© Copyright 2015 by Gene Fletcher
According to family legend, the history of my Fletcher family in Florida begins around 1840 when "Billy R."(William Rete) Fletcher moved to North Florida from Georgia. Billy R.'s Grandson and namesake was my grandfather, William Rete Fletcher, known to one and all as Rete. There were a number of stories about Billy R. that were told and retold around the fireplace and at family gatherings. My grandfather, Rete, told my personal favorite.
When my grandfather Fletcher was a young man, he worked as a teacher in an isolated one-room schoolhouse. I don't recall where the school was located but it was a long ride by horseback from his home. Since there were no accommodations available to travelers, it was the custom to stop and spend the night with someone along the way. On one of these trips, Rete stopped at a farmhouse in the late afternoon to inquire about lodging for the night. When he was introduced to the man of the house, his prospective host said, "Rete Fletcher!" "Are you any kin to ole Billy R. Fletcher?" When Rete explained that ole Billy R. was, in fact, his grandfather, his host said, "Come on in". "Ole Billy R. helped merun the Seminoles out of this country." In the course of the evening, the host told the following story.
"Me and ole Billy R. was ridin' together in Old Town Hammock around Horse Prairie when we saw a white man and Indian riding together on the other side of the prairie." Since they knew that no Indian was ever up to anything good and no God fearing white man would be riding with an Indian, they shot at the two in a crude but effective ambush, hitting the white man in the leg and driving the two off into the hammock. The ambushers made no attempt to pursue their victims but turned toward home.
I suspect that this incident occurred during the third Seminole war.
I often hunted in Old Town Hammock with my father. When we were in Horse Prairie, my father showed me the remains of the sweet potato beds he said were planted by the Indians long ago. At that time, the late 1940s, the remains of the potato beds were clearly visible.
The Florida frontier was a dangerous place to one and all. Judging from the family stories and other folklore I heard around the fireplace, the danger could come from disease (mostly "the fever"), snakebite, being injured by a wild animal (gators, panthers and bears) natural disasters (mostly hurricanes and floods), residential fires, being thrown from a horse, being injured while clearing land or cutting timber, being shot in an altercation and being ambushed for no good reason. Like my ancestors, all pioneers faced these and many other dangers on a daily basis. I have often wondered what would motivate these pioneers to move into the clearly marked path of danger. Was it the free land available to homestead? Was it the adventure of it all? As I grow older, I suspect that they had no other viable choice.
There are other stories about Billy R. that I hope to get to later. The important fact about him at this point is that he was a "cowman". When Billy R. came to Florida around 1840, the territory had only recently been purchased from Spain. The early Spanish explorers in the 1500s introduced cattle to the area and over the next 200 years of Spanish rule, they established vast ranches here. Some of the cattle escaped into the wilderness without assistance and some escaped with a helping hand from white and Indian rustlers. No matter how they left Spanish hands, the hearty Spanish cattle thrived on the open range. As the number of wild cattle grew, an enterprising cowman could find and capture unmarked and unbranded cattle on the open range and apply his mark and brand to the wild cattle thus making the wild cow the property of the cowman. As you may have guessed, an enterprising cowman could also build his herd by changing the brand on someone else's cattle thus making the cow in question the property of a new owner.
This practice was not unheard of in the wilds of Florida.
I am not sure how Billy R. acquired his first cattle. The family legend does not address that question. The story goes that he came to Florida from the wire grass section of Georgia and ultimately settled in the area that is now the Northeastern part of Dixie County with about 25 cows and calves. Like most cowmen, he started with a plan to · build a herd of cows and calves. He hoped the herd would provide a living for his family when the cattle production was supplemented by crops from their subsistence farming activities on land that was "so pore it wouldn't grow maiden cane". As was the case with most cowmen, he found that when he had 25 cows and calves, he wanted 50. When he had 50, he wanted 100 and so on and on.
