Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Clay's Cattle Industry Had to Come of Age

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Clay's Cattle Industry Had to Come of Age

Article excerpt

Cattle raising in one form or another has been going on in the area now known as Clay County for about four centuries. A small herd of cows accompanied Ponce de Leon on his second expedition in the late 1500s. Cattle have been a significant part of Florida history since then.

Most early settlers in the county owned cattle. If a family accumulated a little bit of money over what was needed to survive, they bought land or cows, preferably both. Cows were a good investment. They were cheap to maintain with free-range grazing, required little attention and multiplied. A cow, too, was insurance if a family's economic situation took a nose dive -- a cow was readily converted to cash or, if the price wasn't right, could always be eaten.

These early Florida range cows were not a pretty sight. Scraggly and bony, they bore little resemblance to the majestic animals found on Clay County's cattle ranches today. It took a series of near disasters in the industry, the scientific advancements of the progressive era and the relentless determination of local ranchers to produce this transformation.

Florida has a way of delivering gifts with grief. The tropical climate produces the lush growth of range vegetation, but also results in a profuse diversity and population of insects. The horse fly was a particular nuisance to man and cattle alike. Natives talk of hearing a swarm of horse flies coming and seeing hundreds of cows bunch together and whip their tails for protection. It is said a herd will do the same thing to discourage mosquitoes. But the Texas tick and the screw worm that followed were not so simply thwarted.

Florida ranchers, ever an independent bunch, were not initially convinced that the Texas tick was a problem or that the new scientific solution of dipping cattle in arsenic was the answer. They particularly resented Tallahassee's compulsory dip law passed in 1923. In central Florida, 15 dipping tanks were dynamited out of the ground.

Clay County ranchers did not go to that extreme. They just dragged their heels until it became clear that it was going to cost them more not to cooperate. …

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