Alligators and swamp cowboys | TSLN.com

Alligators and swamp cowboys

Jeri L. Dobrowski

Last week over pie, I shared a few tidbits about the cracker cowboys of Florida with a saddle maker friend who lives nearby. I had just finished reading a brief but interesting collection of stories by Iris Wall, owner of the High Horse Ranch near Indiantown, FL, entitled Cracker Tales. Cracker cowboys are so named, in part, for the sound their traditional bullwhips make as they “crack” in midair, causing cattle to move along. Dogs also play a vital role in moving cattle through trees and thick undergrowth, the habitat of bears and panthers.

I had my friend’s attention when I told him they use nylon latigos on their saddles because of the belly-deep water they frequently encounter. His eyes lit up when I mentioned that alligators and water moccasins inhabit those same waters.

Savoring pecan pie at the same table just so happened to be a gentleman from Houma, LA – Houma located south of New Orleans. With a Cajun drawl, our acquaintance offered that the only gators they really worry about are those over 10-12 feet in length that have become accustomed to people and are looking for something to eat. My saddle maker buddy made some quick computations – and like me – deduced that living and ranching in Montana and the Dakotas suits us just fine.

Iris Wall, whose 51-page book started the discussion, was among a contingent of Florida cracker and Seminole Indian cowboys invited to Elko, NV for this year’s National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. Sponsored by the Western Folklife Center, the theme of this year’s gathering was Ranching Roots in the Deep South.

Cattle ranching in Florida dates back to 1521 when Spaniards brought the first cattle and horses to the continent. Today’s decedents of the diminutive and hardy Spanish imports are referred to as cracker cattle and cracker horses. With more than one million cattle within its borders, the state ranks 12th in the nation in the number of beef cows.

A vivacious octogenarian, Wall was named Florida’s Woman of the Year in Agriculture in 2006. She’s a fifth-generation Floridian, cow hunter, storyteller, and member of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. Much like the Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive of ’89 honoring my state’s centennial, Floridians drove 1,000 head of cracker cattle across their state in 1995 celebrating 150 years of statehood. Wall participated in that ride and organized a similar event benefitting the Florida Agricultural Museum several years later.

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Cracker Tales sells for $10. Send checks to Seminole Country Inn, PO Box 1818, Indiantown, FL 34956. Place credit card orders at (772) 597-3777. Watch a video on Iris Wall produced by the Florida Department of Agriculture at http://www.florida-agriculture.com. Select Video; Woman of the Year in Agriculture Award Video #4.

Should Wall’s chapbook leave you hungry for more about ranching in the Sunshine State, consider Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier by photographer Carlton Ward Jr., (University Press of Florida, 2009, 11″x9″, 264 pages, photos, essays, cloth, ISBN 978-0-8130-3408-9). Look for it in bookstores and online. It retails for $49. Publication of this full-color photo book was made possible with support from the Florida Cattlemen’s Association (FCA) and Florida Cattlemen’s Foundation.

The FCA and FCF provided funding, along with the National Endowment for the Arts/Folk & Traditional Arts, Florida Humanities Council, Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, Florida Cracker Cattle Association, Lalla Rook Tompkins, Iris Wall, and Susanne and Pete Clemons for an impressive exhibition on cattle ranching displayed in the Western Folklife Center’s Wiegand Gallery during the gathering. Florida Cattle Ranching: Five Centuries of Tradition was produced by the Florida Folklife Program, Florida Department of State, and Florida Cultural Resources, Inc. The traveling exhibition was made possible by the Museum of Florida History.

Cattle have been an important part of Louisiana’s economy since the mid-18th century. Remember that cattle pushed north in the late 1800s originated from Texas. They had to make their way across Louisiana to get from Florida to Texas. Swamp cowboys have a saying: “Anyone can herd cows on dry land.”

Creole cowboy Geno Delafose and his band, French Rockin’ Boogie shared music of the Louisiana swamp cowboy with their fast-tempo zydeco (think Rockin’ Sydney’s “Don’t Mess with My Toot-toot”). This style of roots music developed in the bayou country of east Texas and southwest Louisiana. Delafose’s Grammy-nominated instrumentation features an accordion, rub board, guitars, and drums. His official site is genodelafose.net.

When not performing, Delafose can be found on his bayou ranch near Eunice, LA, where he breeds cattle and raises Quarter Horses. I am happy to confirm that Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie will appear at the 72nd annual National Folk Festival. The festival runs July 9-11, 2010, in Butte, MT.

Meanwhile, the 27th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is scheduled for Jan. 22-29, 2011. The deadline for applications is April 30, 2010. Those wishing to apply need to submit three audio selections representative of their repertoire along with a brief biography. Contact the Western Folklife Center, 501 Railroad St., Elko NV 89801; 775-738-7508; http://www.westernfolklife.org.

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