Most Floridians who’ve been around a while have heard people refer to “crackers,” a term that most agree described Florida’s early cattlemen.
“Florida’s old-time cowboys had a unique way of herding cattle,” reports the University of South Florida website, Florida Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT). “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.’”
FCIT adds that many crackers rode small, rugged horses known as “cracker ponies” and used dogs to herd cattle. “For those rough riders of Florida’s first ranges, a good dog, a horse, and whip were all the tools a true cracker needed.”
The Florida Department of State website Florida Memory agrees that some think the term “Florida Cracker” refers to the crack of a cowboy’s whip. But it adds that there is some dispute about the term’s origin. “Others say the term comes from the use of cracked corn in making moonshine, a common activity on the Florida frontier,” Florida Memory states. “Either way, the term generally describes a class of early Florida pioneers, mainly small farmers and cattle ranchers.”
THE OPEN RANGE AND ITS DEMISE
Until the early 1900s, most Florida cattle owners didn’t use fences to limit where their cattle roamed. “They allowed the animals to wander the open range, going wherever they could find the best grass,” Florida Memory states. It reports that vast tracts of land were held by the state or by absentee owners “who made no effort to prevent cattle ranchers from using their property for range purposes.”
In lieu of fencing, cattlemen stamped the cows with brands so they could be distinguished from cattle owned by others. “When it was time to move the cattle to market or pen the new calves up for branding, the cattle workers would round up the animals … and drive them to wherever they needed to go,” Florida Memory continues. “This was a particularly beneficial system for smaller cattle operations, who often didn’t have much land of their own.”
The open range became a problem as Florida’s population expanded and motorized transportation became more common, Florida Memory adds. “Trains and cars often encountered cows on their respective roadways, sometimes with fatal results.” Cows also became a nuisance when they wandered into towns or homesteads. “Floridians began calling for a ‘fence law’ to require cattle owners to confine their cows.”
Some cattle owners, especially those who owned more valuable “blooded” cattle, were OK with fencing, Florida Memory reports. But other ranchers depended on the free range system to give them enough land to feed and water their herds. “They saw the prospect of a fence law as a serious threat.”
Just like in the 2003 western movie “Open Range” starring Kevin Costner and Robert Duval, Florida’s debate over fencing could get nasty. “As property owners began fencing their land to manage the movement of cows, some disgruntled fence opponents would cut the wires or shoot the cows the fence was meant to contain,” Florida Memory reports. Laws were enacted against fence cutters, but perpetrators were hard to catch. “One cattleman went to extreme measures and tied live rattlesnakes up near all of his fence posts to prevent his wires from being cut!”
A state law passed in 1949 put an end to Florida’s open range. It required livestock owners to keep their animals off the public roadways. Violators faced stiff fines and potential liability for damages caused by their roaming cattle.