Tag: rodeo

The Great Florida Cattle Drive

Vick Blackstone would have loved participating in the Great Florida Cattle Drives. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1987, eight years before the first of the three reenactments of Floridian cattle drives that the Florida Cow Culture Preservation Committee under the auspices of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Florida Agricultural Museum coordinated. The first Great Florida Cattle Drive was organized in 1995 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Florida statehood and the second was in 2006. Vick was named Man of the Year in 1970 by the Rodeo Hall of Fame, and, in 1985, the Florida Senate and House passed joint resolutions citing Vick Blackstone for Outstanding Service to Florida Agriculture. Celebrating the Cracker cowboy heritage is always done with a tip of the hat to men and women like Vick and Faye Blackstone.

On July 22, an evening spent taking a look at 2016 Great Florida Cattle Drive: Unbroken Circles was offered at the Hideaway Cafe in St. Petersburg by father/son filmmakers Elam and Nic Stoltzfus with music by J Robert Houghtaling as he performed some of his original songs that are featured on the film. The documentary, narrated by Baxter Black, tells the story of the Great Florida Cattle Drive 2016, the history of Florida’s scrub cattle breed, and how they almost went extinct. A DVD, a CD, and a coffee table book were produced and are available for anyone who does not have the opportunity to see a live presentation of this Floridian historical event.

Carlton Ward, a photographer who participated in the drives, wrote “A lot has changed since the first Great Florida Cattle Drive in 1995. Florida’s population has grown from 14 million to 20 million and more than 2 million acres (more than 3,000 square miles) of natural and agricultural lands have been lost to development.

That trend was apparent as I headed south down Canoe Creek Road to the starting point of the drive. New developments sprawled out from Kissimmee and St. Cloud, covering what had been ranch country just a few years before. I learned from the trail bosses that it had been increasingly difficult to find enough connected land for a cattle drive from one decade to the next and that the prospect of being able to do it again is very much in question.

It’s when I think about the landscape of the cattle drive that my concern shifts from nostalgia for the heritage to fear for the future of Florida. Four years ago, I hiked across this cattle drive route on Day 53 of the Florida Wildlife Corridor Expedition, a 1000-mile, 100-day trek from the Everglades to Georgia tracing the best remaining wildlife corridor through the Florida peninsula. Our team’s mission was to show that a statewide wildlife corridor still existed and could still be saved.”

The cattle drives have been widely cover in newspapers and periodicals like the Los Angles Times and Western Horseman.  Mike Cleary wrote in the LATimes that “Most of the Great Florida Cattle Drive ’95 runs over private land, including hunting preserves where wild boar, deer and alligators thrive. But on Saturday morning, at trail’s end, the cattle will be herded across busy U.S. 192, a main road into a better-known symbol of Florida: Walt Disney World.

The cow hunters driving the cattle are expert riders nominated by the cattlemen’s associations in each of Florida’s 67 counties. The journey averages 10 miles a day, and at night the cows are penned in prearranged locations, where the cow hunters set up camp. Trailing the herd is a mile-long retinue of more than 30 wagons and about 400 horseback riders.”

Susan L. Ebert wrote in Cowgirl magazine that, “Last year’s Great Florida Cattle Drive, featuring the state’s famed cow hunters, delivered an unexpected surprise: women outnumbered the men!” She concluded with, “As momentum builds and the urgency to preserve Florida’s ranching legacy and wilderness increases, planning is already underway for the fourth Great Florida Cattle Drive, to be held in 2021 to mark 500 years of Florida Cracker tradition.” So, if anyone wants to participate in the next celebration of the cattle drive, start planning now.

Brahma Fear

Even before the Manatee County school bus slowed to a stop in front of the dirt road leading over the railroad rail cattleguard at the entrance to the Quarter Circle A ranch on State Road 62, my brother, Smokey, and I looked out the opened windows and scanned the small four-acre pasture in front of the tree line for cattle. What we didn’t want to see were the Brahman cows.