Thanks to Billy R. and the nature of making a living in the woods of North Florida, his descendants were cowmen for the next 140 years with the oldest son continuing in the cow business until my father sold the herd a few months before his death in January 1983. Much has been written about the Florida cowman and how he differed from the cowboys of western lore. I will not try to duplicate that information here. I prefer to recommend a book that will do an excellent job describing the cowman and his heritage. The book is Florida Cowman by Joe A. Akerman, Jr. published in 1976 by the Florida Cattleman's Association.
Although my father had very little formal education, he had a world of practical experience with cattle. He "worked cattle" for a number of years for his "Grand-ma Fletcher". His grandfather died in 1914 leaving the cattle operation to his widow, Grand-ma Fletcher, who ran the ranch and farm until her death in . Since his mother died when he was ten years old, Tommie Gene was very close to his Grandmother. Tommie Gene could not tell me how old he was when he stopped going to the one-room schoolhouse and he could not tell me what grade he was in. According to his recollection, there were no "grades" as such. The students simply moved from book to book. He did tell me that he was very proud when he became one of the "big boys" who took a pocketknife to school and sharpened pencils for the little kids.
When he went to work for his grandmother, he was to young too be given much responsibility. There are a number of stories from his youth that imply that he lived life with little concern for his future. In spite of his youthful indiscretions, he worked hard and learned the cattle business more or less from the hoof up. It was a hard life and it took a toll on those who lived it. I believe that most of the pains he suffered in later life could be traced to his injuries from being thrown from a horse (he was thrown many times) or slammed against a tree while riding at a full gallop through the woods. The knee that was slammed never completely healed. Arthritis settled in the knee for the rest of his life.
Over time, he did settle down a bit and became the ranch foreman although I doubt that the title was ever used. One indication of the stability of his position personally and financially came in 1937, at the age of 33, when he married my mother. He borrowed $75.00 from Grand-ma Fletcher to "get married on". Grand-ma also provided a small house on her place for the newlyweds to set up housekeeping.
During most of the period from the death of his mother and the death of his Grandmother, Tommie Gene worked and lived the life of a cowboy/cowman but he acquired no cattle or any other property except a car, a horse, a saddle and bridle and his limited personal wardrobe. At the ripe old age of 33, he had a new wife and a net worth of approximately (- $75.00).
I don't know exactly when the Texas Fever Tick arrived in Florida but it infested a large number of cattle in Florida by the 1920s. The economic effect on the state was devastating. After some false starts, the state implemented a mandatory dipping program to eliminate the pest. This dipping program was carried out and enforced by riders hired by the State of Florida. My father was one of those riders. He told about the camps they set up in various locations as they moved to dip the cattle, horses and other livestock on a periodic basis. It was the custom for the daily chores in camp be rotated among the hands. After Tommie Gene had a couple of turns as cook, the riders in his camp came to him with a proposition. "Fletcher, if you will do all the cooking, we will take care of everything else". From that day forward, he was the designated camp cook. Tommie Gene learned to cook of necessity after his mother died and he and his older (2 years) sister, Thelma were left to do the household chores. On camping trips and cookouts, he was always the chief cook. He could make excellent biscuits using a Dutch oven and he knew how to build and control a cooking fire and he knew that you could " out a half acre of hell with a cast iron skillet."
My father told a number of tales from his experiences dippin' cattle for the state. Much to his surprise, it was always hard and occasionally dangerous work. One of the major problems the "dippin' crew" faced was the negative attitude of the owners of the cattle · and horses that had to be dipped. North Florida in the 1920's was still an extremely isolated part of the world. The backwoods contained some livestock owners that were unbelievably ignorant. When news of the dipping program began to spread by word of mouth into these isolated pockets of settlers, all sorts of rumors floated around. Some thought that the dip would kill all animals. Some thought the dip would kill people.
