Cow Camp – Lake Kissimmee State Park
By Jon Wilson
Florida’s history of cattle drives and cow towns began 500 years ago with the conquistadors and Andalusian cattle.
Lake Wales – There is a moment when distant boat motors fall silent. Traffic thrumming has dissolved. Somewhere a cicada rattles, startling a wary visitor. A breath of a breeze meanders an oak stand and gray wisps of Spanish moss sway from twisting limbs. On a dirt path, footprints leave the unmistakable pattern of a 21st century running shoe. But… wait. Where did the tracks go? Did those who made them vanish like phantoms misting into the forest? Or perhaps the visitor has crossed some murky boundary in time…
Two quick cracks slap the visitor’s reverie. A pistol?
Then the path opens into a clearing. A man whirls a 10-foot whip around his head, casts the lash and pumps an arm. The whip blasts like a gunshot.
Sometimes called a “drag,” the whip is the signature tool of a Florida cowman, and its air-splitting pop is the sound of the Cracker – the folkloric figure who built the state’s cattle industry on the rough-and-tumble, 19th century Florida frontier. The drivers used whips not to hit the scrawny scrub cattle, but to control them on drives with the noise of the lash. Tough dogs called “leopard curs” sniffed out cattle lost in the scrub and chased them back to the herd.
To visit the 1876 cow camp at Lake Kissimmee State Park is to travel in time.