Cracker cattle drive re-enacted in East Manatee starting Saturday

Cracker cattle drive returns to East Manatee

jajones1@bradenton.comFebruary 10, 2014 

EAST MANATEE -- Florida's tradition of long cattle drives essentially ended in 1946 when the state enacted fence laws.

Cattle drives are gone, but they remain the stuff of legend among the state ranching community.

Members of the Florida Cracker Trail Association keep alive the memory of trading cattle for Spanish gold in the last half of the 19th century.

"Each year, the crackers (Florida cowboys, who cracked bullwhips) gathered west of Fort Pierce to drive their giant herd of scrub cattle across the state toward Bradenton and then to Punta Rassa, to ship them to Havana, Cuba," according to the association website.

The Cracker Trail Ride memorializes those long cattle drives, with a few differences. Today, the ride is west to east. And it is done without the cattle.

The ride-out this year is set for 8 a.m. Saturday at Kibler Ranch off State Road 64 in East Manatee, if the conditions are right.

"We will determine, with law enforcement, if it is safe," trail boss Jennifer Osterling said.

Thick fog, for instance, would keep riders on the ranch until visibility improves. And riders have to be off the road by dark.

Osterling, assisted by Len Carlson, will guide riders on the strenuous ride more than 20 miles a day during the week-long trek.

She is eager to begin roughing it across Florida's great outdoors, after completing coordination with landowners, the Department of Transportation, law enforcement agencies and obtaining insurance.

The long days in the saddle give Osterling a visceral sense of what it was like to drive cattle more than 100 years ago, and experience a bit of what "the pioneer people went through."

She also gets to relive a bit of pioneer self-reliance, the ability to survive in the wild and camp under the stars.

For several years, Osterling took a leadership role in organizing the trail ride. Her friend, Len Carlson, kept asking why she didn't have an assistant.

Finally, Osterling asked Carlson: "What about you?"

Not a problem, said Carlson, who owns B&R Trail Rides.

"I am going for the vacation," Carlson said.

There will be plenty of dusty trails ahead, but also the opportunity for riders and horses to go swimming in a pond on Bassinger Ranch in Okeechobee County, and to ride into Atlantic Ocean surf in Fort Pierce.

Cattle ranching continues to be an important part of the Manatee County agricultural community, where herd sizes have increased in recent years in response to rising beef prices.

James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee reporter, can be contacted at 941-745-7053 or on Twitter: @jajones1.

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