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This is page 2. See page 1 here.

The Western Folklife Center's 26th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering was held at Elko, Nevada, January 23-30, 2010 and below are reports and photos.

Thanks to Susan Parker for her reports. Your reports are welcome, email us.

Thanks to Jeri Dobrowski, Kathi Musgrave, Doris Daley, Trisha Pedroia, Betty Rodgers, Mary Branscomb, and Virginia Naumann for sharing photos. Your photos are welcome, email us.

Visit the Western Folklife Center's special Gathering web site for archived webcasts of events,  audio and video coverage, and more.

2010 Program with the art of
Jim Harrison, Gainesville, Florida; www.meta-visual.com


Copyright Eldon Lux, www.eldonluxart.com
Susan Parker's report, "East Meets West – Florida Cowboys Come to Nevada"


On Page 1:

Report from the  2010 Gathering

Susan Parker's report, "Not Just Another Writing Workshop"

Links and more

Your comments, stories, and photos are welcome. Email us.


The 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
January 23 - 30, 2010


  by Susan Parker

East Meets West—Florida Cowboys Come to Nevada

Copyright Eldon Lux, www.eldonluxart.com
 © Eldon Lux; used with permission
Eldon Lux may be contacted at eluxart@aol.com. View his other artwork at www.eldonluxart.com.
"Wolf Creek Crossing"

Aside from reconnecting with folks I only see once a year, one of my favorite Elko experiences is learning about the different cowboy and ranch cultures. This year’s inclusion of the Florida Cracker cowboys, or “cowhunters” as some prefer to be called, was definitely one of my all-time favorites.   

The word “Cracker” appears to have a variety of definitions that have developed over the years, not all of them flattering.  However, the term “Cracker cowboy” is believed to come from the sound their whips make cracking over cattle. These cow whips (not bull whips) are braided from tanned buckskin or nylon cord (as opposed to rawhide), fastened to a wooden handle by two thongs, and are flexible.  During a demonstration at the Northeastern Nevada Museum I heard a definite cracking sound, similar to a gunshot, as the whip was snapped.

My week of discovery began at the G Three Bar Theater during Monday night’s performance titled, “Swamp Tunes and Cattle Tales.”  Sharing stories of the Florida cowboys were poets Carl Sharp and Doyle Rigdon. Their tales were similar to those told by cowboys of the West.  But with words like “haredicks,” “hammocks,” and “cabbage trees” conjuring a plethora of exotic images, I soon learned that the game may be the same but the lingo and landscape are definitely different.

There were many opportunities in which to learn more about this intriguing lifestyle.  At the Western Folklife Center, Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier, a slide show and book presentation by Carlton Ward, Jr., an eighth-generation Floridian, was most informative.  Providing a history lesson on Florida ranching through the eye of the camera, I was astounded to learn that one-fifth of Florida is still covered in ranchland. Cattle and horses share these lands with black bears, panthers, alligators, and plenty of mosquitoes. 

According to filmmaker Bob Hite, Florida is “the original West” being “west of Spain.” In 1521 Ponce de Leon brought the first horses and cattle to Florida from Spain.  When the Calusa Indians decided they didn’t want the Spaniards on their land, they attacked and chased Ponce de Leon and his crew back to their ships.  In their haste to leave Florida, the Spaniards left the livestock behind. These horses and cattle with Andalusian bloodlines roamed wild in the jungles of Florida for several hundred years, adapting to this hot, humid, mosquito-infested environment. It is believed that today’s Florida Cracker horses and cattle originated from these herds.

Cracker horses and cattle are small in stature but big of heart. They are thick-skinned to better fend off mosquitoes, sure-footed, wily, and can be rank.  The horses’ hooves have adapted to standing in water for over a week without damage, have a more narrow chest than other horses, and are “almost gaited.”

Brahma cattle also are important to Florida because of their ability to travel long distances to water, heat tolerance, and resistance to insects and disease.  Mixed with other breeds, they now have Brangus and Braford herds as well. In Florida there are no feedlots or slaughter houses. It is cheaper to ship the cattle to the corn than to try to feed. 

