A brief history of Lakeland’s cowmen and cattle

photography by  Philip Pietri
set styling by Lisa Mallot
special thanks to Angela Higgenbotham •   Dixieland Relics •  Gina’s Costumes Rentals •  Wish Vintage Rentals

In 2015, few reminders of Florida’s past remain visible around Lakeland. The coffee shops, antique stores, glimmering businesses, and downtown buildings belie Lakeland’s more raucous beginnings. But if you look closely enough, beyond the businesses and interstates and neighborhoods of the city, you can still glimpse bits and pieces of old Lakeland — of old Florida — and of our city’s wild origins.
Lakeland’s history began thousands of years ago, when the first Paleo-Indian peoples moved into what would become Central Florida as they followed wooly mammoths and other game. Those people eventually settled and split into the Pre-Columbian tribes that became the Timucua, Tocobaga, and Calusa tribes. They and other tribes to the north and south dominated the peninsula, and an estimated 250,000 native people lived in Florida when the Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon landed on its shores in 1513. In 1521, Ponce de Leon returned to Florida on a second voyage, this time bringing with him a small herd of cattle. Thus began Florida’s first agricultural industry; cattle ranching would go on to dominate the state’s economy ever since.
Later, settlers from Spain, England, and the colonies to the north brought cattle of their own until, by the early 19th century, tens of thousands of cattle roamed the state. Breeds of various sorts intermingled and resulted in the Cracker cow, a small, hardy animal that was prized for its ability to thrive in the hot, humid, insect-filled scrublands.
Some herds were owned by native tribes who had joined with Creek tribes from the states to the north to form the Seminole tribe. Other herds were owned by Florida’s celebrated cowmen, who were renowned for their resourcefulness, grit, and simple lifestyle. By the late 19th century, Florida was studded with hundreds of cattlemen’s camps, which were small, rowdy encampments that sprang up along Florida’s cattle trails and pasturelands. Some notable camps included Cow Town, which is near current-day Kissimmee, and other camps in what would later become Bartow and Fort Meade. Herds were kept in unfenced pastures, which meant that cowmen would periodically collect their cattle that had ranged for miles before they drove them to be sold. They rode small, tough ponies, and used dogs and long, braidedleather whips to round up their cattle, which led to their now-famous moniker, the Florida Crackers.
Things began to change when the railroads came to Florida. With them came more settlers, more resources, and other industries. Cattlemen moved into the Peace River area of what would later be Lakeland and Bartow, pushing out the Seminole tribesmen who grazed their herds there. They planted citrus trees and built more permanent settlements, complete with schoolhouses and churches. Cattle remained king, and the land that eventually became Lakeland and the rest of Polk County was still largely untamed.

They rode small, tough ponies, and used dogs and long, braided-leather whips to round up their cattle, which led to their now-famous moniker, the Florida Crackers.

Growth in the cattle industry was disrupted when the Civil War broke out to the north. Although Florida elected to secede from the Union with the other Southern states, the largely unsettled territory was devastated by the war. Cattlemen and farmers did trade with the Confederate Army, which regarded the state more as a source of supplies than as a source of soldiers. The state was the largest supplier of beef to the Confederate Army, and the cowmen’s intimate knowledge with Florida’s unsettled landscapes and coastlines made them adept at evading the federal blockade that was set up around the state.
But while the Confederacy’s power dwindled as the Union armies beat back their defenses, supplies from other sources were cut off. The Confederate Army was allowed to dictate their own prices for beef and other supplies from Florida, and cattlemen were often paid next to nothing for their herds. What’s more, the army also paid with Confederate currency, which was virtually worthless. Economic growth halted, education was virtually nonexistent, and development in the Polk County area ground to a halt.
Not until 1865, when the war ended, did Florida’s development continue. Bartow, already established as the seat of Polk County, began to grow again. In the 1870s, a few cattle ranchers and other families settled to the north of Bartow. In 1882, a Kentucky man named Abraham Munn purchased 80 acres that he intended to plat as a city, and the city of Lakeland was incorporated on January 1, 1885.
Lakeland’s subsequent history is as colorful as the rough cattlemen who traced over the land for almost 200 years before it was founded. The stories that surround our city include Zora Neale Hurston’s wild tales from the railroad camps in Lakeland, as well as a suspicious fire that destroyed a rival city’s railroad depot just before Lakeland’s citizens built their own station.
The cattle industry played — and still plays — an important role in Lakeland’s culture and economy. Nods to our history are everywhere, from The Texas Cattle Company steak house on Lake Mirror to the annual fundraisers put on by the local Cattlemen’s Association. Through cattle no longer roam unchecked through pastures, scrubland, and strands of oak, they’re still a common sight all over town. Many of those herds are still tended by men who, though no longer as wild and lawless as the cattlemen who went before, are as resilient and resourceful as the Florida Crackers of the 18th and 19th century. Those cattle herders’ legacies live on, both in Lakeland and throughout the rest of Polk County.

The wild spirit of Lakeland’s early history is evident all over town. Take a walk through the Circle B Bar Reserve, an old cattle ranch that was purchased by the state of Florida and turned into a nature reserve, and visit the replica cattle camp built there. The reserve is quintessentially Floridian, with examples of prairie landscapes that would have been full of grazing cattle, as well as oak strands, swamps, and marshes. You can also visit the Lakeland Highlands Scrub, a 160-acre preserve of sandhills and the scrub landscape that would have been familiar to every cattleman in Florida. Outside the city, a walk through the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve in northwest Polk County is a trip back into Florida’s past, with ancient landscapes and untouched wilderness that recalls the untamed frontier of early Florida.