The Colvin ranch of 10,000 acres was the home range of several hundred head of Florida scrub cattle and several breeds of purebred cattle that the Colvins bought at auctions in whatever parts of the country they happen to visit. A champion Angus Bull arrived from a Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo visit one day, got out of the cattle truck, and walked right into a barbed wire he had never encountered before, requiring a local veterinarian triage visit. A few Hereford cows brought in from Nebraska required veterinarian attention several times during their first few months in the Florida heat and humidity. However, the purebred Brahman herd of about 40 cows required the least amount of veterinarian care, but were rotated through different sections of pasture land to give the cattle the best grazing the ranch could afford them. When the rotation schedule brought the Brahmans into the small entrance field leading onto the ranch or the wider pasture area around the four houses and barn of the ranch headquarters, my brother and I had to devise strategies for dealing with the herd.

The cows with their calves were usually skittish, dashed into a close-packed herd a couple hundred feet away from anyone who approached on horseback or on a tractor, and turned to stare at the intruder until they determined whether or not danger really existed for their offspring. When two small boys coming home from school began walking down the 300 yards of dusty, dirt road that disappeared into the tree line harboring Gamble Creek, the cows looked up from grazing, sometimes snorted, and, most often, went right back to grazing. A few of the 1,200 pound cows with wide-eyed curious calves on either side of the road would raise heavy heads adorned with short, very pointed horns and stare. We would freeze in place. After the closest cow lowered her head to graze, we quietly crept forward again. This cow and boy dance usually worked until we came within the last 200 feet from the tree line; then, we ran as if our lives depended on the few seconds we needed to reach the safety of the trees.

The first time we encounter the herd on the way home, we had no strategy in place and spoke nervously about running all the way to the trees or just walking like the cattle were not even there. Our chatter must have irritated the cow closest to the road. She ran several strides forward, lowered her head, and swung pointed horns at our rear ends as we screeched and stumbled in our awkward school shoes toward the lone pine 75 yards from the road in the middle of the eastern half of the pasture. The cow could not have been serious about wanting to reach us, because she halted after those first few strides and watched us scramble behind the pine. The rest of the herd gathered on the western side of the pasture to watch us exit the open field by keeping the tree between us and the Brahmans, going all the way to the barbed wire fence on the eastern edge, and climbing under the fence into the Palmetto scrub on the other side. Our journey home took three times the usual duration as we navigated palmettos, watched for rattlesnakes, and twisted through the trees along the creek to get back to the road. Smokey and I talked about strategy on the way home and decided being quiet while walking slowly after taking off our shoes would be the best plan, agreeing that we ran much faster without shoes. We had quite a few more dances through the herd over the next few years and a few barefoot races to the trees when we heard an aggressive snort or strides coming in the grass toward us that, a couple of times, left school shoes lying in the dust.

When we heard Tex Ritter sing “Bad Brahma Bull” on the car radio a few times during those mid 1950’s, my brother and I agreed that we were happy never seeing any of the several Brahman bulls, a couple of them retired rodeo bulls, mixed in with the herd of cows. They were put together once or twice a year in outer pastures removed from the area of the ranch where we typically travelled on foot.

Years later in 1974, the lines from “Brahma Fear” on Jimmy Buffett’s album, Living And Dying In 3/4 Time, “I’d like to ride the rodeo/But I’ve got Brahma fear/So I’ll just stick to airplanes/Gently pop my ears,” reminded me of my childhood moments with Brahman cattle. I, too, thought about rodeo possibilities, but I figured pain from football injuries probably paled in ctomparison to that inflicted by bulls and broncs in a rodeo arena.

In 1977, Chris LaDoux’s album, Sing Me a Song, Mr. Rodeo Man, offered an upbeat version of “Bad Brahma Bull,” and led me to find that the song was originally written by cowboy poet Curley Fletcher in 1915 as the poem, “Strawberry Roan,” and transformed into a song by Fred Howard and Nat Vincent (The Happy Chappies).  Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Rex Allen and Buddy Essen, Marty Robbins, and the Sons of the Pioneers recorded versions of “Strawberry Roan.” Fletcher rewrote the bronc riding song into a parody as the bull riding song in 1942.

