Growing up in southern Arizona, I was surrounded by cowboy culture. That Western lifestyle seemed as natural as the mountains and desert air. Consider the irony when, as an adult, I moved to Central Florida and discovered the real roots of American cowboys began right here some five centuries ago.
It’s Florida—no Western state—that has the longest history of ranching in the United States. Spanish explorers brought the first cattle to its shores in 1521.
Over the years, those cattle turned into massive wild herds. The native Seminole people eventually ran large herds by the thousands. More and more white settlers moved into the territory that would become known as Florida. Rounding up those wild cattle allowed Florida to supply the Confederate Army with beef during the Civil War and also to ship to Cuba.
Those were wild and woolly days, when “cow hunters” and “cracker cowboys” plied their dangerous trade, using dogs and long braided whips to drive elusive cattle out of thick woods, swamps and scrub where roping them was impossible. (The distinct sound of their whips led to the term “cracker.”)
Florida was open range as recently as 1949 when fencing laws were enforced. And those Florida cowboys? They still exist, and there’s plenty of work to be found for those who love the lifestyle.
Come along for the ride as I visit with three area cowboys and share their stories.
When I caught up with Hayden Grant, it wasn’t even 5 o’clock and he’d already put in a full day’s work. This was after the previous weekend, which saw him competing in a jackpot roping and two pro rodeos in two different states.
He’d driven about 15 hours that weekend, but that was an easy one, says the 22-year-old cowboy with the shy smile. For someone who cowboys full time as a day worker and competes in pro rodeos as often as possible, lots of hours behind the wheel are inevitable.
But he’s not complaining.
“This is something I’ve always loved and wanted to do,” he says simply.
Born and raised in Bronson, Florida, Hayden got his first horse when he was just a toddler and had a rope in his hands since he’s been able to walk.
“Mr. Mike Owens gave me my first rope and taught me. He and Bud Sharp got me started roping,” says Hayden, who was roping calves when he was just 5 and team roping by the age of 10.
As a day worker, Hayden hauls his horses and cow dogs to whatever ranch needs him. (It’s common for Florida ranches that can’t justify full-time help to hire day workers.) On smaller ranches, the work is usually completed in a day, but on larger spreads, the work might last three days to a week.
Duties vary from season to season. In the spring, there are cattle to deworm and vaccinate and bull calves to castrate. Come summer, calves are weaned and shipped to market. In the fall, cattle are brought up, pregnancy checked and vaccinated. Doctoring sick cattle takes place whenever needed.
“Most days I’m on the road before sun up and not home until well after dark. I like that I get to see different country every day and I’m not stuck at the same place doing the same thing every day,” says Hayden, who drives a one-ton Dodge and pulls a stock trailer loaded with the horse(s) and dogs he’ll use that day. The day I met him, he was hauling three horses and three dogs. He’s always up for some trading and selling, so some days he might have an extra horse in the trailer.
Most days, after he finishes working cattle, he meets up with Dillon Bird at an arena in Williston to practice team roping. Hayden can head (rope the steer’s head) and heel (rope the hind legs), but says he seems to win more when he heads.
And all that practice pays off.
In late March, he and Bradley Massey competed at a qualifer in Sarasota for the World Series of Team Roping. Not only did they win several thousand dollars, they also qualified to compete at the World Series finale in Las Vegas.
At pro rodeos, Hayden usually competes with Ty Chancey when team roping. Sometimes they get together with several friends and take a six-horse trailer with living quarters to hit the road. Going with a group not only saves on fuel but ensures a good time.
“Every chance I get to break loose, I’ll go,” says Hayden.
It’s possible to make a living rodeoing, but it requires being on the road almost constantly.
“I’d love to do that, but I don’t know if I can stay gone 300 days a year. I’d miss being home and also going to the woods to hunt,” says Hayden. “I want to have my own group of cows, so if I can make a living that way, I can go rodeo when I want to.”
That future may come sooner than later, as Hayden and a friend recently signed paperwork on some lease land where they can run their own group of cows. They plan to start with about 80 head of crossbred mama cows and grow the operation from there.
