Living history lesson

Participants in the Great Florida Cattle Drive rode their horses into the past as they re-enacted how Cracker pioneers survived—and thrived—in early Florida.

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Posted December 20, 2022 | By Susan Smiley-Height
Photos by Jennifer Schuck and Wendy Wilson

The Great Florida Cattle Drive 2022—Celebrating 500 Years of Cattle in Florida is in the history books. And horsewomen like Ocalans Jennifer Schuck and Wendy Wilson can attest that even with aching muscles, adrenalin-inducing stampedes and no showers for a week, they had an amazing experience and made new lifetime friends.

The drive, which took place from Dec. 4-10, was organized by the Florida Cow Culture Preservation Committee (FCCPC). It featured participants, known as cow hunters, driving more than 1,000 head of Florida Cracker style cattle through Central Florida and ended with a celebration that was open to the public. According to Florida state archives, the term “Florida Cracker” is thought to refer to the cracking sound made by the whips used by early settlers to herd cattle. The Great Florida Cattle Drive is a nonprofit event put on by volunteers and sponsors and is a registered 501(c)(3) entity as part of the Florida Agriculture Museum. This was the fourth drive. The first, in 1995, was conceived as a reenactment to celebrate Florida’s 150th birthday. The second drive took place in 2006 and the third was held in 2016.

Drive chairman Doyle Conner Jr. was the “Trail Boss.” He learned wrangling skills from his father, Doyle Conner, a fifth generation Floridian and former state representative and Commissioner of Agriculture. Drive participants were divided into five “circles” and one of the circle bosses was Jack Gillen, of Shiloh in northwest Marion County, who was joined by his wife Carol.

During the drive, Schuck and Wilson provided daily updates and photos to the “Gazette.” We are running them here as they were received each day. After the drive was over, we caught up with Conner and Carol Gillen.

Young cow hunters

Sunday, Dec. 4

Schuck – The best part of day one was—all of it! Getting to meet people and the final organization of my gear. The hardest part was shuttling the trucks and trailers to the end of the drive location, as I just wanted to stay with my horse Rickie and just take it all in. I was laughing a lot and smiling so much my cheeks hurt.”

Wilson – Made it to the Deseret Ranch for registration. Set up electric fence and find out I have a defective charger. To the rescue is a friend who had an extra one. The boys are all settled in and my riding companion from the Islamorada arrived and rode her borrowed horse from my friend. She loves him. We’re so excited to be partaking in this amazing and historic event. Tonight, we get assigned to our circle bosses and Monday morning we head out with the cows.

Monday, Dec. 5

Schuck – The first day on the trail was a blast. I was up at 5 a.m. Packed up my stuff, saddled my wonderful horse Rickie, and, wow, he was fresh. Ran to breakfast then was on my horse by 7:30 as our circle got to be with the cows. The morning started out with quite a commotion and a few riders were departed from their own fresh horses. Our circle boss is Jack Gillen, a fifth generation Floridian. He and his wife Carol have been very gracious and helpful and have made this whole thing enjoyable. After we mounted up, we rode six miles to where the cattle were pastured at the Deseret Ranch, the largest cow/calf operation east of the Mississippi. By the time we arrived at camp at about 4 p.m., we had ridden eight hours and I loved every minute of it.

Wilson – Funniest part of the day was when the cows went into a small pond and there was an alligator in there. Horses all went into drink water and he just stayed in the middle not knowing what to think.

Tuesday, Dec. 6

Schuck – What another amazing day. My horse Rickie woke up quite fresh after such a long day before. Rickie felt he should have been up with the cows again. I love being able to see and learn about these amazing ranches. Today we rode from the Deseret Ranch on to the Kempher. One of the differences between these two ranches is the Deseret is owned by the Church of the Latter-day Saints and the Kempher is family owned. The Kempher ranch is 25,000 acres and in their beginning the focus was timber then cattle. What is startling is both ranches are being affected by urban sprawl and could be potentially developed. It stresses me to think these ranches could disappear. The passion of the people in this industry and the organizers to recreate what the early settlers experienced is really special. I really love the fact the organizers are encouraging our military veterans and the Sheriff’s Boys’ Ranch to participate. To keep people educated and aware of the importance of history and passing on the knowledge of the working cowboy and ranching is crucial to its survival. Time spent on the back of a good horse, following a nice herd of cows, with like-minded individuals is time well spent.

Wilson – Day two was amazing and there is never a dull moment. Last night two horses got loose and went thundering through camp, jumped up and peeked out of my tent to make sure the boys (our horses) were okay and a gentleman said your ponies are fine, we got the escapees. This morning a horse took off with a rider at a dead run and ran right in front of my friend Sarah and I while we were saddling up. There was a large mound of sand right in front of us and he bailed right onto it. Great landing! A horse and cowboy went into a pond to get a drink of water. Some horses when they go into the water like to go down in the water to cool off. Well, his horse did just that and cowboy and all his gear were soaked. Of course, we all laughed and applauded.

