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Tales of cattle and 'Crackers'

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By Amy Ryffel-Kragh

She has told stories about old-time turpentine and phosphate mining – but last week she came to OTOW to talk cattle ranching in Florida, which is part of the Florida History Series at Master the Possibilities. But storyteller Kathy Dobronyi does not simply tell stories of old Florida – she becomes an old Cracker gal – Dolores Cribbs.

Dolores entered the room at Live Oak Hall in a straw hat, long dress and bearing a deep Southern accent. While she puts out her prop, a poster board with photos and captions, she never breaks character.

Dobronyi as Cribbs gives a history lesson in storyteller fashion, always being witty. She took them back to 1520 and Ponce De Leon. “He comes to Florida; he likes what he sees,” she said. So De Leon returned to Spain and purchased six heifers and a bull.

“Those are them girl cows,” she said of heifers as the crowd chuckles. She explained, in Europe at that time, people ate pigs and chickens, but not cows. The animals were raised for butter and cheese only and the hide was used for leather, after a cow died.

De Leon and his crew returned to Florida with cattle, pigs and horses, but they were not welcome. The explorer and his group were run off by the Timucuan Indian tribe. The cattle, horses and pigs ran loose, began to breed soon “there was cattle all over the place,” she said.

Eventually Spanish settlers later moved to the panhandle from St. Augustine and set up ranches. The Spanish “cowboys,” who are called vaqueros, did not have lassos to round up the cattle. So, the Spanish used whips to get the cattle in line.

During the 1700s, European settlers came to Georgia, which was a penal colony. The storyteller said if people got in trouble in England, they were sent to Georgia. And while the settlers in Georgia were not having much luck with their cattle ,Florida had plenty.

Meanwhile in Georgia, the Creek Indian nation was not getting along with the new neighbors, which resulted in the Red Sticks War. “Creek leaders such as William Weatherford (Red Eagle), Peter McQueen, and Menawa violently clashed with other chiefs of the Creek Nation over white encroachment on Creek lands and the civilizing programs administered by U.S. Indian Agent Benjamin Hawkins,” according to www.nps.gov Web site.

After the Red Sticks War, many of the Creeks moved south to Florida. “They hooked up with the Timucuans,” she said. And some of them got together with the “runaway slaves” in Georgia. Basically this group of former Creeks became later known as the Seminole nation.

The Seminoles allowed the slaves from Georgia to become “voting members” of the tribe and got into the cattle industry early.

Around the time of the American Revolution, Florida was “raided” of hundreds of thousands of cattle, she said. The cattle were taken back to Georgia, but the people in Florida went to Georgia and returned with some of the cattle. “They kept doing that back and forth,” Cribbs said.

During the first Seminole War, President Andrew Jackson and his crew, along with people from Georgia, came to Florida to confront the Spanish about selling “stolen cattle.” And Jackson would have to fight with Seminole Indian Chief Cowkeeper over the cattle.

After three Seminole wars, cattle rustling stopped for a while. Alabamians and Georgians started coming to Florida to pick up cattle that were running free. But, they did not know how to round the cattle up. So “they started learning from the Seminoles who were left,” after the wars, she said.

Crackers

To explain the origins of “Cracker” the storyteller referred to her earlier turpentine stories, which she performed in 2007. Barrels of turpentine and pitch were loaded onto wagons, she explained. Then the wagon driver would pull the wagons, with the help of mules, horses or oxen.

To get the animals to move, the driver would “pop” a 10- to 12-ft. long whip, made of rawhide. “They would be called crackers because of the crack of the whip,” she said of the wagon drivers.

To help round up cattle, the cowmen used horses called “Cracker ponies.” “They were small but they was good cow horses,” said the storyteller. The ponies were about five feet tall from the withers, able to run the cattle out the brush and could “out think the cattle.” If the cows would not come out of the brush the Cracker ponies would bite the cattle.

In addition to the small ponies getting the cattle in line, dogs were also used and became known as “catch dogs.” The storyteller said the dogs would grab the cattle by the nose or lips to get them moving.

Florida has a rich cattle ranching history and is still a major beef producing state. Kathy Dobronyi and Dolores Cribbs will return with more storytelling. She also presents a living history narrative on the Vietnam War.

Contact Amy Ryffel-Kragh at 854-3986 or akragh@newsrlsmc.com.