Some ranches also raise horses, including the quarter horse. Beginning in 2008, there was a new emphasis on ranch rodeo competition, where cowboys compete in wild cow roping, team and calf roping, but no bull riding.

photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Iris Wall and Georgie Sicking

During the week I met many fascinating Floridians. Iris Wall is a storyteller and recipient of the 2006 Woman of the Year in Agriculture Award from the Florida Dept. of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Eighty years young, Wall has worked the Cracker cattle for the last 15 years since the death of her husband. The two of them had moved to the Everglades with their one-month-old baby where they hunted gators to earn a living, despite the fact that it was illegal. Wall says that there wasn’t enough country to do much roping; there was too much brush. They had to use dogs to get the cattle out.  However, once the screw worms arrived on the scene they had to learn to rope in order to inoculate the calves. She also says the Cracker cattle are wilder than other cattle and “really ornery but very good mothers.” Wall is owner of the High Horse Ranch outside Indiantown where she runs a small herd of heritage Cracker cows. 

photo by Bob Stone/Florida Folklife Program, courtesy of the Western Folklife Center
Willie Johns

Willie Johns, Seminole historian and expert in Seminole cattle ranching, says all he ever wanted to be since the day he hit the ground was a cowboy. The present day cattle arrangement between the Seminoles and the government is that the cattle are considered all one herd but are actually owned by individuals. They have been vaccinating their cattle against brucellosis for 50 years. These herds are certified as “brucellosis free” and are part of a computerized chip tracking program.


photo by Bob Stone/Florida Folklife Program, courtesy of the Western Folklife Center
Bill Davis

Billy Davis, a seventh-generation Floridian, says his trip to Elko was only the third time he has ever been in an airplane.  Davis has cowboyed all his life and runs 1,000 head of cows, makes spurs, and rides colts. He says, “The best place to be when you’re around a Cracker horse is on top of him!” Davis further goes on to say that, despite the fact that most Cracker horses only weigh 750-800 pounds, you can rope 1500-1600 pound bulls off them.  He says these horses are full of personality and spoke of the day he came home to discover one of his horses had rearranged the furniture on the front porch.  According to Davis, these horses will herd just about anything and will even grab a cow by the back of the neck.

Bob Stone, Program Outreach Coordinator for the Florida Folklife Program talked about the extensive use of cattle dogs in Florida. The two most popular breeds used are the Southern Blackmouth Yellow Cur (an actual breed, not a “mutt”) and the Louisiana Catahoula Leopard Dog. These hearty, energetic working dogs perform three main jobs in the cattle ranching business.  They retrieve the cattle out of the dense scrub and hammocks, help move the cattle, and “ring” or bring the cattle into a tight circle, holding them there for hours. Stone says that “most cowmen believe the dogs are worth two or three men…or more.” According to Stone, a very strong bond develops between the cowmen and these dogs and horses, which “fall in love with their owners.”

photo by Jeri Dobrowski
Doyle Rigdon

One highlight of the week was sitting down for a chat with cowboy and poet, Doyle Rigdon of Brighton, Florida, who says he first started writing poems to get girls to go out with him but it never worked. An avid reader who enjoyed English and American poems, he was encouraged to write poetry by his 11th and 12th grade English teachers. He told me he first fell in love with the music of the words, then tried to figure out what they meant. He loves the sound of “p” words, especially “perturb.”

In 1995 Rigdon discovered the world of cowboy poetry through fellow poet and Floridian, Carl Sharp. Rigdon says Sharp gave him some pointers about rhyme and meter and told him to work on his structure and content. Rigdon says in comparing his early poems they were “elementary, forced out, using obvious rhymes.” But by reading articles on the subject of the writing of poetry posted at CowboyPoetry.com he has learned to polish his work. He also admits he needs to learn to “think outside the box.” He goes on to say that he uses his family as a sounding board, indicating that he worked on his poem “The Mugger” for years, struggling with the ending, until his brother gave him his last line. Guess that makes it a family affair in the poetry department. 

