Florida passed a fence law in 1949 — the same year Steve Melton was born.
“This is amazing to me that within my lifetime we have gone from open range cattle to what you see today,” Melton said, during a recent meeting of the Pasco County Historical Society in Dade City.
“When you drive in the morning and see the green pastures, and the housing developments, you have to remember it was open range not that long ago,” recalled Melton, whose family has farming and ranching operations on the northeastern edge of Pasco County.
How ranchers transformed the state’s agriculture open ranges and woods to improved pastures was the topic of Melton’s talk before an audience of roughly 50 people.
Those gathered had waited six months to hear from the cattle rancher and cowboy poet because of concerns about gatherings during the COVID-19 global pandemic.
The state’s fence law — Chapter 588 of the Florida Statutes — makes it possible for approximately 19,000 livestock farms to coexist with the state’s rapid population and commercial growth.
Complaints about traffic accidents with stray cattle had finally convinced more and more ranchers to permanently fence in their herds.
But, the state’s history with cattle began about 500 years before that.
Melton offered a historical glimpse of the role cattle has played in Florida, since explorer Ponce de Leon brought them to the New World, in 1521.
During the Civil War, Florida became the main supplier of beef to the Confederate army.
But, the cattle industry didn’t enter its golden age until the period of Reconstruction, when a thriving trade opened with Cuba.
Ranchers bred and raised “cracker cattle” to graze on wire grass, and native plants in pinewoods and wet weather ponds.
That began to change in the 1800s.
“Not many know this, but turpentine was the state’s largest industry at that time,” Melton said.
Turpentine was manufactured from pine sap taken from old-growth trees. It was used for the so-called naval store industry for all products derived from pine resin, such as soap, paint, varnish, shoe polish, lubricants, linoleum, and roofing materials.
The distillation process left the trees mostly barren.
Then, Melton said, the turpentine companies would either walk away or sell their land for less than $2 an acre.
Low land prices create opportunity
“Cattlemen and others with some money started to buy huge tracts of land,” Melton said.
Landowners expanded their holdings, including the Barthle Brothers Ranch and the Krusen Land and Timber Company in East Pasco, the Wiregrass Ranch in Central Pasco, and the Starkey Ranch in West Pasco County.
“The main thing that changed our agriculture at this point was watermelons,” Melton explains.
Watermelon growers headed to the big ranchers and made deals to clear the land.
Since they needed fresh ground when planting, this meant that each year the trees would be pushed and cleared to plant a new crop of watermelon.
“They had a unique way of clearing the land,” Melton told his audience.
“They would take a couple of D8 Caterpillar bulldozers and tie a ship anchor chain between them, and drag this back and forth across the field to clear scrub and light timber,” Melton said.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, watermelon growers found an early market up north for shipping product for the Memorial Day family picnics.
The ranchers benefited because their land was cleared, for free, by the watermelon growers.
After the watermelon harvests, alyceclover was planted first as a seed crop.
When planting Baha as an improved pasture grass, and with genetics greatly improving the size and quality of beef, ranchers could average one calf per 13 acres instead of one calve per 15 acres.
“The beef industry in Florida completely changed,” Melton observed.
“Most all ranchers run a cow-calf operation. Meaning they keep the momma cow and sell the calves for beef.”
Increased calf production necessitated economies in savings with giant feed lots operating in Texas, Kansas, Arizona and New Mexico.
“The calves are fed to be 2-year-old, 100-pound steers or heifers, and then sold to a packer,” Melton explains.
Only four or five packing houses in the United States are still cost-effective with the feed lots out west.
“Cattle ranching, which had once been a family enterprise utilizing the open-range, became a capital-intensive agribusiness by the 1980s,” Melton concluded.
Florida was the last state to pass a fence law.
Dade City’s William M. Larkin, a long-time cattle rancher and prominent lawyer, drafted the fence law that was adopted by the Florida Legislature.
Larkin wound up fencing about 15,000 acres of his ranch with woven wire, purchased from Sears, Roebuck and Company.
Doug Sanders has a penchant for unearthing interesting stories about local history. His sleuthing skills have been developed through his experiences in newspaper and government work. If you have an idea for a future history column, contact Doug at .
Published November 18, 2020