December 17, 2006

Florida 'cowhunters' reenact cattle drives of a bygone era

Photo and report from Lakeland Ledger

More than 500 people recently completed a five-day trek through Osceola County to reenact Florida's great cattle drives of the 1800's.

Much of the drive traversed established dirt roads rather than wilderness, yet at times, amid the vast expanses of Overstreet Ranch or the palmetto flatwoods of Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area, it was possible to envision an earlier Florida devoid of highways, a place where cow hunters spent weeks driving their herds to market.

Riders camped each night in tents, their horses tied to lines strung between trees. As night fell Thursday at Overstreet Ranch, on the shore of Lake Kissimmee, dozens of campfires pierced the darkness and sent forth a smoky aroma.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida was well represented, fitting for a group that began ranching in the 1500s after horses and cattle arrived in Florida with Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. Skeeter Bowers and other Seminoles wore the lime-green bandanas of the cowhunter circle, and Billy Joe Johns drove a horse-drawn, covered wagon that also carried his wife, Tara, and their 8-year-old son, Jobe.

While the gathering stirred fond musings on Florida's past, it also spawned wistful thoughts about the future.

"There is a plague in Florida, and it's called dirt peddlers; you might call it real estate," said Carl Sharp, a self-proclaimed Cracker cowboy poet and the drive's oldest participant at age 92. "It's real, real sad."

Robert Burney, one of the cowhunters on the cattle drive, worried that the shadow of the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland might eclipse the proud past of Florida's cowboys.

"This is our heritage; that's what Florida was built on," Burney said.

Lakeland Ledger special report . . .

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