EAST MANATEE — They were a rawboned, tough bunch.
Cowhunters who drove cattle to market across the state of Florida more than 100 years ago endured dangers and hardships, that included the wild and half-wild cattle themselves, rattlesnakes, mosquitoes, the Florida weather, and the threat of being bucked off their horses at any time.
It was a hard life with no time clock, no Workers Compensation, no health insurance, none of the modern conveniences.
“Daylight to dark or dark to daylight. You eat what you can, when you can. You ate hard biscuits, beans and a piece of meat,” said Kevin Webb, an outrider for the 22nd annual Florida Cracker Trail Ride.
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Next Sunday morning, an estimated 200 persons will ride out of Kibler Ranch off State Road 64 for the seven-day journey across the state to Fort Pierce. The ride reenacts the cowhunters’ return trip home after delivering cattle to market.
The Cracker Trail Ride takes its name from the sound of the whips which cowhunters used in the late 1800s and early 1900s to drive cattle. It was hardly a romantic life, and the modern riders have tremendous respect for the cowhunters of old.
Jennifer Osterling, 37, of Myakka City, who will be participating in her 12th Cracker Trail Ride, loves horses and the friendship of the other riders.
But her favorite part of the experience is hearing stories about the past from old-timers at ranches along the trail.
“The trail ride helps keep that history alive,” said Osterling, assistant trail boss and vice president of the association.
Osterling and Webb fear that the days of the Cracker Trail Ride could be numbered.
As ranch land is developed into subdivisions, organizers worry that camp sites and watering stations will disappear.
In addition, trail officials have to get permits from the state and each county traversed by the ride, coordinate law enforcement escort, maintain insurance, and attend to a myriad of other details.
Osterling, a hard-working single mom who waitresses at a restaurant at the Arcadia stockyard and at Suzy Q’s in Mykka, said she will do all she can in future years to keep the tradition going.
“It’s a highlight of my year. It’s my only vacation,” she said.
Riders tend to come back year after year, sharing an interest in horses and history, Webb said.
“In not too many years we’ll lose a lot of the property we use for camp sites and water breaks and we won’t be able to do the ride.
Future generations won’t be able to experience the trail to the extent we can. It’s kind of sad ,” Webb said.
“So far we have been pretty lucky, but as the property owners get older, and they start passing away, the families don’t have the interest of maintaining the big ranches,” Webb said.
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 708-7916.