Some thought the entire program was a front to spy on the cowmen and determine how many cattle each cowman owned so that they could return and confiscate the cattle or collect some sort of special tax. Most of these settlers were illiterate and openly hostile to any stranger who might come their way. They trusted no one and were highly suspicious of government and its rules and what they saw as unneeded restrictions imposed by the outside. Many of these families had moved to Florida when it was a raw, lawless frontier. They had survived without law and they had come to enjoy the lack of law and rules. They viewed themselves as free men who were masters of their own destiny even if their destiny was a shack in the palmetto scrub filled with "tal-ler faced, sickly children who were proud to say "I ain't going to no school". When this backwoods mindset heard the "dippin' story rumors"and discovered that the "govment" planned to require all animals to be dipped, conflict was inevitable.
One of the isolated settlers in the territory assigned to the crew where my father was working, "sent word" (I'm not sure how) to "them govment men" to stay away from his place. Nobody was gonna take his horse to be dipped. He had heard the dip would kill his horse. He threatened to shoot any "govment man" who set foot on his place.
The men of the crew called the man in charge of the dipping crew, Captain. My hunch is that this was an honorary title that the crew gave him as an indication of respect rather than a formal title. Honorary, unofficial titles of respect were common in the South at the time. One morning the Captain called for a volunteer to go with him to find the horse that had been held out from dipping and bring him in. Tommie Gene said, "I'll go". The Captain said he would need to be armed so Tommie Gene borrowed a pistol from one of the crew and Tommie Gene and the Captain rode out together.
After a long ride deep into the flatwoods, far away from paved roads and people, they approached a makeshift cabin and the troublesome owner. As they approached the cabin but before it came into view, the Captain said, "we will spread out far enough for him to see that he can't shoot both of us before one of us gets him".
As the cabin came into view, they could see that it was built of logs with a mixture of clay and moss used to fill the gaps between the logs. Like many Cracker houses, it had a dirt floor and a roof made from palmetto fans. The windows were made of wood and propped open with a stick. Like the door, the window was attached to the cabin with leather hinges. The door had a latch string for security.
Several children could be seen peeking through the cracks to get a look at the strangers who were riding toward the cabin. The wild look in their eyes was slightly tempered by curiosity about the riders. There was practically nothing to attract anyone to this shack in the woods so it was rare for strangers to wander up to their door. This isolation contributed to the fear and suspicion that was reflected on the faces of the children when a glimpse of "tal-er face" could be seen.
Before they could identify themselves, a man stepped out of the cabin. Standing alone, like George C. Wallace in the schoolhouse door, he brandished a shotgun and filled the air with shouts of protest flavored with choice bits of profanity. Since the days of careful attention to legal niceties had not yet arrived, the Captain simply said, "We are here to get the horse". He motioned for Tommie Gene to get the horse. With one eye on the shotgun, Tommie Gene slipped a bridle on the horse and led him out of the enclosure (lot) while the owner continued his verbal assault. Fortunately, words were the only weapons that were used that day. They led the horse out of the wilderness to the dipping vat and dipped him the same day. When they returned the horse to the owner, his rage had subsided and he was fairly calm but not hospitable. Since the children and the woman of the house never came out of the cabin, there was no way to tell how many there were or what condition they were in. It seems safe to speculate that their livelihood came from living off the land because there was no cleared land for farming. These people were poor, ignorant, isolated, suspicious and proud of it.
While the cow camp crew worked long, hard and sometimes dangerous hours, there was an occasional diversion. One of the diversions was a visit to the home of a local moonshiner. Shine was available in large quantities and in various qualities. This particular establishment was noted for quality. One or more members of the crew would stop there on Friday afternoon to make a purchase.
Tommie Gene told of making a purchase and deciding that he and his fellow rider would sample the brew before they rode back to camp. He said that as he lifted to Mason Jar he noticed some small blue bubbles gently rising through the liquid. They sat in the shade and sipped and talked for a while. When they decided it was time to get going, they found that it was difficult to get on their horses. Apparently the shine deserved its reputation for purity and quality.