From the 5th chapter, “Cowboy Hat,” of Growing Up Floridian:

As we started to the barn, I noticed Vick was bow-legged, and his stride was an awkward mix between a slight limp and an exaggerated right leg extension.

“Why do you walk like that?”

“Son, if you had been thrown from as many horses and bulls as I have, you might have a hitch in your giddyup too. Too many rodeos. Too many eight second rides.”

He wore a silver belt buckle adorned with a cowboy on a bucking horse that read Saddle Bronc Champion 1942, one of many I saw over the years. I learned that Vick Blackstone was a well-respected rodeo performer when he was young and still had to ride once in a while in competitions despite being almost 50, an age when most riders had retired from all rodeo events. Vick did not talk much about himself to us, but we overheard conversations or his responses to questions about where he earned the championship belt buckle he wore on any given day. He was respected as a five-event cowboy, a competitor riding bulls, riding broncs bareback, riding broncs with a saddle, roping calves, and bulldogging. For twenty-five years, he won championships on the rodeo circuit across the country from when he was seventeen in 1930 until he was well into his forties. Once, a truck driver delivering feed to the ranch asked him about “that Largo rodeo when you won all five main events.”

 

Rodeo belt buckles…

  

 

 

Vick Blackstone walked like a cowboy, talked like a cowboy, and dressed like a cowboy because he was the epitome, in my mind, of what a veteran cowboy should act and look like. Actors who portrayed cowboys on television like Clint Walker, Chuck Conners, James Garner, James Arness, Clint Eastwood, and Robert Mitchum may have looked great on the the screen, but real cowboys like Vick were more scarred and worn. One of the affectations Vick enjoyed were the belt buckles he won as a rodeo champion, and he changed buckles and belts fairly often. When ever I encountered him, I tried to guess which event would be featured on the buckle before I looked.

 

 

From “Cowboy Hat,” the 5th chapter of Growing Up Floridian:

As we started to the barn, I noticed Vick was bow-legged, and his stride was an awkward mix between a slight limp and an exaggerated right leg extension.

“Why do you walk like that?”

“Son, if you had been thrown from as many horses and bulls as I have, you might have a hitch in your giddyup too. Too many rodeos. Too many eight second rides.”

He wore a silver belt buckle adorned with a cowboy on a bucking horse that read Saddle Bronc Champion 1942, one of many I saw over the years. I learned that Vick Blackstone was a well-respected rodeo performer when he was young and still had to ride once in a while in competitions despite being almost 50, an age when most riders had retired from all rodeo events. Vick did not talk much about himself to us, but we overheard conversations or his responses to questions about where he earned the championship belt buckle he wore on any given day. He was respected as a five-event cowboy, a competitor riding bulls, riding broncs bareback, riding broncs with a saddle, roping calves, and bulldogging. For twenty-five years, he won championships on the rodeo circuit across the country from when he was seventeen in 1930 until he was well into his forties. Once, a truck driver delivering feed to the ranch asked him about “that Largo rodeo when you won all five main events.”

 

Summer time is rodeo time across the country…

The current edition of Rodeo News features the article,   “Back When They Bucked with Pat Ommert” with her picture from a performance years ago, which, in turn, reminded me of the years spent on the Quarter Circle A ranch in Manatee County, Florida with Faye and Vic Blackstone, who are both in the Cowboy and Cowgirl Halls of Fame.

Faye was one of Pat Ommert’s contemporaries and was credited with inventing some of the trick riding maneuvers rodeo performers still use today.

 

I noticed in both pictures that the women used white trick riding saddles, and I found a picture of Faye’s favorite saddle in Florida Cattle Ranching online.

 

 

 

 

 

Many of the cowgirls of that era were photogenic, and the camera liked Faye.

