities in their folk culture. Today the western term “cowboy” is often used for those who work cattle.

 

Colonial Florida

Florida ranching has evolved from many different cultural traditions, though the most important sources were the marshy coastal areas of Andalusia, Spain, and the hill regions of Britain and Ireland. In Andalusia, ranchers living in towns hired cow hands (vaqueros), who marked or branded the cattle, managed them from horses, and moved them to different locations during the year. They later brought long-horned Andalusian cattle to the Americas. In highland Britain and Ireland, herders marked or branded cattle for identification, penned them at night for protection, and moved them to different pastures during the year. In the fall, the animals were sold to drovers, who used dogs and whips to drive them to markets or slaughterhouses. The Spanish and British took these traditions to the West Indies, where they were adapted to the tropical climate and combined to create ranching systems used throughout the Americas.

Florida’s Andalusian/Caribbean cattle were the first in today’s United States. Some scholars believe that cattle brought by the expeditions of Ponce de Leon in 1521 and Don Diego de Maldonado in 1540 escaped and survived in the wild. Organized ranching began with the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, when cattle from Spain and Cuba formed the basis of herds that fed the garrison and surrounding communities. In addition to herds owned by the Spanish and Indians, wild cattle flourished in the rangelands and prairies. Eventually Spanish colonists began exporting cattle to Cuba. During the 1600s, Spanish clergy raised cattle at the missions, where many Native Americans learned to tend them.

 

Cows and Empires

By 1700, Florida contained approximately 34 ranches and 20,000 head of cattle. After British-Creek Indian raids in 1702 and 1704 devastated Florida cattle ranchers, Indians sustained cattle raising in Florida. Many had established large herds of wild cattle and stock acquired from the Spanish. Cattle herding was vital culturally and economically to the early Seminoles, as attested to by the name of their leader, Cowkeeper (ca. 1710-1783). They remained Florida’s major livestock producers throughout most of the 1700s.

 

During British rule (1763-1783), English planters and Creek Indians in west Florida owned substantial herds. Cowmen from Georgia and the Carolinas spread into north Florida during that period.

In early Florida, Europeans, Americans, and Indians stole cattle from each other. Rustling became particularly widespread by the second half of the 18th century, and was one of the elements that led to the Seminole Wars.

 

The 19th Century: Struggle and Sacrifice

When the U.S. took possession of Florida in 1821, it was described as a “vast, untamed wilderness, plentifully stocked with wild cattle.” Florida “scrub” or Cracker cattle were descended from the mix of Spanish and British breeds. These hardy creatures survived on native forage, tolerated severe heat, insect pests, and acquired immunity to many diseases.

Early Florida cowmen survived in difficult conditions. They fought off panthers, wolves, bears, and cattle rustlers. Cowmen spent weeks or months on cattle drives across difficult marshes and dense scrub woods, often enduring burning heat, torrential thunderstorms, and hurricane winds. From central Florida they sometimes drove cattle as far as Jacksonville, Savannah, and Charleston. This gradually changed in the 1830s when the cattlemen re-established trade with Cuba, and Tampa, Punta Gorda, and Punta Rassa became important export ports.

The number of cattle increased rapidly from the 1840s until the Civil War. Florida was second only to Texas in per capita value of livestock in the South. After the Armed Occupation Act of 1842, cattlemen from the overstocked states of Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas homesteaded 200,000 acres in Florida. Some seized range territory that the Seminoles had been forced to relinquish as a consequence of the Seminole Wars. The newcomers often brought foundation herds that interbred with wild scrub cattle. Few cattlemen owned grazing land since there was extensive open range. By mid-century, ranchers were running large herds on the extensive open range in central and south Florida.

Wars provided an economic boost for Florida cattlemen, who provisioned armies during the Seminole, Civil, and Spanish American Wars. Although the Civil War disrupted the Cuban trade, Florida cowmen became beef suppliers to both armies. Hides, tallow, and meat from Florida were so important for the Confederacy that a Cow Cavalry was organized to protect herds from Union raiders.

After the Civil War there were still wild cattle in Florida, as well as attractive markets to the north and south. During the next three decades, trade boomed with Cuba, Key West, and Nassau, and Florida became the nation’s leading cattle exporter. From 1868 to 1878, ranchers received millions of dollars in gold doubloons for over 1.6 million cattle exported to Cuba. The Cuban commerce provided income to cattlemen, merchants, and shippers, and contributed to the state’s recovery from Reconstruction-era depression.