The most popular diversion was the occasional frolic. A frolic was a combination social, picnic, dance and all night party complete with liquor, good music and women. My father said the best musician around was "Fiddlin Strick" whose full last name was Strickland. It was said that "Fiddlin Strick" was in the middle of an all nighter when the string on his bow simply wore out. Unfazed, "Fiddlin Strick" played the rest of the night using the back of the bow.
In part because of prohibition, a frolic was a sort of movable feast. The dance floor was portable and if it was covered at all, the roof was like a tarp used by funeral homes at a graveside service. Refreshments were available including alcohol. A woman had a table set up in the rear where she sold moonshine for 25 cents per dipper full. She did a thriving business.
My father told a story about one frolic that ended badly for him. He was a hard working rider for the state who had cash money in his pocket and he thought he knew how to handle himself at a frolic or elsewhere. As the evening progressed, it became apparent that he and another young man were vying for the attentions of the same young woman. As it came time to escort the lady home, the competition intensified and the verbal exchange ended with Tommie Gene saying "Well, let's step out back and settle this now". His opponent responded by reaching behind his back under his coat and pulling out a 38-caliber revolver. He pointed it directly at Tommie Gene's nose. It seems that, when you look directly down the barrel of a 38-caliber revolver, the barrel looks to be the size of a number 3 washtub. This new view of the situation caused Tommie Gene to make a strategic withdrawal without consulting the young lady about her preferences.
I am not sure why he left the Texas fever tick program. Perhaps he tired of it or the program ended. For whatever reason, Tommie Gene returned to his work for Grand-ma Fletcher. At the peak of the operation, they had several thousand head of cattle grazing the open range. When the Great Depression struck, they went for two years without selling a single steer. Fortunately for all concerned, the bank where Grand-ma Fletcher had a modest account did not fail. Since they lived on a farm and ranch, food was always abundant but cash money was very scarce.
Eventually, they secured a contract to sell 100 steers to the army for $2.00 per head. The army sent their own crew to butcher the beef and transport it to military posts.
According to my father, they took everything including the hide and the horns from each steer.
When Grand-ma Fletcher died, there were seven heirs to her estate. I don't know exactly what happened as the estate was settled but I do know that, as is often the case, there were "hard feelings" about it. The cattle were gathered and sold and the money divided among the heirs. The land was divided and deeds given to the heirs. My father bought the land from some heirs and his father gave him his share. In addition, my father bought the house that had been built by his grandfather, George Washington Fletcher. I was born in that same house at 11:00am on October 9, 1940.
I am the last "oldest son" descendant of "Ole Billy R. Fletcher" to be in the cattle business. On my tenth birthday my father gave me a heifer calf. I used the Bar F brand but I had a separate mark to identify my cattle. When I sold my cattle some ten years later, I had about 20 head and I had sold several steers along the way.
Some of my earliest memories are of the care of the family livestock, especially the cattle. My father was a good businessman in both farming and ranching. He enjoyed success in both endeavors but he truly loved his cattle. When I was four years old (1944 or 1945), I had surgery for a strangulated hernia. At that time, postoperative recovery did not include walking immediately after surgery. So, I was not allowed to walk for what seemed to me to be a long, long time. To break to monotony and entertain me, my father would take me on his shoulders out to the barn when it was time to "feed-up". I would sit in the doorway of the barn as he prepared the feed for the various animals.
The horses got sweet feed or grain plus some peanut hay. The hogs got grain, usually com on the cob or shelled. The chickens got scratch feed (cracked com) and so on.
The cattle got com that was supplemented in the winter with pellets of minerals and/or molasses mixed with minerals. My father always talked to the animals as he feed them. Our animals were always well feed because "You can't starve a profit out of a cow."
As I sat and watched, he told me the genealogy of each cow. Since there were several bulls available, it was not always easy to determine the father but the mother, daughter line was easy for him to follow. This changed when he brought thoroughbred bulls into the herd to improve the marketability of the calves. When I was four, he told me the linage of each cow. He could tell me which cow failed to "bring a calf this year" and which ones had been selected to be culled out and sold. His rule was that any cow that had failed to bring a calf for two years in a row would be sold in the fall of the second year.
