Sunday, June 15, 2014

Home on the trail

I just got back from the annual work retreat, where my department was held captive for a few days of team-building and productivity. This year, our location was the lakefront Future Farmers of America Leadership Training Center in south central Florida. The parklike complex is in rural farm and ranch country on the Lake Wales Ridge. The main lodge had copies of Polk County's agriculture magazine, In the Field, in which cattlemen's association news figures prominently. It got me thinking about how deeply intertwined cattle ranching and Florida are.

Bartow cattle drive. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
A lot of information is available about the history of Florida ranching and cattle drives - numbers, dates, controversies, leaders, etc. I had to dig to find details about how cowhands ate on the trail. It's kind of a stretch to fit this topic into "Home Life," but if you think about it, the trail really was a type of home - particularly in the 19th century when drives conducted on horseback lasted weeks.

Dana Ste. Claire, in his book, Cracker: The Cracker Culture in Florida History (Museum of Arts and Sciences, 1998), surprisingly includes canned tomatoes among typical trail cuisine such as bacon, grits, sweet potatoes, cornbread and coffee. He also mentions how fried meat might be packed into tins, and then covered with hot fat for preservation. Not so yum, if you ask me. Both Ste. Claire and Jim Bob Tinsley's Florida Cow Hunter: The Life and Times of Bone Mizell (University of Central Florida Press, 1990), note how a cow or steer might be butchered, salted and smoked at the start of a roundup or drive. Ideally, meals were prepared at a chuck wagon, but the wagons couldn't always reach cowboys on roundups when they tracked cattle across wetlands. The workers had to carry rations in those cases. Food might include syrup cookies that they'd brought from home, and whatever game they hunted.

Home on the trail required resourcefulness. Obviously, on a drive, cowboys slept on the ground. But Florida is famous for its rains. Tinsley writes how, it wet season, cowmen dug parallel trenches, heaped the dirt in the middle, and piled palmetto fans atop the dirt. That became a bed.

One final note: A fascinating example of pioneer ingenuity is in Joe A. Akerman Jr. and J. Mark Akerman's book, Jacob Summerlin, King of the Crackers (Florida Historical Society Press, 2004): Black jack oak provided a salt substitute if the tree was cut green, burned, and left overnight so that a crust would form. The crust had to be scraped off the next morning before the dew dried.

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