 

Thanks to The Florida Memory Project for this article.

The Florida Everglades

The Everglades is a unique treasure found in South Florida. The Everglades is the largest remaining subtropical wilderness in the United States. It consists of 1.5 million acres of saw grass marshes, mangrove forests, and hardwood hammocks dominated by wetlands. It is home to endangered, rare, and exotic wildlife.


 

 

Origins of the Everglades

Water in South Florida once flowed from the Kissimmee River to Lake Okeechobee. Then it flowed southward over low-lying lands to Biscayne Bay, the Ten Thousand Islands, and Florida Bay. This shallow, slow-moving sheet of water created a mosaic of ponds, marshes, and forests. Over thousands of years this developed into a balanced ecosystem.

Wading birds such as great egrets, white ibis, herons, and wood storks were abundant. The Cape Sable seaside sparrow, Miami blackheaded snake, manatee, and Florida panther made the Everglades their home. Alligators and crocodiles existed side by side.

The Seminole and Miccosukee Indians settled in the Everglades. Although they battled with the alligators and crocodiles who live in the ‘Glades, they did not interfere with the overall balance of the ecosystem.


Draining the Everglades

Early settlers and land developers considered the Everglades to be a worthless swamp. By the 1800s, developers started digging canals to drain the wetlands. Between 1905 and 1910, large tracts of land were converted to agriculture. This “new” land stimulated the first of South Florida’s land booms. Henry Flagler constructed the first railroad down the Florida peninsula opening up this area to people.

By the 1920s, visitors and new residents flocked to towns like Fort Lauderdale, Miami, and Fort Myers. As they arrived, more canals were dug. Canals, roads, and buildings took the place of native habitats.

In 1948, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a system of roads, canals, levees, and water-control structures stretching throughout South Florida. This was intended to provide water and flood protection and to help preserve the Everglades. However, the alteration of the wetlands—combined with increasing population—damaged the natural system.

In the 1960s, the federal government considered building an international airport in the Everglades area. Florida environmentalists objected. Marjory Stoneman Douglas organized the Friends of the Everglades. The airport was not built and a strong crusade to “Save the Everglades” was begun.

 

The Everglades Today Today, 50% of South Florida’s original wetland areas no longer exist. The numbers of wading birds have been reduced by 90%. Entire populations of animals are in danger of disappearing. Exotic pest plants have invaded natural areas. Losses of seagrass beds in Florida Bay have been followed by losses of wildlife.In Mrs. Douglas’s classic book, The Everglades: River of Grass, she wrote, “Unless the people act . . . overdraining will go on. The soil will shrink and burn and be wasted and destroyed, in a continuing ruin.”However, she continues, in a hopeful vein, “There is a balance in man also, one which has set against his greed . . . Perhaps even in this last hour, in a new relation of usefulness and beauty, the vast, magnificent, subtle and unique region of the Everglades may not be utterly lost.”The best way to see the Everglades is by picking up a paddle. In wintertime, when the temperatures and swarms of mosquitoes have decreased, Everglades National Park draws large numbers of visitors. They include kayak and canoe campers, along with birders, hikers, and fishermen. They include those with a desire to see this unique treasure.

 

Marjory Stoneman Douglas
1890-1998


During the century of her life, Marjory Stoneman Douglas was a journalist, playwright, and environmental crusader. She fought for feminism, racial justice, and conservation long before these causes became popular.
Her book, The Everglades: River of Grass, published in 1947—the year Everglades National Park was established—has become the definitive description of the natural treasure she fought so hard to protect.

In his introduction to her autobiography, Voice of the River, John Rothchild describes her appearance ata public meeting: “Mrs. Douglas was half the size of her fellow speakers and she wore huge dark glasses . . . along with a huge floppy hat . . . Her voice had the sobering effect of a one-room schoolmarm’s. The tone itself seemed to tame the rowdiest of the local stone crabbers, plus the developers, and the lawyers on both sides. I wonder if it didn’t also intimidate the mosquitoes.”


One small person can make a huge difference. Mrs. Douglas was a very small size but cast a giant shadow over the Everglades. Her influence on Florida’s environmental movement was significant.

How much does it cost to winter in Florida in 1924?