The true test of a real cowman (or woman) is his answer to the following question, "How many cows do you own"? All true cowmen will answer truthfully, "I don't know". My father was a true cowman. He did not know how many cows he had because most of them ran wild on the open range and were subject to all the hazards that came with that territory from rustling to snake bite. It was impossible for him to know exactly how many cows he had. He did, however, have a "feel" for the animals that was at times, quite amazing. He could read the body language of the cattle and take into account the different personalities of the cattle so that the body language of one cow might mean something different when you saw the same movement in another cow. Many times he would say "Gene, watch out for that blue cow, she will run over you" or he might say "don't worry about her, it's just a bluff '. He was rarely wrong.
During a long dry spell, the ponds and water holes in our grazing area would shrink until there was only a small pool of water left that was surrounded by a sea of mud that could be almost like sticky quick sand. Sometimes these water holes were maintained by a gator who got his dinner when one of our cattle or some other animal came there to drink. On one of our drives to work the hogs, we stopped at a pond that was almost completely dry. There was very little water remaining but there was lots of mud. Some thirty or forty feet out in the mud, there was a cow with the bar F brand on her right hip. She had been stuck in the mud for a long time. So long that she had collapsed of her own weight and could not stand. You could count every rib on her side. Her eyes were open but lifeless and her breathing was shallow and labored. As we looked at this poor creature, I asked that we would shoot her as an act of kindness. Not so.
My father said we would rush home to get the tractor and pull her out of the bog. When I told him that it looks like a waste of time to me, he asked me "do you know what that cow is worth?" Of course, I did not know what the cow was worth but whatever it was worth, I was sure the cow would be dead when we returned.
We drove home as quickly as possible on the winding, sandy, two rut roads that made speedy travel a challenge. We backed the tractor out of the shed and hitched up to a hay trailer. The hay trailer was specially designed to haul large, cylinder shaped rolls of hay four or five feet in diameter and five or six feet long. The trailer had no floor or body. It consisted of a cast iron pipe formed into an arch that was hooked to the tractor at one end of the arch and hooked to an axle!and two wheels at the other end. Suspended from the center of the arch were hooks and pulleys used to grab the rolls of hay and suspend the hay under the arch so that the rolls of hay could be easily transported. We gathered rope, burlap bags and a feeding device that looked like a grease gun.
We returned to the mud flat as fast as we could. All in all, the turn around took about two or three hours. Much to my surprise, the cow was still alive. We waded into the mud and scooped as much of the mud away from the cow to help loosen the grip of the mud. We took the "grease gun" and forced a small amount of clean water down the cow's throat. Using a combination of burlap bags and rope, we made a sort of sling around the cow to pull her out because she was to weak to simply pull her by the head. With a rope running to the tractor, we were ready for the rescue. I very slowly tightened the rope as the tractor moved forward while my father adjusted the sling. When he decided the sling was safely in place, he called to me to "pull slow". Once she was free from the suction of the mud, the cow slide easily across the mud to dry land. By this time, the three of us were covered with mud and we looked so ridiculous we had to laugh at ourselves.
"If we don't get her on her feet, she will die", was my father's observation.
We took the muddy sling and adjusted it so that the cow could be suspended like a roll of hay for transport and we added extra support for her head because she was to weak to hold it up. With her feet off the ground, we tried to drive the tractor as carefully as we could to minimize the stress on the cow. At home, the trailer was unhitched near the barn and the cow was left in the sling. We adjusted the sling so that the cow's feet were touching the ground and supporting some weight. The next step was a round-the-clock feeding routine. At two-hour intervals, my father used the "grease gun" to force-feed the cow with water and a combination of molasses mixed with feed and some other ingredients. In two or three days, the cow held its head up and in a week she was walking around the barnyard. The following spring, we saw her with a new calf.
