Written by: Bill LaPlante

The year was 1995, the first time the Great Florida Cattle Drive took place. Participants became enamored of re-enacting Florida’s cattle history so much so that it was done again in 2006 and 2016.
So, when an event to honor the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon bringing the first cattle to Florida was to occur in 2021, it was only fitting yet another Great Florida Cattle Drive should take place.
Covid messed with the schedule, however, so it was postponed and held over six days this past December.
But what a journey it was!
The Florida Cow Culture Preservation Committee, headed by executive director and cowboy historian Doyle Conner Jr., began the push in 2019 by commissioning the painting of seven fiberglass replica bulls, each five feet tall and weighing 150 pounds. They represented what is known as Juan Ponce de Le

Leon’s 1521 Herd of 7. The seven artists used her or his imagination painting pastoral, cattle, wildlife and even rodeo scenes to convey cattle ranching and its way of life in the Sunshine State. (Florida Country Magazine attended the reveal party in Kissimmee, with a story in the February/March 2020 issue.)
The stories are as varied as the 350-some horsemen/women braving the week-long ride, and those in the 14 adjoining wagons. They came from Florida, from New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania in the northeast, and Oregon in the opposite corner of the continental United States, and many points in between.
While a few are regular snowbirds, the majority made the trip solely for this event.
While no one listed a foreign address on their forms, flags were flown from Brazil and Mexico, the latter being carried on the trail by a sombrero-wearing gaucho, and one from Guatemala. The flag of the Seminole tribe wafted from the back of Billie Joe Johns’ Conestoga-style wagon the entire ride.

Left photo: 33-year-old Bennett Lloyd, Coordinator of the Museum of Seminole County History, who walked the entire 75.3 miles of the cattle drive. Middle photo: A pair of riders carrying their country flags. Right photo: Andy Bowers of the Seminole Tribe, sporting the yellow bandanna worn by the group of veterans.

The equestrians were broken into geographic groups, with each having its own circle boss and a bandanna color with matching flag.
David Hunt from Polk County, as director of the Outdoor Freedom Program, ran the veterans’ group, and they all sported gold bandannas. The Seminole tribe sponsored 20 military veterans, paying the entry fee and providing horses. So, a special banner was presented by this group to the tribe, containing the cattle drive emblem, surrounded by the insignias of each branch of the military. And to Tara Johns, this was her favorite part of the ride.
Accompanying the Johns family in their wagon for the first three days was veteran Mike Hill of St. Augustine, Florida. He then departed for Arlington Cemetery in Virginia, to lay a wreath on the grave of his son on the first anniversary of the boy’s death.
The last mile of the route saw the Johns’ host 88-year-old Ron Wetherington of Dozier, Florida, who was driving their wagon. Unexpected surgery before the event prevented him from making the entire ride, one of his bucket-list items! Wetherington is the grandfather of Moriah McCullers Johns, and he drove the team wearing his Seminole patchwork jacket.
The third day a rearing horse struck a woman rider. She went to a local emergency center for medical scans. The result was a mild concussion and she rejoined the ride after a day’s rest. Her young daughter stayed with the group, quickly becoming the ward of fellow riders!
The oldest listed participant was Al Johnson of Orlando, Florida. He had been a cow hunter (the group tending the cattle) on three previous drives but this year he rode a wagon. Jose Carranza, 87, rode the entire route, as he did on the 2016 drive.

The youngest registered rider was Jayme Wells of Fellsmere, Florida, at the tender age of six, described by event organizers as “tough as nails, and an absolute hero to many on the ride.”
And in between was 33-year-old Bennett Lloyd of Sanford, Florida. This intrepid adventurer completed the 75.3-mile route (per GPS) on foot! As coordinator of the Museum of Seminole County History, he wanted to experience Florida’s diverse history. He was dressed entirely in clothing from the 1530s, most of which he himself had made. But he “had to order the shoes online,” he said. On the first day’s outing, Lloyd lost the group and had to backtrack, pulling a hamstring muscle, spending the first night icing his leg.
Unlike the cattle drives of old, meals were catered — hot breakfast at 7 a.m. and supper served at 7 p.m., with seconds and even third helpings allowed. A sandwich and chips for lunch on the trail.
Every night was entertaining. Judge Nelson Bailey talked about Florida’s cattle history, for example, and 93-year-old Iris Wall of Indiantown explained about being a Florida cracker, there was visiting an early Native American camp (pre-Seminoles), Bennett Lloyd discussing the arrival of early Spanish explorers, re-enactors talking about the Florida Cow Calvary during the War of Northern Aggression/Civil War and their flag which bears the motto “the rights of the south at all hazards,” and the singer Chuck Hardwick, the cowboy poet Doyle Rigdon.
The highlight was the Friday night entertainment — Seminole culture night. Seamstress Stephanie Johns displayed her patchwork designs and traditional garments. Her brother, Jobe Johns, demonstrated the gathering and cooking of the Florida delicacy, swamp cabbage. Jobe and his wife Moriah had intended to complete the week-long ride, but due to unexpected circumstances had to bow out

after the third day. Their father, Billie Joe, was
emotional about his children and daughter-inlaw
all being there.
The storyteller/medicine man Herbert Jim of the
Tampa Seminole reservation enthralled everyone
with his stories. Skeeter Bowers explained the
corn dance, then had many on their feet joining
in the friendship dance. Singer/songwriter
Rita Youngman performed some of her songs.
Charlotte Gopher, her two children and Jayleigh
and Hushee Osceola cooked fry bread and made
sofkee, a staple drink made from rice, grits or
dried corn heated in lots of water.
The drive commenced on the Deseret Ranch in east
Florida, where its cattle began the drive. From there
riders pushed northwest across the Kempfer Ranch
and the Deseret Escape Ranch. That Thursday 500
Corriente cattle — longhorn influenced with horns
to match — were delivered from the Bluehead
Ranch in Lake Placid for the end of the drive.
The group left Diego Medina’s ranch on the
morning of December 10 with this wild and frisky
group of bovines, driving them into the Kenansville
Silver Spurs arena grounds for the trail’s end
celebration. There was music and food, vendors
selling jams and jellies, decorated cow skulls, cowhide
products and much more. Stephanie Johns
displayed her Seminole clothing and painter Eldon
Lux had his artwork on display. Lux had done a
special painting to honor the Great Florida Cattle
Drive 2022 — a painting of Florida cow hunters on
the ground, Seminole cow hunters in the clouds.
Many thanks to the members and volunteers
with the Florida Cow Culture Preservation
Committee for providing a glimpse into
Florida’s cattle history.
And always remember, the Great Florida Cattle
Drive — 1995, 2006, 2016 and now 2022 — “ain’t
for sissies.” FCM

Great Florida Cattle Drive 2022/ Florida
Cow Culture Preservation Committee,
Museum of Seminole County History,
Florida Cow Calvary, tampahistorical.org