(From an article written in 1924 by Karl H. Grismer)

Percy Gotrocks, who graces Palm Beach with his presence during the winter months, considers himself fortunate if he can get through a season without parting from about sixty thousand dollars. His “shack” on Ocean Boulevard has a retinue of servants that could man a hotel, and their wages are only a small part of Percy’s expenses. The way his parties waste away his bankroll is almost a crime.

Of course, Percy could economize if he cared to, but what would his friends think! He has to put on the dog or people will get the idea that the Giltedge Investment Company, of which he is president, is going to the bow-wows. As for Mrs. Percy, she wouldn’t think of coming to Florida without buying at least a dozen new gowns, fifteen or twenty pairs of shoes, and a couple of thousand dollars worth of other stuff. Why, she wouldn’t feel half dressed! So she splurges handsomely, and Mr. Percy pays the bills.

Not everyone who winters in Florida can afford to disregard expenses like Mr. and Mrs. Percy. Most people have to watch closely every item of expense, and if the total threatens to mount too high, they stay up North, regardless of the discomforts of northern blizzards. The sunshine and the flowers of Florida call them, but they turn a deaf ear.

There is no mystery regarding the cost of wintering in Florida. Despite all ideas to the contrary, a person can estimate before leaving home how much his expenses will be. And he can come within a few dollars of being right. There need be no guesswork about it.
The first item to consider is the cost of transportation. That is the simplest of all. By inquiring at the railroad ticket office the prospective tourist can learn exactly how much the fare will be. For persons living north of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi the fare would probably average $60 each way, including Pullman, or $120 for the round trip.

Following transportation, the next major item of expense is that of rent. Although many tourists live in hotels, the majority leases houses or apartments for the season. And the prices, of course, vary greatly. They range from a medium of about $250 for the season to $3,000 or even more.

Small houses, in the suburbs, can sometimes be obtained for the same price as the cheaper apartments. As a general thing, however, the minimum seasonal rent for a place with modern conveniences and adequate furnishings is about $400. A five-room house, close in, can be obtained for from $700 to $1,000.

Many persons may think the above rents are excessive. It must be remembered that the houses and apartments in the resort city remain empty during the summer months or else are rented for very small amounts. In order to break even the resort city landlord must charge as much for the winter season as the northern landlord does for the whole year.

The wide range of existing rents makes it difficult to estimate exactly just what the tourist will have to spend for living quarters. But for the purpose of estimating the average cost of wintering in Florida, let’s use the $400 figure.

The next major item of expense, following transportation and rent, is that for food. To give exact figures for this expense, of course, is impossible. One tourist cooking his own meals, may live well on $5 a week or less. Another, eating the most expensive foods at an expensive restaurant, may pay $5 or more each day. The tourist may spend as much as or just as little as he chooses. It all depends upon his appetite and his purse.

The tourist who eats regularly in cafeterias and restaurants can figure that he can get by easily for $2 a day, and have everything he wants to eat. The chances are he will have enough left over from the weekly food allowance of $14 to send a box of citrus fruit to his northern friends occasionally.

To get back again to the problem of estimating the average cost of wintering in Florida, for a 6-month season the total cost for food and household expenses would be about $300.

Transportation, rent and food are the major items of expense. Aside from those there is nothing that will mount into money. The matter of clothes can be dismissed almost entirely. The tourist need only bring his summer clothes and a few winter garments along with him and he will be all set.

Amusements will not cost the tourist half as much as it does up North. In the public parks he can play all manner of games; he can go fishing; he can attend the public band concerts and listen to the music of the best bands in the country; he can attend the entertainments of the tourist societies. All this costs him next to nothing.

In summarizing, let us figure how much it costs a man and wife to enjoy a Florida winter. The transportation cost for the couple would be about $240. The rent total would be about $400. The cost of meals and household expenses, for a six-month season, would be about $300, considering that the couple ate at home. Allow $100 for incidentals. That brings the complete total up to $1,040 for the six month season, certainly not a prohibitive amount for persons in even very moderate circumstances.

Is a winter in Florida worth that amount? Is it worth it to leave the snow, and rains, and gloom, and sickness of a northern winter, to go to the land where all the time is summer; where the mocking-birds sing their songs of gladness; where the palm trees are gently waved by warm breezes from gulf and ocean? We’ll say it is!

