By Jay Meisel | Highlands Today
SEBRING – For many years, Florida cowboys, known as crackers at a time when the term was not used in pejorative sense, would herd their cattle across the state from Bradenton to Fort Pierce, where the animals would be sold.
There were no cattle Wednesday when cracker trail riders traveled the original route along State Hwy. 66 and stopped at Cracker Trail Elementary School.
But the 165 riders wore cowboy hats and attire, and rode horses with some of the animals pulling wagons. Every night they camp out and a chuck wagon is used to provide meals.
At the school, the riders, some around the same age as the Cracker Trail students, demonstrated cracking whips and talked about the experience. The students also will get a Western experience on March 27 when the school holds a hoedown from 4:30 to 7 p.m.
“I thought it was awesome,” student Parker Carney said about getting to see the Cracker Trail procession and the demonstrations.
Another student questioned whether the children participants attended school. Their teacher said the students likely got excused for the 10-day trip.
As of Wednesday, most of the ride went off smoothly, the participants said.
But Monday night some of the participants who came in early were apparently suspected of being water rustlers.
Nell Hays, public information officer for the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, said the riders got permission to get water at the Restoration Church on SR 66. But the caretaker, who apparently did not know that, saw them getting water and pointed a gun at them, she confirmed.
However, the situation was quickly remedied and no one was arrested, Hays said.
Modern day cowboys have been riding the cracker trail for 27 years, said George Masengal, the president of the Cracker Trail riders association.
He said he believes the original cattle trail rides ended around 1930.
Masengal, who has traveled the trail for 26 years, said a bunch of old men started the modern day trail ride. Originally, it started out as a one-time event, but grew into a tradition, Masengal said. Although many of the participants are from Florida, there are some from other states, such as Kentucky and others from Canada, he said.
Masengal said his son, Jeff, came from Texas to participate in the event.
Susie Randolph, secretary and treasurer of Cracker Trail Association, said planning for the event goes on all year. She likes it because the event promotes the historical aspects of the Cracker Trail. The participants are of all ages.
Reagan Park, 16, of Englewood, said she’s been participating for nine years and enjoys “keeping history alive.”
Although she’s enjoys it, she said, that after hours of riding, “You get sore.”
It was a family affair for Susie Hoshaco, whose two granddaughters also participated. Hoshaco rode a horse called Thunderbolt that has a scar that looks like lightning.
Hoshaco told students the horses were looking for some rest.
“They’re tired,” she said. “We’ve been riding for hours.”