      

 

 

 

From the 7th chapter of Growing Up Floridian

Until Smokey and I were invited into the Blackstone’s house one afternoon for freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies by Faye, Vick’s wife, we really didn’t know how famous they were in the cowboy world. They had been managing the Quarter Circle A Ranch since the early 1940’s, and we knew they both still performed in some local rodeos. A couple of pictures hanging on the wall in the kitchen of Vick as a young bronc rider caught my eye, and, as I walked closer I recognized a much younger Vick.

“Wander through the house, boys, and look at all the pictures if you want,” Faye suggested.

The entire house was almost an art gallery or photo exhibit dedicated largely to the cowboy and his cowgirl. Vick and Faye had been photographed on horseback in many well-know rodeo arenas, standing beside beautiful horses, performing all kinds of rope tricks, and standing with many famous people. Action photos caught them as young rodeo performers at the top of their profession.

 

1954 Boston Garden Rodeo

                
Jock Mahoney, known only as the Range Rider in the 1951 to 1953 TV western Range Rider, was one of the celebrity attractions of the 1954 Boston Garden Rodeo. He appeared during the 11-day Boston rodeo with Dick Jones, who was his saddle pal in the 79 episodes of the Range Rider. Mahoney also played the lead in Yancy Derringer, the popular but short-lived western in 1958 – 59.

 

From the Harvard Crimson:
“Lest the West” by Edmund H. Harvey, October 23, 1954

A rodeo is something that has to be smelled to be believed. The World’s Championship Rodeo in Boston Garden…All the best broncs are there: Country Butter, Sling Shot, Pig Eye, Drunkard, and the best riders and the prettiest girls. Also, The Range Rider and his Saddle Pal…The Range Rider (who) wears blue suede shoes…after the calf-roping contest,…time for the Range Rider (Jack Mahoney) and his Saddle Pal (Dick West)…The Range Rider jumps on a horse, but he does it three ways under a spotlight. Saddle Pal is a stooge who tries to do all the things that Range rider does but just thumps against the horse’s side. After each mounting he looks around at the crowd, and shouts, “Well, howdya like the Cavalry split-the neck mount? Didya like it HUH?” Everybody yells and claps and the Ranger Rider mounts another way (which I forget what they call). This goes on for a while and the Range Rider and Saddle Pal stage a fight. Then, they ride around the arena and throw their hats to the people that have applauded the most. This is the feature attraction…

My mother – a cowgirl by desire

 

This past Mother’s Day led me to reminisce about my mother’s mention, years ago, of her adventure of riding in the opening parade of the 1954 Boston Garden World Championship Rodeo held between October 20th and October 31st. I went through some old photographs and found the purple and gold ribbon she wore that identified her as a Parade Guest when she carried one of the flags on horseback in the opening ceremonies. Pictures of her on horseback from her teenage years through early adulthood always captured her in her happiest moments.

From the 6th chapter of Growing Up Floridian,“Faye Blackstone”:

Faye, who enjoyed an audience, described how she and Vick met when they were both rodeo performers, and a picture of them getting married on horseback in 1937 was evidence she pointed out to back up her story. She told us that she started riding and trying to perform tricks when she was younger than we were. A few pictures of her as a young girl getting progressively older climbed up the wall near their bedroom door. One wall of the living room was divided in half by pictures of Vick riding bulls, roping calves, bull dogging steers, and riding broncs with a saddle and without, while the other half held pictures of Faye barrel racing, standing on a horse at a full run, hanging off the side of her horse almost touching the ground, and bouncing off the ground into the air about to remount as a horse ran through a rodeo arena. Others pictures captured Faye riding in colorful opening parades of rodeos in Madison Square Garden, Boston Garden, the Cow Palace in San Francisco, and the Frontier Days Rodeo in Cheyenne.

“My mother rode in a rodeo parade in Boston Garden once,” I proffered.

Faye looked up from pouring glasses of milk, tucked a blonde curl behind her ear, and agreed, “I know. Your mother and I have talked about those days a few times. She was very pretty back then and is still a good lookin’ woman who can sit a horse well.”

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