BY Paul Catala | Highlands Today
SEBRING — The “snap, crackle, pop” sounds that made their way down the road, into the parking lot and caused a few students to jump didn’t come from firecrackers or guns.
They came in on horses.
For at least 20 years, “cow hunters” have ridden down a school-access road and into the parking lot of Cracker Trail Elementary School to give the student body a real-life look at what was once a common sighting in the rural Florida of yesteryear.
Cracker Trail elementary was named for the The Florida Cracker Trail that runs from just east of Bradenton and ends in Fort Pierce, a distance of about 120 miles.
In years past, the route was used for cattle and horses and today includes parts of State Road 66, State Road 64, and U.S. 98.
Over the past two decades, members of the Florida Cracker Trail Association have made Cracker Trail Elementary a regular stop for their horses, their riders and their whips as part of their “Annual Cross State Ride.”
Wednesday was no exception, when about 60 of 160 registered riders — including 24 first-time trail riders — joined the equine train onto school grounds.
In front of most of the school’s 649 pupils from kindergarten to fifth grade, Cracker Trail riders, many from Englewood, showed off skills of yore.
They referred to themselves as “cow hunters” rather than “cowboys” because of Florida’s forested and swampy areas where cow-herding “day workers” made a living.
Sitting atop her horse, Suzanne Park, one of the Cracker Trail ride organizers who was traveling with her husband and four children, said each year, the ride “brings to life” the background about Florida’s cattle industry.
As of 2014, Florida is tied with Pennsylvania at 19th in the United States with about 1,620,000 cows and calves statewide, according to USDA National Agricultural Statistical Service Data.
“I want them (pupils) to understand why their school is named ‘Cracker Trail.’ We love sharing the heritage and history of our proud state of Florida,” she said from the sidewalk as children petted her horse’s neck.
The stop at Cracker Trail was the fourth on the 2015 Trail Ride and followed a stay Tuesday at Kahn Ranch in east Hardee County and preceded a Thursday stop to Bass Ranch in west Okeechobee County.
It was a way for children to learn to appreciate an industry that is hundreds of years old in Florida and is significant even today.
“The school is located on the historic Cracker Trail. Through this, we can go back into the class and remind the students of why the school is named ‘Cracker Trail’ and the history behind the term ‘cracker’,” said third-grade teacher Kelly Skalski. “It’s a way to let Florida history come alive.”
The annual cross-state ride is a re-enactment of the return trip from Bradenton on Florida’s west coast back to Fort Pierce on the east coast when cattle herds were on their ways to Havana, Cuba, before the U.S. severed diplomatic tires with the island nation in 1961.
The ride is open to advanced riders and trained horses who camp along the way. Wednesday, the riders’ trek was 24 miles in from Hardee County.
The effort by the school and the Cross-State Ride participants made an impression on some pupils.
Fourth-grader Marshall O’Hern, 10, stood with his classmates from teacher Kim Lethbridge’s class. He said what impressed him most was the horses’ abilities to communicate.
“I learned they do it with their ears. When they move their ears, you can tell what they’re trying to say, like if something is bothering them or not,” he said.
Another fourth-grade pupil, Victoria Grace Wilkins, 10, said she has five calves and 20 cows at her Sebring home. She said the visit by the Cracker Trail riders gave her a better idea of how cowboys and “cow hunters” worked in the days before GPS and cell phones.
“The crack of the whips was important. I didn’t know you could sit on the ground and crack a whip. I’ve tried; it’s pretty hard,” she said. “It’s neat to have this because a lot of the cracker riders started in this area.”
The Florida Cracker Trail Association is a non-profit organization of volunteers dedicated to “keeping history alive” by educating through demonstrations, the old Florida Cracker “pioneer ways of agriculture, animal husbandry, and respect for the land as well as the hardships and joys of life on the original frontier,” according to its website.
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