And when you come to Florida and try one of the summerwinters for yourself, you’ll say so, too.

Florida Cattle And Cowboys

Hundreds of years ago, long before tourists or even cities, there was another Florida. When the Spaniard Ponce de León discovered it in 1513, Florida was mostly wide, green spaces. In 1521 when he returned, he brought horses and seven Andalusian cattle, the ancestors of the Texas Longhorns. He knew he’d found pastureland. Spanish explorers turned Florida into America’s oldest cattle-raising state.The early cattle-raising days were rough for Spanish settlers. The St. Augustine missionaries who raised beef also fought Indian raids and mosquitoes. Despite the cattle fever ticks, storms, swamps and snakes, before 1700 there were already dozens of ranches along the Florida Panhandle and the St. Johns River.

By the 1800s, the Seminole nation possessed extensive herds of cattle. Most Florida settlers raised beef for food. As Indian and white settlers moved south, so did the cattle. They moved through Alachua county into the Kissimmee valley and on to Lake Okeechobee. The search for new pastures was the reason for the migration south.

Railroads reached into Florida. Because trains could ship cattle, the beef industry grew. New towns sprang up around the ranches, and more people arrived from other states. There was work for blacksmiths, shopkeepers, and cowboys in these settlements. During the Civil War, Florida became a chief supplier of cattle to the Confederacy, both for meat and leather.

The herds ranged in size from 5,000 to 50,000 head. Rustling was prevalent throughout the state. This was because Florida was an open range. There was not a fenced pasture anywhere in the state and cattle roamed freely. The early cowboys would round cows up over miles and miles of open plains, in the hammocks, and by the rivers and streams. Then they would drive them to market.

Florida’s old-time cowboys had a unique way of herding cattle. They used 10- to 12-foot-long whips made of braided leather. Snapping these whips in the air made a loud “crack.” That sound brought stray cattle back into line fast and earned cowboys the nickname of “crackers.” Many rode rugged, rather small horses known as “cracker ponies.

Cracker cowboys also counted on herd dogs to move cattle along the trail. Their tough dogs could help get a cow out of a marsh or work a hundred steers into a tidy group. For those rough riders of Florida’s first ranges, a good dog, a horse, and whip were all the tools a true cracker needed.

By the 1890s, cow camps were located in most sections of the state. One such camp was located near Lake Kissimmee. It was known as “Cow Town.” The area’s cattle were referred to as scrub cows, ridiculous in appearance. They were once described as “no bigger than donkeys, lacking quality as beef or milk producers.” They were valuable because the animals could survive in wilderness areas. By the 1920s, however, the quality of Florida cattle had improved greatly.

Raising cattle is still one of the biggest businesses in the state. Florida’s ranchers raise the third largest number of cattle of any state east of the Mississippi. Their herds represent many centuries of dreams. They link the sweat and success of ancient Spaniards and hardy pioneers with today’s modern cattle ranchers.

 

Exploring Florida: A Social Studies Resource for Students and Teachers
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 2002

Beach Cowmen – A Slice of Local Lore


Following is a great story that ran in April, 2008 in the Island Sand Paper:

Beach Cowmen – A Slice of Local Lore
by Keri Hendry

Punta Rassa, Florida is now known chiefly as a popular boat ramp for boaters coming to Ft. Myers Beach and the site of the luxurious Sanibel Harbour Resort and Spa. But among old Florida families, whose roots run back to the days when there were more cattle in southwest Florida then people, the little strip of land that juts into the Caloosahatchee River at the foot of the Sanibel Causeway is remembered for what it once was: a thriving little town where Florida cattle were driven to be shipped to Cuba. On Saturday afternoon, April 5th, that historical significance was finally officially recognized when a plaque was installed at the site. In a ceremony attended by members of the Cattlemen’s Association, “Cowboy Poet” Hank Mattson, representatives of old Cracker family the Hendrys and Margaret England, the plaque was unveiled.

Little remains of the town that once stood at the site, or the building that once housed the southern terminus of the International Ocean and Telegraph Company (IOTC) line – which ran underwater from Punta Rassa to Key West and then underwater again to Havana, Cuba. The town also served as a steamship port for people wishing to go to Key West. Former director of the Fort Myers Historical Museum Patricia Bartlett is quoted as saying, “For a long time Fort Myers was merely a freckle on the face of the earth, and Punta Rassa was the far more important of the two.”

