Florida’s cattle industry is nearly 500 years old. It’s part of what has made Florida the state it is today. Once a decade ranchers hop on their horses to reenact the long drives that allowed Floridians to export their main commodity: cattle. Lynn Hatter continues her reporting on what that drive, and the reunion rides, mean to the people who attend.
Florida is a top tourist destination with more people flocking each year to enjoy its beaches and destinations like Disney World. But step outside the bustle of cities like Miami and Orlando, and there’s a different Florida. One where panthers and cattle roam the prairie is open and palm trees and pine trees stand side by side.
“How could you let this go? This beauty. This incredible, monumental beauty. Why does anyone think retail space has a greater value than this?” says MarthaAnn Ackroyd.
This wild, untouched Florida is the one that Ackroyd loves. She’s a retired biology teacher and former EMT. Both her father and late husband served in the military. During the most recent Great Florida Cattle Drive of 2015, she rode the entire route—through freezing temperatures and pouring rain. All with a smile.
“I found the spirit of the people who could do this—I think that’s what made, not just Florida. But this country," she says.
Ackroyd finds inspiration in the novel "A Land Remembered," the story of three generations of Floridians and their rise from a home steading family to powerful land barons. She believes Floridians, and Americans, have become disconnected from their roots.
“In modern times today people live from paycheck to paycheck. Tobias and his family lived from one meal to the next. And if they didn’t work to get it, they didn’t have it.”
Ackroyd sees that historical grit today in the men and women who continue Florida’s cattle and horse traditions. The animals were first introduced to the Americas through Florida in the 1500’s. And once a decade the long rides that allowed ranchers to move their cash crop through great swaths of Florida for export, is reenacted in the Great Florida Cattle Drive. Now there's a reunion ride, bringing back new and old riders to share in a smaller version of that experience.
“My whole life I’ve been riding and she’s been riding," says Laurie Herbenick. "I love to be out in nature, get away from people. My work is kind of stressful, and it’s just calming.”
Herbenick and her daughter Katana participated in the most recent cattle drive and are back for the reunion ride. It's a mother-daughter bonding experience, a chance to share their passion for horses. For others, the experiences have been empowering. The majority of the participants in both the reunion ride and the last cattle drive, are women.
“When I first got into this, I was 60, and I couldn’t believe how empowered the women were," says Cheri, who didn't give her last name. " They’re haulin’ hay, fighting with 1,000 pound animals, they’re backing up trailers 40-50 ft. long. These women are something, girl.”
Organizers want to keep the spirit of community going. There are plans for more reunion rides in between the once-a-decade cattle drives. A new documentary film chronicles Florida’s cattle roots. It’s called the Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles.