By Phil Attinger | Sebring News-Sun
SEBRING — Sharp pops and snaps echoed Wednesday morning from Cracker Trail Elementary School, announcing that the Ride was back.
Every year for at least the last 20, the Florida Cracker Trail Ride has visited the school on its 120-mile trek from Bradenton to Fort Pierce, reenacting a return trip of pioneer-day cattle drives that defined Florida.
Cattle ranching still defines the state, especially along the trail, said Trail Boss Suzanne Park of Englewood.
“Florida produces more beef cattle than Texas,” Park said Wednesday morning atop her mount, Mino, after days riding through Florida’s cattle country along State Road 66. “People have no clue what’s around them.”
Wednesday’s visit was meant to educate students about that.
“We want (students) to understand why their school is so named,” said Park, adding that “Cracker” is not derogatory to central Floridians. “It’s a trophy name.”
For Principal Jeannie Inagawa, it’s a part of the school culture and identity.
“I like to see the kids who never have the opportunity to see live animals,” Inagawa said. “They get more than they would from any textbook.”
Ahead of the ride’s arrival, Park’s daughter, Isabella, joined Chelsey Knutowicz and Sarah Hamsher — all of Englewood — to demonstrate riding and whip cracking to young eyes and ears.
Knutowicz showed students how her 10-year-old horse, Comanche, gives clues to his mood and alertness by the position of his ears. Hamsher took Isabella on her 10-year-old paint horse, Leroy, around the parking lot: Hamsher holding the reins while Isabella swirled the whip around her back and over their heads.
Hamsher said horses turn their ears back to protect them from the gunshot report of the snaking, braided Florida cracker whip.
Suzanne Park said Florida didn’t have “cowboys;” it had “cowmen” who owned the herds and “cow hunters,” paid to go with dogs into scrub, woods and swamps to collect the free-ranging animals.
The ride celebrates that industry and heritage, going through several ranches along the way, including 19 miles of Bar Crescent S Ranch, owned by Duck Smith of Wauchula.
The ride crossed U.S. 27 at noon Wednesday and had reached Basinger by Thursday afternoon, just beyond the Kissimmee River.
The reenactment ride began in 1987. According to http://www.crackertrail.org, a group of history-loving individuals founded the Florida Cracker Trail Association to recreate the past.
Spanish conquistador, Juan Ponce de León, originally left behind cattle that roamed wild until after the U.S. Civil War, when rugged individuals settled Florida’s east coast and central corridor, and rounded them up.
They became known as Florida Crackers, for the cracking sound of braided whips they used to flush cattle from palmetto scrub. Today, the term Florida Cracker refers to a lifestyle of independence and self-reliance.
Each year, Crackers would gather west of Fort Pierce to drive a giant herd of scrub cattle across the state toward Bradenton, then to Punta Rassa for shipment to Havana, Cuba.
Of 160 riders on this year’s ride, Park said 10 are commercial ranchers, 18 are school age — learning animal husbandry and applying math to figure out feed and mileage — and approximately two dozen are first-timers from all over Florida and out of state. At least two, Ted and Jiggs Gough, hailed from as far as Mt. Brydges, Ontario, Canada.
Park has ridden the trail for 11 years, not always as trail boss and not always on Mino. However, she, her husband, Paul, and children Isabella, 14; Todd, 15; Reagan, 17, and Michaelah, 18, have always treated the ride as a family vacation, she said.
“We come for the heritage, the camaraderie,” Park said. “It a celebration of (our) heritage.”