FOR ABOUT 200 YEARS, until bulldozers began to clear the way for thousands of miles of paved roadways, cattle roamed free across Florida.
Until the early 1900s, most Florida cattle owners didn’t have fences to keep their cattle from wandering. It was up to the Florida “cracker” cowboys — named for the sound made by their braided-leather whips — of the 19th and 20th centuries to keep cows in check.
To get cattle to ports for export, the cowboys often used what became known as the Florida Cracker Trail, which started east of Bradenton on the west coast and stretched about 120 miles to Fort Pierce on the east coast.
Today, the route includes parts of State Road 66, State Road 64 and U.S. 98.
The Florida Cracker Trail ride tradition can be traced to the early 1500s when the first livestock was left in America by Spanish conquistadors during colonization. Shortly after the Civil War, those who settled along Florida’s east coast and central corridor became known as Florida Crackers, Cracker Cowmen or Cow Hunters.
Until the early 21st century, Florida was mostly wide, green spaces and livestock bred and run on an open range. The cowmen would round up cows on the wooded rangelands, open plains, hammocks, by the rivers and streams, and herd them to ports.
In 1987, a group of horse riders in the industry who have a love and respect for that history formed the Florida Cracker Trail Association. What began as an attempt to re-create a part of Florida’s cattle-herding past has now become a traditional annual event.
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