My father's fondness for his cattle did not cloud his judgment about their intelligence. He often commented that hogs were much smarter than cattle. An example of their lack of good sense occurred when the rain from a tropical depression that lingered over the area flooded the flat woods behind our farm where most of our cattle were grazing. The flat woods are aptly named because they stretched for miles with practically no change in elevation. Scattered through this area was Ten Mile Prairie. Ten Mile was actually a series of high water lakes that were connected by high water creeks that drained the area when the water was high. In dry weather, the lakes got very small or dried up completely and the lake bed became a prairie with lush grazing for the cattle. When the area flooded, the lakes overflowed into the flat woods covering a wide area with water a few inches deep. The cattle were so dumb that they would find a patch of dry land and stand on it until they starved to death rather than walk out of the flooded area. We had to round up the cattle and drive them out of the woods to keep them from starving.
On one such occasion, my father hired the brothers, Arlo and Thomas Lamb to help with the roundup. Since they were still shorthanded, I was allowed to go along. It was my first extended cattle drive with a large herd. I was excited! My guess is that I was about 13 or 14 years old. We saddled our horses before daylight and loaded them in a trailer to transport them to a staging area for the roundup. At first light, we rode into the shallow water and rode to the various high ground locations that we knew were still above the water. We found a few cattle at each location, added them to the bunch and moved on. By noon, we had been riding for at least six hours and we had found 75 or 80 cattle. The herd was driven by the four of us with me bringing up the rear. As we turned the herd east to bring them out to higher ground, a dry cow strayed off to the left and started to cross a pond. My father sent me to bring her back to the herd. As I rode into the pond, the water came up and up and up. When I finally got in front of the cow to turn her back, she was not happy to see me. She dropped her head down slightly, her nose below the water and charged at my horse and me. Fortunately for me, the water slowed her movement and gave me time to react. I kicked my foot loose from the stirrup and kicked the cow as hard as I could directly in the face. Much to my surprise, she turned and headed back to the herd. It was an exhilarating experience. I felt like I had arrived to the status of valuable "hand".
My father tried to improve the quality of the beef that he raised by introducing thoroughbred bulls into the heard. He was partial to Herefords because they made a good beef and seemed to do reasonably well in the open range. He stayed away from Brahmas because of their reputation for being totally unpredictable. He also introduced new blood lines when he occasionally bought a small heard from an owner who was going out of business.
After buying one small herd, we discovered some Brahma blood in some of the cows. These cattle were consistently difficult to manage and they were volatile. On one occasion when we had penned this bunch of cattle, one of them gave me a real scare. At that time, we had a large fenced area south of the house that we called the barnyard. We also had a more secure fenced area around the barn and stables that we called the "lot". One of my daily chores was to feed the hogs that were in the fields west of the tobacco barns. It was after sundown but there was still light enough to see. I filled two five gallon buckets with dry com on the cob from the com crib. As I walked across the barnyard with a bucket in each hand, I heard a strange thumping noise behind me. I glanced over my shoulder and saw one of the cows running at me with her head down and her horns aimed at me. I dropped the buckets (some observers say I threw them) and in two leaps made it to the fence where put both hands on a fence post and vaulted over the fence, landing on my feet. A split second later the cow crashed into the fence at full speed and almost knocked herself out. Apparently she did not see the wire fence in the twilight. When they discovered that I was unharmed, everyone had something to add to the tale of my escape and to embellish it and poke fun at my predicament.
Our main roundup took place after the spring calf crop was born because one of the primary reasons for the roundup was to mark and brand the calves. We did not try to roundup all of the cattle at one time. Most of the time my father would drive a bunch home by himself He would leave the house before first light and ride horseback all day. He often returned home after dark driving a bunch of cattle. He would shout for me to open the barnyard gate so that he could pen the cattle. These cattle were not tame but they were accustomed to being moved from place to place so they were easy to drive.