Colorful character and “Cracker Storyteller” Butch Harrison came up with the idea for the plaque when he was visiting the area a couple of years ago.

“I read about Punta Rassa in the book ‘A Land Remembered’ by Patrick Smith,” Butch told us. “And I don’t know of any place that has more historical and archeological significance than this spot. So I came down here and I was shocked that there was no marker to let people know about the place’s history. I went over to Sanibel and asked at Bailey’s General Store, and then I called the Lee County Commissioner’s office. They put me in touch with Mike Mulligan from Lee County Parks and Recreation, and we got the ball rolling.”

Butch said that the plaque was the result of the combined effort of a lot of people including Joe Akerman, Jr., Professor Emeritus of North Florida Community College – and author of ‘Florida Cowmen’ and Jacob Summerlin – King of the Crackers’- who designed the colorful plaque and Hank. O. Hendry, who signed on for “a bit of local color.”

It all came together on Saturday afternoon when Harrison, Akerman and Sara Nell Hendry-Gran gave a presentation about the history of Punta Rassa followed by the unveiling of the plaque.

“The Calusas called it “Point of Swift Waters”,” Butch began. “A total of four civilizations of Indians made this area home, dating back to as far back as 10,000 years ago. In 1521, Ponce de Leon brought the first cattle ever introduced to the U.S. to Punta Rassa, naming it ‘flat point’ – one of the earliest areas named by the Spanish.”

Harrison said that De Leon, who was here on his 2nd voyage, also brought a small band of settlers. “The Calusas, sometimes known as the ‘Vikings of Florida’ for their warrior nature, attacked the party and Ponce De Leon died of his injuries some time later.”

Throughout the 1700’s, the Indians became master cattlemen, having learned it from the Spanish. The Seminoles were particularly adept at it, keeping their cattle herds strong despite raids by the English. Since Florida did not have a fence law until 1950, cattle roamed free all over the state, identifiable by the brands they carried.

In the early to mid 1800’s white settlers, including the Hendrys and Summerlins, moved their herds down through central Florida (which was primarily graze land in those days) to the Caloosahatchee River, and then down the ‘Cracker Trail’ – a cattle trail running from Ft. Pierce to Punta Rassa – where they were shipped to Cuba, which had lost a lot of cattle in revolutions. These men, known as ‘crackers’ because of the distinct sound of their 12′ to 14′ braided whips, would spend many weeks on the trail, sleeping at night on blankets and saddles. In 1838, Punta Rassa became the site of Fort Dulaney, established as a supply depot during the Second Seminole War. By 1840, 30,000 head of cattle were shipped out of Punta Rassa each year.

“The Cubans and Spanish liked the taste of Florida cattle better than Texas cows because it had a venison like quality,” said Harrison. “Our cattle usually weighed about 600 pounds, and it was said that Florida grasses were what gave the meat the taste and texture that the Cubans liked.”

Butch talked about the qualities exhibited by the ‘cow-hunters’, as they were called. “The early cattlemen were strongly individualistic and independent. They were all woodsmen, and many were trained in the veterinary arts,” said Butch. “Most had befriended and learned from the Indians, and they were all resourceful. They had a strong spiritual dimension, and while they were men of ambition, that ambition ran more towards wonder and curiosity instead of money.”

Florida was the third state to secede from the Union, three months before the fighting began at Fort Sumter. Most of the cowmen had few – if any – slaves, and supported the Confederacy solely because Florida was in the war. During the summer of 1861, Union forces had imposed a naval blockade along the west coast, including Punta Rassa (where they reactivated Fort Dulaney). This did little to stop Summerlin and Hendry from getting their cattle out to the Cuban markets and to help feed Confederate soldiers, and ‘blockade running’ became quite common.

Following the war, Punta Rassa thrived on the flourishing cattle industry. Cowmen were paid in Spanish gold, which greatly helped since Florida, like most of the Confederate states, was left virtually destitute during Reconstruction.

“In 1866, the International Ocean and Telegraph Company took over the fort and port of Punta Rassa,” Florida historian Joe Akerman told us. “They also controlled the shipping rights, pens and the dock. For the use of these facilities, the company usually charged 15 cents a cow.” Cattleman Captain F.A. Hendry, a strong believer in private enterprise, responded by building his own cow pens along with a wharf and charged only 10 cents a cow. In the fall of 1878, Jacob Summerlin bought all of this from Captain Hendry for $10,000 and erected what came to be known as the famous Summerlin Hotel.

