Since the theme of our upcoming Heritage Festival is celebrating Florida's Cracker Cowboys, I've been using the word cracker a lot lately when talking with Palmetto Historical Park visitors.
Reactions to this term run the gamut, and I'm always surprised by the wide variety of emotions I see in response: pride, disgust, even sometimes fear.
I also have to admit I find it a little amusing to watch members of the Palmetto Historical Commission unintentionally offend Yankees when they declare their pride in being a Florida cracker.
There are so many misconceptions surrounding this term that I will go ahead and confess I didn't really understand what it meant until I was at least in high school.
Since I am routinely asked for a definition during tours, I want to state for the record a cracker is not a slave owner!
The term has come to mean different things in different places, but it originally derives from the cracking sound of a whip.
When the whip is in the hands of a skilled cracker, the sound can be heard for miles and is an invaluable tool when working cattle in Florida's scrub-filled uplands.
If you want to hear for yourself just how loud these whips can crack, make sure to mosey on down to the Palmetto Historical Park this Saturday where we will have whip-cracking demonstrations as well as a contest where local cracker youth can show off their skills.
Not only is the term cracker not necessarily indicative of race, but Manatee County was home to a somewhat legendary black cracker cowhunter named Archie Rutledge.
Rutledge was born in Gainesville, but moved to Palmetto in 1913. His father, Butch, was head butcher for the Harrison's cattle operation in Parrish, and Archie was helping him skin cattle by the time he was 11-years-old.
By 17, he was working cattle in the woods with the other cowmen.
Rutledge became known as one of the top cowhunters in the area and also earned a reputation for his willingness to try any unbroken horse. After saddling one particularly contrary steed, Rutledge climbed upon his back only to have the animal knock him to the ground by running through a thicket of trees.
Miles out in the woods, Rutledge lay in camp with several broken ribs and a fractured collarbone from Sunday until Thursday waiting for aid to come. After being patched up by the doctor, Rutledge was on horseback working cattle in just two weeks!
It's hard to truly grasp the importance of cowhunters without understanding just how different raising cattle in Florida was from the highly romanticized Western version.
Florida cowboys didn't spend their time mending fences: there were no fences. Up until the "Fence Law" was passed in 1949, cattle roamed the open frontier and owners didn't have to feed them or care for them day-to-day.
According to Joe Warner in his book, "Biscuits and 'Taters," "it cost $2.00 or less to raise a steer until maturity."
Modern ranchers might envy this seemingly simple and cheap way to raise cattle, but there were complications.
First off, how did you know which cows were yours? Brands were exceedingly important and steeped in symbolism.
While it sounds great to just let the cattle look after themselves, you would still need to round them up in order to sell, butcher, or inoculate.
Each summer, cowhunters would embark on a roundup in order to mark the new spring calves. Beforehand, the women in the household would bake dozens of biscuits and sweet potatoes for the cowhunters to pack along with their coffee, a slab of salty bacon and sometimes even an onion for dessert!
Since the cattle would be fairly wild after being left alone for months, rounding them up took some serious skill and cojones.
For those itching to see how they'd measure up in a cowhunter lifestyle, the Heritage Festival from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Saturday at the Palmetto Historical Park offers amateur crackers the chance to pet calves, lasso, and make brand rubbings from some of our local, historical brands. You can even get a taste of the boring and stale fare cow hunters survived on while on a trip: sweet potatoes, beef jerky and biscuits!
Tori Chasey Edwards, curator for Palmetto Historical Park, enjoys horrifying schoolchildren by explaining the nature and use of chamber pots. She calls it education.