Cowgirls; Wendy Wilson at left

Wednesday, Dec. 7

Schuck – Honestly, I would never trade this experience for an all-inclusive resort ever. I am not that type of girl. I like a challenge and hard work. I will admit that today I was tired, and I was looking forward to the end of the day. There was some miscommunication and our circle missed the trail ride and we rode with the wagon train. I am an easy-going person and roll well with whatever happens. The circle I am with is delightful with many interesting people. I mentioned our circle boss Jack Gillen but what else is cool is his other family members who are here with him. They are truly Florida Crackers with a deep proud history. They are about their life here in Florida with these horses and cattle. So, the plan was a trail ride off the Kempher Ranch to the Deseret ranch, pick up 500 head of Deseret cattle and drive them to the next camp. Best laid plans. Like I mentioned we missed the trail ride and got an extra-long lunch break. After the break we mounted up and followed behind the two circles that are to move the cattle. We waited in a field while they were getting organized then, all of a sudden… bam a stampede! The herd of cows were young and not exposed to the number of horse and riders. As with any work handling animals, it takes patience and there are no guarantees things will go smoothly. The cow boss had to regroup and bring in the experienced drivers, get the cattle settled and move on. The good news, no one got hurt. The day just took a bit longer… it was all good.

Wilson – I was totally exhausted. I’ve done endurance doing 50 miles and this was so much more grueling as it was all open pasture and warm. Some of the horses were very excited and on the muscle a lot, which made for them jigging and trotting. Not the most comfortable for the rider. On day two, we thought they would be tired and calmed down, but that didn’t happen; they were still excited. It was not as tiring or as hot because we had some shade and we were so grateful. We were all very hungry and thirsty as many of us ran out of water. We rode the largest ranch east of the Mississippi—300,000 acres! We all felt honored we were able to ride at the Deseret Ranch.

Thursday, Dec. 8

Schuck – Yay cows! It was our day again with the cows. Yes, that touchy bunch that stampeded yesterday. It was a great morning that started out with a conversation with Billy Davis, the famous Cracker horseman and cow hunter. I wish I knew a fraction of what he’s forgotten. I really admire Billy’s horse, with his classic Iberian profile, which is the heritage of the Cracker horse. A swift agile horse, small in stature best suited to the various Florida eco systems. Prairies, cypress swamps, shrub lands, palmetto patches and canals. I then was able to take my horse Rickie up towards the front of the herd today and watch carefully and listen for direction from the cow hunters and cow boss Mike Wilder. We did have another stampede, but they didn’t get very far with the quick actions of the cow hunters and cur dogs. After the they were settled, they sent us ahead through a gate and they counted the herd as they moved into a large field of broom sage. The broom sage was high and made a lot on thrashing noise as the cattle were gathered. The cattle started to swirl; it was like a tornado. The energy and the sounds became increasingly intense. The heifers were looking to break again. The calmness of the cow hunters and directions from the cow boss easily settled the situation and the cattle were quietly and slowly moved on through a cypress swamp to another broom sage field. The cattle progressively became more confident due to the cow crew. It was seriously really cool to watch and help.

Wilson – There are certain things you experience in life that you will never forget. You find you can push yourself beyond what you thought you ever could, and the amazing part is the horses can do what they do. You figure they’re carrying close to 40 pounds-plus of gear with your saddle. The energy of having over 300 horses around you all excited about riding out in this beautiful land and watching cattle being moved along, hopefully without incident, is intense. We did have a stampede yesterday and today. They can be terrifying, and you depend on your instincts and for your horse to take care of you. We found out one of the cowboy’s favorite dogs was killed in it yesterday. What goes into putting dinner on your table is something that many don’t understand and doing this you have a deeper appreciation for what these ranchers do for us. We were amazed when we got to see a satellite go off over this beautiful land and I felt so blessed to have experienced this day. I met amazing people and heard story after story of their lives and their adventuress with their horses. Life is good today…

Splitting the herd

Watching the herd

Friday, Dec. 9

Schuck – It’s hard to believe how fast this week went by. The good news is, I am no sissy. If someone told me, guess what? You get to do this for another week or longer, I’m in. Shower or no shower. I think my horse Rickie would be game too. What an incredible experience we all have had. It takes an army of people to put this together and I am so grateful to you all that made this happen. I am grateful for my family and support crew at home that made it possible for me to be here. This week I have met the most amazing and fun people that share the same passion. We are living out history and seeing this beautiful state of Florida from the backs of our horses, trailing cattle. Tonight, at dinner, the most interesting thing came up. The biggest supporters of this drive are the Seminole Tribe of Florida.  The very people the settlers took the land and cattle away from. The Seminoles are cattle people and participated in organized cattle ranching since the 1740s. I enjoyed the program tonight recognizing these proud people and hearing their music and stories. Wow I am tired and need rest for our final journey to the Trails End Frolic.

