It was a warm March afternoon when I joined Jake Summers for a “cow hunt.” I’d spent the last 12 hours holed up in a grimy motel room on the outskirts of Apalachicola, Florida, guzzling coffee and chugging Dayquil.
I was still recovering from the prior day’s assignment, a magazine story about one of the last oyster tong makers in Florida, a man named Rodney Richards. I’d huddled with Rodney for hours in his rough-hewn workshop, as he heated rods of iron ember-red and then beat them to a point using the same hammer his late father had used to perfect his trade.
Rodney fired his home-made forge with pine-straw and industrial-grade charcoal, which he salvaged from a train wreck in the woods behind his house. The process, not exactly OSHA-approved, produced billowing clouds of thick, black smoke.
Turns out that stuff isn’t great to breathe.
But breathe I did, and now, with watery eyes and running nose, I was on to the next stop in my round-trip tour of Old Florida.
Jake is a cowboy or, as they’re called in these parts, a “cow man,” His 110-head herd ranges over more than 17,000 acres in the Apalachicola National Forest, grazing on scorched palmetto and wiregrass in the shade of towering pines.
His trade, like Rodney’s, is all but extinct, a casualty of changing times and changing tastes.
His bumper sticker puts it succinctly: “Florida Cracker, Endangered Species.”
Now, there’s a word that’s liable to get you in a fight.
And for good reason. You could write a book about the etymology of that word and all the fight’s it’s started. I’d read that book. Jake probably wouldn’t.
To him, and others like him, the meaning of “Cracker” is simple. It stands for the old ways, frontier values like honesty, self-reliance, individualism.
Values like liberty.
And that’s where Jake lives: in Liberty County, in a picturesque log cabin that he and his boys built by hand from ancient cypress logs they salvaged from the bottom of the Apalachicola River.
I’m not joking.
To get there takes some doing. I passed signs for places like “Tate’s Hell” and “The Dead Lakes” on my way to the Land of the Free. Given the signs — and my overall condition — I was relieved when I finally pulled down Jake’s long driveway and saw him emerge from his cabin.
Jake is all cowboy: faded blue jeans, yellow flannel shirt, brass belt buckle, cowboy boots and caramel-colored hat. The hat’s brim was curled up on the sides, and Jake’s silver bangs peaked out over his ears and eyes, giving him an almost-boyish look. He grinned broadly.
“Hope you’re hungry,” he beamed.
I wasn’t, but, not wanting to be rude, I pretended I was.
Inside, the entire family sat around the dinner table, apparently waiting to welcome me. Before us was a smorgasbord. There was Cracker cattle steak, Cracker cattle burgers, Cracker cattle ribs, even Cracker cattle chili. So much for polite nibbling.
As we ate, Jake regaled me with the history of his cows. His voice lilted between gravelly lows and nasally highs, interspersed with frequent bouts of outrageous laughter.
Cracker cattle are a heritage breed, he told me, and can trace their lineage in the state all the way back to the very first cattle brought to the New World. His herd, which is believed to be among the purest-bred left, is thought to be descended from cattle released near Pensacola in 1540, during the expedition of Hernando De Soto.
The cows ranged wild through the forests of West Florida, becoming uniquely adapted to the hot, humid climate and rough, protein-poor landscape. It was cows like these that formed the backbone of the state’s cattle industry through the Civil War and Reconstruction, before they were supplanted by other breeds in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Cracker cattle might have been bred out of existence entirely had the state not intervened in the 1960s, when then-Commissioner of Agriculture Doyle Connor began a breeding program.
With the cows no longer in danger of extinction, we polished off the rest of the steak and the ribs. Then, I told Jake I wanted to see one for myself.
As I slid into the cab of Jake’s old pickup truck, my leg hit up against the hard, cold nozzle of his shotgun, which was resting between the seats.
“Don’t mind that,” Jake said. “I keep it there for two reasons: Turkeys and Muslim terrorists.”
He burst out laughing.
“I’ll shoot whichever one runs across the road first.”
We didn’t see any turkeys or terrorists. But we did find the cows.
They were camped out in a pasture, next to a sand ridge that had recently burned. Jake told me how the animals love the tender, new shoots of the wiregrass that emerge after fire. They’re rich in protein, a rare commodity in the forest.
Jake pulled off the road so we could get a closer look at one of the cows. Her newborn calf walked alongside her, and she was clearly injured.
“Ain’t that a pretty lil’ ol’ calf?” Jake said.
He’d been watching the injured mother for weeks, worried she might lose the calf. That would be no small matter since Cracker cattle calve only every other year. Still, Jake didn’t intervene. I asked why.
“Sort of against the rules,” he said.
“Well, our rules anyway.”
Jake has a different philosophy about raising cattle than most, which seems to have little to do with his bottom line. Case in point: Demand for Cracker cattle has been picking up in recent years, with more and more consumers taking an interest in organic and grass-fed beef, and Jake has had more than one person offer him top dollar to part with more of his.
“I could sell everyone of these cattle tonight, over the telephone,” Jake told me.
But he won’t do it.
“There’s just something about the nature of this thing here, where the cows work to survive where no others can, that makes it unique,” he said. “I love it. If I had a heart attack and died today, if I got run over by a pickup truck, if somebody’s jealous old man shot me, these cows wouldn’t need me. To me, that’s special.”
We stood there in silence for a minute, listening to the sound of the cows bellowing in the distance, watching the injured mother and her calf stumble on.
“That’s a nice hat,” I said finally. “I used to have one just like it.”
“You know, men give up a lot when they give up the hat,” he said. “It is the emblem of their manhood. You can tote water to a suffering friend with a hat. You can fan the insects off with it. It keeps the sun off your face, out of your eyes. It’ll go through thick brush. And, when you pass a lady, an elegant tip of the hat is something distinguishes you from the lady folks.”
Jake pushed his hat back: “You see a feller wearing his hat back like that, it means he’s sort of a goof.”
Then to the side: “If you see him over there wearing one like that, it means he’s sort of a sport.”
Then down low, over his eyes: “If you see him wearing his hat like that, it means, ‘Keep your hands off me and my damn hat!’”
Jake broke out into laughter at his last remark. But then he grew solemn.
“When I was in school, you always wore a hat, and you always kept a pocket knife.”
He pulled his out his knife and flipped the blade open, then shut. Open and shut, as he talked.
“I never even thought about cutting nobody with it. I’d always go hunting after school, too. Always was a gun in the truck. I never locked it, and I never had one stolen.”
“Ain’t like that now. But you wore a hat to school, too. Nobody said anything. Nobody cared. It didn’t mean nothing. I never felt dressed without it.”