A piece of “Old Florida” sprang to life this October as men and women on horseback drove dozens of cattle across the open-range and dusty trails of the Potts Preserve in Citrus County.
The Seventh Annual Cracker Cattle Drive was coordinated by the Hernando Heritage Council and the Citrus County Cattlemen’s Association. Approximately 75 head of cattle were driven across private land and portions of Potts Preserve until they reached the Southern Heritage Festival in Hernando. The annual event raises funds for the restoration of the Old Hernando Elementary School.
“We want to teach people about this part of Florida’s not-so-distant history,” said Kandice Bellamy-McPherson, cattle drive organizer. “Ranchers helped each other round up and drive their cattle to market across the open-range through the late 1940s and continued to help each other on cattle drives across the county and state long after the end of open-range ranching. This event gives people a taste of what it used to be like.”
Approximately 50 people of all ages took part in the drive, including nine-year-old Kaylan Flatt, who has been riding horses since she was four.
“I like riding up behind the cows to keep them moving along,” said Flatt.
Carol Hilleson grew up in Floral City but lives in DeKalb, Illinois. She says she comes back for the cattle drive every year because it’s great fun.
“I love to see the land and hear the stories the ranchers tell,” said Hilleson.
One of the ranchers, Billy Bellamy, has been involved with the historic cattle drives since the beginning.
“This is a way of life for me,” said Bellamy. “I’ve been running cattle since I was big enough to ride with my great uncle, so I always help out on these drives.”
Bellamy-McPherson asked the District for permission to include Potts Preserve in the drive because her family, as well as many other local ranching families, grazed cattle on the property long before it was purchased by the District.
“The historic grazing of cattle on the property had positive and negative impacts on the land,” said Joel DeAngelis, senior land management specialist. “For instance, the long-term presence of cattle caused soil compaction, which alters vegetation. However, the presence of cattle grazing also kept the vegetation under control when seasonal fires did not.”
Organizers addressed one of the District’s concerns by confining the cattle to a pen on a private landowner’s property for three days before the cattle drive, allowing any undigested seeds to pass through them before they crossed the preserve. This was done to minimize the risk of the cattle bringing exotic species onto the property.
The cattle were also driven on authorized trails to minimize potential impacts.
The Old Hernando Elementary School is a Colonial Revival style building that currently houses a community center. A school has been located at the site since the late 1800s. A wooden schoolhouse was there before the current building, which was finished in the 1940s as a Works Projects Administration (WPA) public works project.
About eight years ago, the school board planned to demolish the school. It was saved by the grass-roots efforts of a group of citizens, who eventually formed the Hernando Heritage Council of the Citrus County Historical Society. The council persuaded the school board to donate the school and the grounds to the county, keeping it in public ownership. The council is continuing to restore the historic school, which includes a community center and will also include a museum when it is complete.
To learn more about the restoration efforts or next year’s cattle drive, contact the Hernando Heritage Council of the Citrus County Historical Society at (352) 341-6427.