After we wrapped up our tailgate interview, Hayden was headed to the arena to do some roping. Tomorrow would be another early day, but for now, there were steers to practice on and it wouldn’t get dark for a few hours yet.
Some people don’t appreciate what they have when they have it, but Hayden Grant isn’t one of those people. He’s working hard, but he’s making the life he loves and he knows it.
“I don’t wake up and dread going to work, that’s for sure,” he says. “I look forward to it every day.”
That says it all right there.
You may have had a chance to view Bill Roberts’ exhibit at the Brick City Center for the Arts earlier this year. When I visited his cracker cabin studio this spring, I got a first-hand look at his paintings and an earful of the colorful stories behind that artwork.
The exhibit, “All I Ever Wanted to be was a Cowboy,” shared the same title as his book of short stories, which Bill self-published in 2014.
Looking at the paintings is like looking through a photo album of Bill’s life, as most of them are depictions of actual incidents that happened through the years.
There’s a painting of a frightened horse rearing to avoid a coiled rattlesnake, two cowboys roping a down cow in a swampy bog to drag her out and a feisty cow in the back of a pickup with her horned head stuck through the truck’s back window as the driver bails out.
All told, this self-taught artist, who sold his first painting at age 15, has created over 2,500 paintings. All of them relate to his life as a cowboy in South and Central Florida.
“I just painted what I knew and tried to portray where I lived,” says Bill. “Back in those days, it was as wild as anything you’d ever seen.”
His great-grandfather, grandfather and father originally settled in the Ocala National Forest area. Bill’s father wanted his son to be a farmer, but Bill wanted to ride a horse, not a tractor. In his early teens, he got his first opportunity to experience the cowboy lifestyle when a neighbor’s steer got loose and came running into the family’s yard with a cowboy hot on his heels.
After roping the steer and penning him in the Roberts’ corral, the cowboy introduced himself. Through that connection, Bill got hired to help gather market steers at the 10,000-acre ranch across the road.
“Back then, $5 a day was a big deal. I didn’t start making $10 a day until I moved to Marion County in 1958. There was still a lot of open range,” remembers Bill, who eventually worked in 25 Florida counties, cowboying and catching cows. “I had a lot of close calls, but it was exciting and I loved it. I would volunteer to do things I probably shouldn’t have.”
He developed a reputation for catching tough cows. Sometimes the cattle were so wild and the woods so thick that the only way to catch those cows was with a few good cow dogs, and Bill’s had his share of those Florida cur dogs.
“One thing a cowboy can’t do is not brag on his dogs,” he says. “Two or three good dogs can handle a bunch of wild cattle that 10 men couldn’t do anything with.”
Cowboying in Florida has its share of challenges that Western cowboys never encounter. Take alligator holes, for example.
Bill tells about the time he was chasing a cow near a weedy pond, not realizing a spot of open water was actually a big gator hole. The running cow hit that spot and disappeared. Then Bill’s horse went down, Bill somersaulting over his head. Bill found himself on the muddy bottom with the horse on top of him, hooves flailing.
“I was running out of air and couldn’t get out from under the horse,” he recalls. “All of a sudden, I was being pulled through the water very fast. My head came up and all I could see was horse, cow and weeds. Theo (the young cowboy he was working with) had just thrown a big loop over all of us, turned his big old horse and drug us all out onto the bank.”
Bill recently celebrated his 84th birthday. Tall and lean as a willow, his eyes sparkle with life as he warms to his stories. It’s easy to see why he’s a popular speaker at libraries, museums and historical society events.
Although he hasn’t owned a horse in a long while, there’s a good saddle in his studio. He unties a long bull whip from the saddle, steps outside and shows that he hasn’t forgotten how to use it. The sharp retort of the snapping whip cracks loudly in the quiet afternoon.
When he was about 50, Bill quit cowboying, but his life of adventure wasn’t over. For the next 30 years he had a business guiding fishing trips out of Cedar Key.
“I’m going to write a book about that, too,” he promises. “I’ve had a full life. I’ve always done what I wanted to do.”
