Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Florida Cracker Lifestyle


As Reported by the Orlando The Sentinel, "Historian Provides View Of The Cracker Lifestyle," by Jovida Fletcher, on 3 December 1995  --  When Florida ranchers gathered in Kissimmee recently to review the history of the cattle industry and to celebrate the past 150 years of Florida's cattle frontier, local historian Brenda Elliott lent a hand.

In addition to serving as consultant, committee member and co-editor of the proceedings, Elliott provided one of the 13 papers presented at the first Florida Cattle Frontier Symposium.

The symposium, sponsored by the Florida Cattlemen's Association and the Florida Cracker Cattle Breeders Association, provides a wealth of information on the cattle industry in Florida.

Elliott, who has lived in Kissimmee for four years, is a descendant of some of the country's earliest pioneers. Her ancestors came to America in the 1630s.

''They spent a century and half in Massachusetts before Vermont opened up for settlement around 1790,'' she said.


Her father's family, the Everett Merryfields, drove stage coaches around Windsor, Vt., and her great-grandfather had stages in Sandwich, N.H., in 1900.

''They drove on what was known as 'Down the Mass Road,' where they hauled tall timbers down to the coast to ship to England for ship building,'' she said.

Elliott's information for her paper, ''Florida Cracker Cattle Lore: The Florida WPA Files,'' came from information gathered in the

the 1930s by field workers in the Federal Writers' Program of the Works Progress Administration. Those workers found Florida's folklore fascinating as they wrote of the Florida Cracker's lifestyle.


She found that WPA field workers often did not believe the Florida Cracker was too eager to work in those days. One wrote: ''There is a complaint on the Florida farms of the scarcity of help, just as there is in other parts of the country. One farmer who tried to hire a native received this reply: 'What for should I work? Hit don't cost but $35 a year to live and I've got $40.'''

Another, she said, overheard a conversation in the Everglades: ''Sam, I want you to clean up my yard today. It needs mowin' and rakin' mighty bad.''

''Yessuh, boss. But how much is you gonna pay me?''

''You go ahead and do the work and I'll pay you whatever you're worth.''

''No, suh,'' said Sam. ''I can't afford to work for that little.''

One field worker found that in the 1930s Kissimmee did not have a ''modernly equipped laundry. Rather, practically every house had its blackened kettle resting on an iron tripod or a tottering support of broken bricks where the family laundry was done.''

Elliott learned that Cracker schools and churches were not held in high regard by the field workers. One reported that one Cracker father removed his children from school ''because their angry sire declared he 'warn't a-sending his young 'uns to no teacher that learned 'em to spell 'taters with a 'p' .''


The field wroker described the Crackers' ''little church'' as perhaps the best-kept of the neighborhood structures. Crackers, he wrote, attended church in large numbers, and revivals were frequent and well attended.

Field workers found that the Crackers' foodstuffs were of near royal quality and included bakin' 'taters - newly dug sweet potatoes sweetened by being buried in Florida sand for several weeks - Hoppin' Johns, a mixure of lima beans, rice and corn, or black-eyed peas and rice.

Crackers cooked outdoors most of the time. A fire was built between three stones that served as supports for the kettles.


Food and communal meals dominated the Florida Cracker's daily and social life. The ''cane-biling'' was held at the time of the sugar cane harvest.

Neighbors gathered at some house where there was a cane mill and boiling pots. At night, a large fire was built and the folks sat around the fire and sang, laughed and told stories.

The purlow party, also called a pileau-picnic, brought together friends and neighbors, and each family brought a chicken or other ingredients for the pileau. The women cooked large pots of rice and boiled the chickens. The rice and chicken eventually were cooked together and seasoned.

The dance or frolic took place mostly in the daytime, as was the case with most recreation for early settlers. Fish fries were a favorite of older citizens in Osceola County and were major social events.


On the day of the fish fry, one worker wrote, the older boys and men rose before daybreak and rode on horseback to the site where the fish fry was to take place. Using both rods and guns, they fished and hunted squirrels and rabbits. By the time the women, children and older men arrived, riding in light wagons drawn by small horses or ponies, the fires would have been built and the men had the game and fish prepared for cooking.

Dinner usually included succotash, grits, game meat, fish, coffee and palmetto ''swamp'' cabbage.

The party packed up about 3 p.m., and the families returned to their homes, as it was the custom then to always be home before dark.

Cracker houses in those days usually had a roofed-over opening between two parts of the house, known as a breezeway. Of the adjoining rooms, one usually was used for sleeping, the other for cooking and eating. The breezeway served as the sitting room.


One anecdote on the Florida Cracker's creativity in meeting his housing needs came from Tampa.

One worker wrote: ''William B. Hooker, the first cattle king of Florida, built the first large residence in Tampa. Soon after completion, his wife died and he married a Mrs. Cathcart from Ocala.

''Both had children who couldn't agree. To prevent friction, Hooker built two sets of stairs outside his big house, one on the west end, the other on the east end. The Cathcart children used the east stairs, the Hookers, the west, and Hooker and his wife used the inside stairs.''  (source: Orlando The Sentinel)

What's a Florida Cracker? - Part I




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