Wilson – What an amazing adventure of finding out about the history of the cattle that started here in Florida and the ranchers who keep these beautiful pieces of land going. This ride has been a testament of people who wanted to experience one and showed how tough they and their horses are. Are we sore? Absolutely. Do our horses have some boo boos? Yup. But by the end of the day, it was all worth it for this incredible and historical ride. We witnessed the satellite go off as everyone in camp hooped and hollered. The moon lit our campsites at night so we could find our way around. We met some wonderful people who we now call friends. So many words to describe this adventure so many of us took on— Grueling, breathtaking, physically challenging, educational, inspiring, scary at times and the friendships and memories to last a lifetime are priceless. It is the adventure of a lifetime—and it “Ain’t for sissies!”


Satellite launch

Saturday, Dec. 10

Schuck – Well… I’m home now with a flood of feelings and memories. We live in a world where things come to us so simply. Things, meaning life sustaining goods. Things that help our quality of living. Of course, it comes with a price. We have choices how we want to live our life in a country with so much opportunity. The only thing that limits us is our mind. We all have struggles, expectations, limiting beliefs, why we can’t do something. Of course, we need to be reasonable and responsible with our choices. To reach our goals it could take some time. It took five plus one years to plan the 2022 Great Florida Cattle Drive. COVID put it off for a year. There is always a way to get things done. This Great Florida Cattle Drive isn’t for everyone, but for everyone who was there you could see the joy in their faces. What an accomplishment riding to our final destination and seeing the crowd welcoming us. Riding in with our new friendships that could last a lifetime. Riding in on these amazing creatures that helped build a nation. Trailing the original cattle that fed the people through the struggles and creation of this country. Being grateful and giving the land and its owners the respect it deserves. Do not forget the history my friends. What an amazing week. I am blessed.

Wilson – Jennifer put it all so perfectly…

Carol Gillen said by phone on Tuesday that the experience was “magnificent” and “very humbling.”

“It was way more than I expected in terms of the reasons people went,” she said. “Some people go on things like this as a pilgrimage, a time to heal, or to come terms with something, or a spiritual journey, perhaps.”

She said she witnessed strangers becoming friends and helping each other.

“I learned a lot about myself, and about other people,” she said. “And the Seminole Tribe, they sponsored the Sheriff’s Boys’ Ranch kids and the wounded veterans, who partnered together. This event got to me… Studies show nature heals and that there is such a thing as horse therapy. I know it’s a thing.”

Would she do it again?

“Yes, I would!”

With his permission, here are the words Conner posted on his Facebook page on Sunday:

“Last week, to celebrate 500 years of cattle and horse production in Florida, 350 riders and horses and about 14 wagons pushed 1,500 head of cattle through 80 miles of the most historic and pristine ranches on this planet. They slept on the ground, they slogged through the wet, they choked down the dust and cussed the fire weed. Crackers, Yankees, city folks, country folks from New York to Brazil wanted to taste the life of our cow hunting ancestors. For 6 days and nights People of every color and creed learned to respect the difficulties that the old timers faced every day of their lives.

“I have a great deal of respect for all those who finished this adventure and even those who gave it their best shot. The trail was many things, but it was not easy. I truly believe that if I told them we were gonna turn around and drive ‘em back, most would have saddled up.

Watering Hole

“There aren’t any words powerful enough to thank the members of the Drive Committee who planned, promoted and produced this enormous undertaking over the last 4 years. The logistics of moving a large group through the wilds of our state can only be compared to a military operation.

“The Kirchman Foundation Lake X Ranch, Deseret Ranch, the Kempfer Ranch, Escape Ranch, the Diego Medina Ranch and the Three Lakes Wildlife Management Area shared with us the beauty of their holdings and we are forever grateful for their hospitality.

“The Florida Division of Forestry, Seminole Tribe of Florida, Seminole Feeds of Ocala, Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, Osceola County Fire and Rescue, Osceola County Waste Management, Experience Kissimmee, Florida Agricultural Museum and Florida Cattlemen’s Association made this possible and kept us safe and on track.

“I thank all our participants for keeping the land clean and sharing my desire to preserve the traditions and lifestyle of Florida’s cow culture even as 1,000 people a day move into our state. I pray everyone returned home safe with a saddle bag of memories and a heart full of new friendships.”

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