When we had penned enough cattle to make it worthwhile to mark and brand, we would move them into the lot and part out the candidates for branding and move the others back into the barnyard. My father did the partin' in the lot on foot. Once in a while, a cow would turn on him and force him to quickly climb the fence to get out of the way. This was a rare event because he knew his cattle and he was an expert at reading their intent. When it did happen, he got applause from the crew of watchers if the escape was adroit and graceful like that of a bullfighter. Sometimes the escape was sort of a bum's rush that was simply successful. The partin' of the cows from their calves (actually some were yearlings now) was not easy because the cows were fiercely protective of their offspring.
There was a bit of deep south cowman's ballet in Tollie Gene's dance as he moved around the lot stepping this way and that as he moved to put himself between the cows to be parted out and the calves to be left in for branding. The choreography was further complicated by the attempt, not always successful, to avoid the fresh piles of cow shit that were in ample supply all around the lot. A nervous cow is inclined to shit a lot and these cows were nervous. Once he positioned himself between a cow and the rest of the bunch, he would drive the cow toward the gate where I stood minding the gate. On his signal, sometimes a shout, sometimes a wave, I would open the gate just long enough for the cow to slip out and then slam the gate shut. My father was a patient man but he could be really irritated if l let the wrong cow or calf out during the partin'. When the partin' was done, the calves and yearlings that remained in the lot were candidates for marking, branding and castration if they were male.
A fire was usually started with lighter knots and any other available materials including corn cobs that were always on hand in ample supply. The Bar F (-F) brand was simple and easy to apply. We usually heated two branding irons so that they could be rotated with one being heated while the other was in use. The iron was red hot when it was applied.
Now the fun began. The calves and yearlings that were to be branded were now parted out and in the lot by themselves. On foot, one of us would slowly drive the bunch around the lot so that they were all looking forward. We would stoop over a bit and walk up behind the bunch and grab the right hind leg of one of the animals.
Immediately, another guy would come up to the left side of the animal, reach over the animal's back and grab the right front leg and the flank just forward of the right hind leg. Having secured a firm grip, the guy on the left lifted the animal just a bit and punched his knees into the animal's side. If all went according to plan, the animal's feet went up and out to the right and he fell to the ground on his left side. As the animal went down, the guy in front put his knees on the animal's neck while the guy holding the right hind leg braces one foot on the left hind leg and the animal is under control. When people who know how, do this, it is a fluid series of moves that takes a matter of seconds. When it is done badly, the hind leg slips loose or the punch in the ribs doesn't do the job and you have a mess on your hands.
Assuming the calf made a good fall, my father would mark the ears with cuts to produce what we would call crop under half crop in the right ear and swallow fork in the left ear. Using the same razor sharp knife, he would castrate the males and throw the testicles over the fence to the waiting dogs. He then reached for the branding iron with his right hand. Using his left hand to steady the hip, he applied the red-hot iron for about one second.
Applied too long, the burn would go to deep and penetrate the hide. When it was not applied enough, the brand was not clearly visible. Each animal is different so you must develop a feel for the process. When I tried it, I tended to apply too little.
The entire mark, castrate and brand process could be completed in 2 or 3 minutes when everyone was well trained and organized. The final step was to apply medication to prevent screwworms. When this was done, the animal was released.
One of the more difficult things to describe about the day is the combination of smells that mingled over the cow pens. There was the burnt pine scent of the lighter knot smoke from the branding iron fire, the sweet smell of fresh blood dripping from wounds, the stench of burning hair (you could not get this out of your nostrils) and the smell of cow shit, some very fresh and some aged and dried in the sun and some in between.
There was the medicine odor of the anti-screwworm liquid applied to all of the newly made cuts. There was the perfume in the air of the early morning dew on a new day. Soon there was sweat and the sickly sort of smell that comes when a branch of the chinaberry tree that grewjust outside the lot, broke as it always did, under the weight of some onlooker who did not know that chinaberry trees are made of extremely soft wood that will suppmt very little weight. The smell of leather saddles and horses blended with the smell of the dust that the animals raised as they milled around or were driven in the pen.