When I arrive at Frank Markham’s home, he’s out in the barn.
His wife, Janey, pours me a glass of sweet tea and says he’ll be up to the house shortly.
It’s a week day, and Frank is “officially” retired, but men like Frank don’t stop working. Especially when what they do involves a good horse, cattle, a truck and trailer and, at some point, a tractor.
The day before, Frank was up before dawn and gone all day. There were cattle to sort, a bull to doctor and a few cows to take to market. That afternoon he worked more cattle with friends, hung out at the livestock market after lunch to watch a few head sell and helped corral the neighbor’s cow that got loose on the highway.
Frank isn’t punching a regular time clock these days, but he’s as busy as he’s ever been.
“There’s an old saying, ‘If you love your job, you never work a day in your life.’ That’s how I feel about the life I’ve lived,” he says, adding with a grin, “even though I’ve worked my butt off.”
A fourth-generation Floridian, Frank was born in Romeo. His family came from South Carolina over a century ago, settling near what is now the Goethe National Forest. The small ranch where he and his family live in Romeo has been home for the past 40 years. He and Janey married in 1972 and have raised three children and a nephew, plus two grandchildren. They have seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.
Now 67, Frank has spent his life working in the cattle industry—starting in his teens and then for 32 years as a livestock inspector and supervisor for the Florida Department of Agriculture. At one point, he was in charge of 12 counties, inspecting cattle at various livestock markets, vaccinating them and testing for brucellosis, a bacterial disease. He retired from that job in 2013.
“Since I retired, I still work, but now it’s what I want to do, when and how I want to do it,” says Frank. “I’m one of those sorts who will always be working.”
He left home at the age of 13, living first with his grandmother and then an uncle. Lamar and Rachel Heirs opened their home to Frank when he was a junior in high school, and he got his first taste of cowboying on their ranch. He was hooked.
“My life’s ambition was to ride a horse and drive a tractor,” says Frank, who started day working on area ranches at age 17.
Except for spending two years in the Army after being drafted in 1969 (“I took my senior trip to Vietnam,” Frank says wryly), he’s always worked in the cattle industry.
Back in the late ‘60s, there were still wild cattle to be caught in the Gulf Hammock area. Frank, along with Emory Mills, Bobby Haddock and Homer Cannon, spent many long weekends catching them for Levy Cattle Company.
“We’d go in those woods, wallow in the mud and fight vines and bugs all day. Those cows were pretty rank. Sometimes you’d catch one and you’d be a half-mile from a road, so we’d either drag them out by horse or get them in a trailer we had hooked to an old Ford 8-N tractor,” recalls Frank.
“The most challenging part of working cattle is understanding them. If you understand how to read a cow, it makes things so much easier. I think I got pretty good at that. I’m not bragging on myself, but I had the ‘want to,’ and that makes all the difference.”
Although many cowboys head for a rodeo or roping competition on the weekends, Frank never wanted to compete but appreciates that desire in others. He regularly judges ranch rodeos throughout the state, including the finals in Kissimmee.
He’s worked with the Southeastern Youth Fair for decades. The 2012 Southeastern Youth Fair was dedicated to Frank, and 2016 marked his 33rd year of working the event. The thousands of youth he’s impacted through the years know him as “Uncle Frank,” often referring to him as “The Enforcer,” because he’s sure to remind them how to behave—in the barn and in life.
He’s been president of the Marion County Cattlemen’s Association and, in 2013, was recognized as honorary director of that association in recognition of his work and dedication to the cattle industry.
The simplicity of cowboy life always appealed to Frank.
“What interested me was being out in nature, working cattle and riding a horse,” he says. “I’m not a horse trainer, but I love to ride them and I’ve never ruined one. I’ve always had a horse that looked out for me, and I try to look out for my horse.”
Some cowboys frequently buy and sell horses. Not Frank. Once he finds one he likes, he’ll ride that horse until it’s time to retire him. He’s been riding his current horse for almost four years now. That quarter horse gelding is only six, which means many years of riding still ahead.
That suits Frank Markham just fine.