“The hotel accommodated hunters, drovers, ranchers and Spanish cattle buyers from Cuba,” said Ackerman, reading from his book “Jacob Summerlin – King of the Crackers”. He went on to say that, “By 1873, there were approximately 500,000 head of cattle in Florida, valued at $4,322,000.”

But by the 1880’s Florida was beginning to have serious competition in the cattle industry from Texas and Central America. In 1885, New York sportsman W.H. Wood caught the first tarpon ever landed on rod and reel, and George Shultz, who ran the inn for the IOTC, renamed it “Tarpon House” as fame of a different sort began to spread.

In 1898, Punta Rassa was the first town in the country to hear about the Spanish sinking of the U.S. battleship Maine – via the telegraph.

By the early 1900’s, Punta Rassa was attracting sportsmen from around the world, though cattle were still being shipped from there. Sara Nell Hendry-Gran read some passages written by her Aunt Nell Gould – the schoolteacher there at the time – describing life in Punta Rassa in 1910.

“There were six buildings at Punta Rassa in 1910,” Sara Nell read. “These were the large Shultz Hotel, the Rufus Yent temporary dwelling, two neat white cottages which housed the telegraph office and the operator’s family, and the historic Summerlin House. The school was in large building over the water near the dock where cattle were loaded to be shipped to Key West.”

“There was no road to Punta Rassa in 1910. The Kinzie Brothers steamer ‘Gladys’ brought mail, passengers and freight en route to Sanibel and Captiva daily except Sundays.”

Sara Nell said her Aunt Nell told of how the cow pens were located near the “Summerlin-Towles house”, built in 1874. “The cowmen would camp underneath the house, cooking over a campfire and sleeping under mosquito nets at night, usually staying for one or two nights. When the men were ready to load the cattle onto the ship, they would put a few seashells into five gallon oil cans and startle the cows into running onto the ship.” She told us how her aunt recalled how they had received warning of a hurricane, and everyone at Punta Rassa went on board the steamship ‘Mildred’ until the storm had passed.

Shultz’s Tarpon Lodge burned down in 1906 and again in 1913. In 1927, Seaboard Air Line System President S. Davies Warfield planned to lay tracks to Punta Rassa – planning to rebuild it as a port. Unfortunately, Warfield died before these plans could be realized. These problems, along with the loss of the cattle industry, led to Punta Rassa being virtually abandoned. Except for the automobile ferry boat, which still took people to Sanibel and Captiva, the area remained this way as Ft. Myers grew up around it until developers took notice of the location and began building high-rise apartments and other residences. According to Akerman’s book “King of the Crackers”, one modern day developer was shocked to find evidence of the port’s glory days in the form of a certain unmistakable smell: “The woods for miles around gave off the pungent odor of cow manure where thousands of cattle must have once been penned,” said Theron Moore. “And no matter how deep we dug we still encountered the manure. Some of that cow dung must have come from some of old Jake Summerlin’s cows. That smell suddenly brought us way back in time.”

Today, Florida’s beef industry is ranked 10th in the country, and the value of the current herd still numbers in the billions.

When the plaque was uncovered to the applause of all present, Hank Mattson, dressed as a 19th century cowhunter, got up and recited his original poem “When This Old Hat Was New” about life in those bygone days.

The plaque itself is a work of art, featuring pictures of the Summerlin House and dock area, along with text outlining the storied history of Punta Rassa. Sara Nell Hendry-Gran remarked at how wonderful it was that there were children present, so that they could witness the historical event. Butch Harrison wowed the kids with his whip-cracking skills, saying, “Remember – this is part your history.”

“We’ve been working on this for two years,” said Hank Hendry of the plaque, located next to the public boat ramp. “This is a great opportunity to commerate Florida history.”

So the next time you’re putting your boat in the water at Punta Rassa’s ramp, or simply driving past on your way to Sanibel, maybe you’ll hear on the wind the whooping voices of long-gone cattlemen or, like Theron Moore, catch a pungent whiff of the past – when Florida was a much different place and when Jacob Summerlin and Captain F.A. Hendry competed for the title of Cracker Cowhunter King.

Keri Hendry (proud descendent of a Cracker family)