Mixed in with the smells were the sounds of the day. Burning hair has a unique sound. So does the crunch of old corncobs underfoot and the swish of the blade of a pocketknife being honed on a hand held whetstone. A branding iron makes a crunching sound when it is shoved back into the hot coals. There was an occasional bleat of a calf being marked, branded or cut but surprisingly enough this did not happen often because, I think, it happened so fast. More often, there was the sound of a cow lowing for her calf.
There was conversation around the branding iron fire before the work began. Strangely enough, it was not normally about the work because everyone knew what to do and how to do it. There was the small talk that workingmen make about hunting dogs and fishing trips and the value of a "good cow horse". There was good-natured teasing of the youngest or the greenest who, more often than not, was me.
When the work started, the talk became strictly business. No one gave orders. The team worked as a seamless unit, each man stating what was needed, directly and quickly. There was mutual respect and trust with final calls made, when necessary by my father, because they were his cattle.
Like a roundup, branding day was filled with the excitement and adventure of that comes from knowing that you do not know what these animals could or would do next and knowing that you must be prepared for the unexpected. There is the sensation that comes from being kicked in the stomach when your grip on the right hind leg slipped.
There is the fear in your gut when a cow turns on you and you must decide, in an instant, what to do. There is the knowledge that you will be tested and judged. Although the judgment would be silent and unspoken, you knew it was there. And finally, there is the satisfaction of knowing that the assembled company of cowmen accepted you into their midst.
During one of the last roundups that I worked before I "went-off-to-college" we discovered a four or five year old steer that had escaped our previous roundups. He was "a big-un" and wild as a deer. He escaped one more time but we knew he was there.
My father hired Thomas Lamb to find him and rope him. Thomas came on a Saturday and completed his assignment before noon. I don't know what happened or how he did it but when we caught up with him, it was time to load the .animal in the trailer Thomas provided and haul him home. We put him in the most secure cow pen and gave him food and water. On Monday morning, we went out early to load him in the truck and haul him to the livestock auction in Gainesville.
We had a loading chute (ramp) that was used to drive animals from the pens up and into the truck. It was no great surprise when the steer resisted our efforts to get him up the chute. To resolve this issue, we threw two ropes over his horns and ran the ropes up the chute, through the truck, between the wooden boards of the truck body and over the cab of the truck. With one of us pulling on each rope, someone got behind the steer with a cattle prod to encourage the steer to move forward. With each forward lurch, the ropes tightened and pulled the steer toward the truck. Ina few minutes, we had him in the truck, snubbed up by both ropes tied to the truck body. We closed the back gate on the truck body and prepared to move out to the auction.
As we moved the truck away from the chute, the steer began to lunge and pull against the ropes. This was quickly followed by a series of creaking and cracking sounds. Before we could figure out what was happening, the wooden truck body began to come apart.
In a matter of seconds, the steer came out of the truck, dashed off into the woods and was gone. The truck body was completely destroyed and we were right back where we started. So, Thomas Lamb came back and did the job again. This time we loaded the steer in a trailer equipped with a pen made of iron pipe. This time, he went quietly to the Monday auction.
knew that my future as a "Cowman" was over when I was home
from the University of
Florida for a weekend and my father asked me to help him pen some cattle that were grazing in the pasture to the North of the house. I was glad to help. These were very tame cattle that were accustomed to being penned. We approached the task on foot. As we moved around the small herd to move them toward the barnyard, one of the cows with a substantial set of horns lowered her head and took a few steps in my direction.
In that moment, I realized that I was not sure how to read the cow's body language to determine if this was a real threat or just a bluff. I had been gone too long. I had lost my "feel" for the animals. Fortunately, it was a bluff. Shortly after that episode, I sold my cattle and went out of the cattle business. The Florida Cowman tradition that started with Ole Billy R. was over.
father did not sell his cattle until 1982 but the tradition ended
with me. I have had mixed emotions about my decision since I made it
and I will probably never resolve my feelings about the era that I