Before tourism, before real estate, even before citrus, Florida’s primary economic engine had horns and four hooves. The cattle industry built this state, well before it was a state, and Tuesday evening at the new Marco Island Museum, David Southall expounded on Florida’s bovine past.
In just the second program at the museum, which has only had its doors open with a “soft opening” for barely a month, Southall presented an illustrated talk entitled “Cattle and Conflict: Florida’s Cattle Wars.” Southall has been Curator of Education at the Collier County Museum, as the Historical Society’s flier on the event said, since before the turn of the century.
Approximately 100 turned out for the talk, introduced by Marco Island Historical Society program chairman Jerry Masters, after brief remarks by president Craig Woodward. Herb Savage, dressed for the occasion, sat in the front row, sporting a big white ten-gallon hat.
“There are no cowboys in Florida,” proclaimed Southall, saying that here, they are called cow-hunters or cowmen. He also waded into the origin of the term “cracker” for a native Floridian. Disputing the idea it comes from the crack of the drovers’ whips, he said the name came from the cracked corn the rough settlers ate.
“Civilized whites didn’t eat corn — it was considered animal food,” he said.
Southall told how the first cattle were brought to the state by Ponce de Leon, in 1521, along with horses, and diseases to which the indigenous population had no resistance. Unlike the Calusa Indians, the tough Andalusia cows thrived, and escaped and bred in the wild.
Cows became a mainstay of the frontier Florida economy, a resource that could be harvested by simply rounding them up and delivering them to a cattle town, if you could survive the harsh climate, the hard life and white and red cattle rustlers. Cattle figured in the Seminole wars, when the government confiscated the Native Americans’ herds, and played a major role in Florida’s Civil War experience.
Cattlemen like Jacob Summerlin grew rich providing cattle to the Confederate States Army, or selling them in Cuba for gold. After the war, said Southall, Florida was “wide open” and lawless, with nothing but “frontier justice” south of Gainesville.
Arcadia, now a sleepy town but still a hub of the Florida cattle industry, had “more dance halls, more saloons and more houses of ill repute than anywhere in the U.S.”
Southall told of legendary cowmen such as Morgan Bonaparte “Bone” Mizell, larger than life at 6 ft. 6 in. and 250 lbs., who was pardoned by the governor for cattle rustling before he (Bone) had time to sober up from his one night in jail. When Bone drank himself to death in 1921, around the time of Florida’s first great land boom, the industry was changing, with law taking the place of the six-gun.
In 1949, the state legislature ordered the fencing in of all livestock, and the era of the open range drew to a close. Arcadia still has rodeos, and bull-riding events even come to Naples, but Florida’s cow culture is far removed from the experience of present-day Marco Islanders.
Along with David Southall’s talk, the Marco Island Museum currently has an exhibit of stunning photographs which make that cow culture so real, you can taste the dust in your mouth. Shot by eighth-generation Floridian Carlton Ward Jr., the photos will hang in the museum through Aug. 31.
With its chickee hut look, and the exposed beams in the Rose Historical Auditorium, the new museum is a fitting host for both the talk and the photos. It’s so new, said Sherri Medeiros, it still has that “new museum” smell.
“We smell the newness — isn’t this museum great?” she said.
“I enjoyed the talk very much,” said Anne Colpeart, viewing the photographs afterward. “I’ve read a lot about this, and I learned things I didn’t know.”
Noted Florida cracker JRobert agreed, saying Southall’s presentation helped “close the circle,” filling in gaps about his understanding of the state’s past.
“We’re so excited to see this happen,” said board member Kris Helland, taking in the exhibits with his wife Dorothy. “We’ve been working on this since 1998, and it was all done with private donations.”
For those wishing to see the photographic exhibit, said Carol Wood, director of member services, the museum is currently open Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.