Much of the work we do as historians, anthropologists and museum specialists is based upon the historical research of historians who came before us. Elizabeth “Libby” Warner was always reluctant to be called a historian — she considered herself a cattlewoman — but the oral history interviews that she conducted, the photographs she copied and the stories she collected benefit a whole new generation of researchers.
Libby died July 17, 2016, and though there will be no formal services for her, every time someone listens to an interview, downloads a photograph from the Manatee County Library Systems Digital Photograph Collection or reads a chapter of one of the books that Libby wrote, she will be honored.
Libby never wanted her name on any of the books that she and her husband, Joe, wrote, but just as their cattle business was a joint operation, so was their work in preserving Florida’s history. Joe and Libby married in DeSoto County in January 1941. While it was not uncommon for people, particularly those who lived out east, to go to a neighboring county to marry, Libby did not like a lot of fuss and did not want to call attention to herself. It just made sense for the two of them to go away and get married.
1,000 Number of cattle owned by Joe and Libby Warner
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Life with Joe, who got his first cow at age 12 and eventually owned a herd of at least 1,000 cattle, worked hard, and Libby worked hard right beside him. In a time before fences were required to contain animals, cattle roamed free across the state. Several times a year, they were rounded up to be branded and given health checks. Libby rode a horse corralling cattle to be wormed and “dipped” in a pesticide to rid the State of Florida of ticks. She helped to catch wild bulls and angry mother cows. She put in a full day’s work, which resulted in her acceptance as an equal in an industry dominated by men.
In an interview conducted in 1999 by Debbie Reagan, Libby refused to recount any “bad” stays despite stories of lightning strikes, heat, rattlesnakes and cows frozen by unexpected cold spells. Libby said, “Well, as far as I’m concerned it’s impossible because I enjoyed every minute of every day.”
Libby had a skill for being able to locate water in a pasture using a divining rod or dowsing stick. She was proud to call herself a “water witch” and noted that she could find water even if others doubted it was there. She described that process: “The stick would drop, yeah, and you’d hold onto it like this and it would pull against you. You’d hold it and it would pull and finally your hands would get to shaking like this and it would turn down.”
Joe and Libby were most known for their books about Manatee County History. Their first book, “Biscuits and Taters,” told about their experiences in the cattle industry and told stories of both prominent cattle families and the relatively unknown cowmen. (Floridians involved in the cattle industry refused to be called cowboys, insisting that they were cowmen or cow hunters).
Had the Warners not undertaken that research when they did, those stories would have been lost.
Next to their cattle ranch, the Warners’ biggest project was a book called “The Singing River” that explores the 22 miles of the winding Manatee River and all the small towns alongside it. The stories and people highlighted within that book are part of the lore of our community, and were the result of hundreds of hours of research and interviews with people who have since died. Had the Warners not undertaken that research when they did, those stories would have been lost.
Joe and Libby were active in the Manatee County Historical Society and the Manatee County Historical Commission. They helped found the Manatee Village Historical Park and the Manatee County Agricultural Museum. The Warners were honored for their work in 1994 when they were voted Citizens of the Year by the Manatee Fair Association. Joe died in 2000, but Libby remained active in community organizations until illness forced her to remain at home.
In that 1999 interview, Libby’s last words to the college student who had come to talk to her were, “Well, thank you. We enjoyed it. Not plenty of times we get to talk, nobody cares anymore.”
On the contrary, Libby, we do care, and the historians who came after you, say, “Thank you!”