Agriculture is important to Okeechobee area history

OKEECHOBEE — Rancher and owner of the Okeechobee Livestock Market Todd Clemons spoke on the history of Okeechobee agriculture with some fact and a little humor as the Centennial year speaker series continued Thursday, June 8.

Mr. Clemons is a fourth generation Floridian and native of Okeechobee. He graduated from both Okeechobee High School and Troy State.

Mr. Clemons said 100 years ago, a lot of people weren’t well educated but were hard workers. He went into how things have changed in Okeechobee over the years.

Todd Clemons is pictured with Okeechobee Mayor Dowling Watford after his June 8 speech on the history of Okeechobee agriculture.

“I remember the lake and being able to see the lake, there was no dike, no culverts. When it rained it was wet,” he noted.

He said mosquitoes were a lot worse, and alligators and snakes were commonplace. There were also no fences on private lands.

He said Florida law allowed cattle to go where they wanted to go. One journalist, unfamiliar with the state, who ran across several traffic jams with cows in the road, compared them to bumper cars.

Cattle had been introduced to the state by the Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s. They dropped off cows and horses so they would have food and transportation as they explored. Many of the cattle got loose into the woods and went wild.

This made things tougher for cattlemen who wanted to corral those cows and sell them.

“Today you can push cows. Back then those cows would chase you. The bulls and cows would sharpen their horns on trees. They were dangerous. They weren’t as big as the cattle today but they were big enough to hurt you,” said Mr. Clemons.

At one time Observation Island on Lake Okeechobee was a peculiar site. In the winter or dry season, cattle herds would graze out there. When things got wet, cowboys would bring horses and a barge to bring the cattle back to shore.

Mr. Clemons recalled a Texan helping one year wasn’t used to the water and his horse drowned.

Mr. Clemons also recalled some colorful people on the lake. Buck Shot and Lou, he said, lived on the lake in a house boat with no electricity of plumbing. They talked rough, but had a rough life.

One time his grandfather asked Buck Shot to count the number of cows they were loading into a holding area. He insisted that Buck Shot take an accurate count. He watched intently as the cattle were loaded in, and had to answer questions about the total.

“He told them, I think there was a million, maybe even more than that, like 10,000,” he added.

Mr. Clemons also counted cows, one time he remembers 1228 cows were sold when the family sold his grandfather’s ranch.

The 1920 land boom changed everything in Florida. People came in droves and you couldn’t sell land quick enough. It is like flipping land today.

One fella was put into a sanitarium by his family when he purchased land in Pinellas County. He paid $1,700 at the time. He was let out a few years later, around 1925, when the land sold for $300,000. Perhaps his family, and doctors, realized he wasn’t as crazy as they thought.

“The genius and the idiot were never so narrowly defined as in those days,” Mr. Clemons added.

Mr. Clemons grandfather worked for Irlo Bronson’s ranch in what is now Osceola County and sold part of the ranch to Walt Disney for $100 acre. He said at the time Mr. Bronson couldn’t believe somebody in the right mind would buy the land for that price. The land was developed into Walt Disney World.

Mr. Clemons also spoke on Belle Glade and the first livestock his family leased. In the 1960s this market was the largest in Florida.

In 1928 there were only 15,000 head of cattle in Okeechobee. That number rose to 35,000 by 1938. Today there are 180,000 head of cattle in our county.

The Cattlemen’s Association started in 1937 and has been around for 80 years. Today is boasts close to 200 members.

Mr. Clemons said the biggest developments to help Florida’s cattle industry were tick eradication and pure breed bulls. The arrival of the railroad in 1915 was a huge development for agriculture in general. Citrus, timber, vegetables, tomatoes and turpentine were products important to Okeechobee over the years.

Today dairy and beef cattle are major staples of the Okeechobee County economy.

Mr. Clemons said he hopes cattle continue to be a big part of our town.

“The future of the cattle industry looks really good. I hope we don’t change who we are. We need to protect land use from development. We are very fortunate to have this land. We should be proud because we produce the food that feeds the world,” he said.

Mr. Clemons said Okeechobee’s image is one of a cow town, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

“We only have prime good stock and that applies to man and beast,” said Mr. Clemons.

Maggie Cable is chairperson of the Centennial Committee. Mayor Dowling Watford served as Master of Ceremonies.

The speech by Rick Smith on a Land Remembered planned in November has been sold out. Mrs. Cable will make a presentation on Okeechobee founder Peter Raulerson in September.

George and Mary Beth Cooper hosted the reception.

Charles M. Murphy is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News

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