Rigdon grew up in the cowboy lifestyle and knew he wanted to be a cowboy from the time he was little.  His granddad and uncles were his heroes. When asked where he wants cowboying to take him, he said someday he would like to have a place of his own, in a small town of not more than 500-600 people. He says the “older I get the less I want to be around people.”  He always wants to be horseback, not behind a desk, because he loves the outdoors. 

Rigdon says he enjoys working as a cowboy for the Lykes Brothers’, Florida’s second-largest beef producer, yet admits he “talks the talk” with his poems but yearns to see if he can really “walk the walk” when it comes to coyboying in the West. He says he might like to experience cowboying out West, especially with the rope. Due to Florida’s dense jungle-like landscape, a shorter rope is used to capture cattle than that of the rope out West. He admires the cowboys of the West who use a longer rope, but says “I’d hang myself with a rope out here” [in the West]. He’d like to try it just the same.

When asked where he would like cowboy poetry to take him, he says he really enjoys writing and performing.  Someday he would like to dethrone Baxter Black!

Then there were the artists and their work, the “Charlie Russells of Florida.” In listening to the stories told by the poets and storytellers, I could not fully comprehend the difficulties these cowmen experienced without seeing the landscape first hand.  I was so enthralled with the Florida artwork exhibited at the Northeastern Nevada Museum I had to visit twice.

Copyright Eldon Lux, www.eldonluxart.com
 © Eldon Lux; used with permission
Eldon Lux may be contacted at eluxart@aol.com. View his other artwork at www.eldonluxart.com.
"Go Ahead"

As a native Californian having traveled throughout much of the West, I can visualize what it is like to be a rancher in California, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, or Texas. Becoming lost in the vivid paintings and sketches of Florida artists Eldon Lux, Sean Sexton, Hobby Campbell, Linda Ballantine-Brown, and Brad Phares, added another dimension and a better perspective to the stories. Paintings of the cowhunters, Cracker horses, Brangus cattle, and wildlife living amid the wetlands, palmettos, and dense scrub were breathtakingly beautiful! I now understand why it is so difficult to rope a cow in this terrain. As I admired the beauty in the land’s wildness, I could almost feel the heat and humidity, smell the musty swamp grass in the air, and hear the mosquitoes buzzing, tempted by the cowhunters’ sweating skin.

Ranchers in Florida have the same concerns as those out West: proper land management; developers encroaching on their frontier; and preserving their heritage. Like out West, ranching is a family affair with the kids astride a horse at an early age.  They share a deep faith and sense of community. They are diligent in their efforts to preserve the land and environment for future generations.

So…a hammock is a thick stand of trees providing much needed shade, a cabbage tree is a type of palm (it doesn’t produce heads of cabbage), and a haredick is southern slang for a wild cow. 

I have been to Florida many times, admittedly only to the beach areas of the west and east coasts. Only two years ago when I ventured to the Tarpin Springs area did I realize Florida has a thriving horse culture.  Next time I travel to Florida, I’m heading for cowhunter country!

Note: This article barely scratches the surface of the story of the Florida cowboy. For more information on Crackers, read Dana Ste. Claire’s Cracker—The Cracker Culture in Florida History. The DVD Florida Cowboys—Discover America’s First Cowboys and the Land They Protect and Carlton Ward’s book, Florida Cowboys: Keepers of the Last Frontier are available from the Western Folklife Center or at www.carltonward.com. The book is also available through all major bookstores. 



© 2010, Susan Parker


Read Susan Parker's "Not Just Another Writing Workshop" here on page 1.


Find more from the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering on page 1.



More about the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering 
posted here at the BAR-D



With special thanks to Archivist Steve Green of Western Folklife Center, in a feature celebrating the 20th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, we have program information that includes program covers, information and lists of invited performers for each year's Gathering.  

Other features in that section include:

  • recollections from the performers and from the audience about their "first time" at the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.
  • poems celebrating the Gathering

We also maintain an index of all of the invited performers to the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering, since its inception in 1985.  





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