by Kathy Megyeri
Thirteen miles east of Sarasota is the Crowley Museum and Nature Center, a 190 acre nature preserve on Myakka Road that includes trails through five habitats, a one-half mile boardwalk over Maple Branch swamp and an observation tower overlooking the Myakka River. But what is truly charming and educational is the pioneer history area with a museum that includes a homesteader’s cabin, a blacksmith shop and a two-story Cracker house dating from 1888- 1992.
Founder Jasper Crowley was an educator, conservationist and farmer. With his wife Edina and the local Audubon Society, this non-profit organization was established for guests to see how the early settlers lived.
The museum contains a general store and artifacts from early Florida or Cracker culture. The first mention of Cracker in Florida appears in a 1790 letter written by Manuel de Zespedes, Governor of Spanish East Florida, who was frustrated with the lawless group of migrants. Others say the term Cracker came from the sound of whips used by cowmen to herd their cattle through the Florida wilds in the 1800s. The whips created loud, rifle shot popping sounds audible for miles. Another description is posted at the museum:
“Crackers are self-reliant, independent and tenacious settlers of the Deep South, often of Celtic stock, who subsisted by farming or raising livestock and valued personal independence and restraint over material prosperity.”
Interestingly, Cracker cattle, still bred today, are direct descendants of Andalusian cattle introduced to Florida by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon and were bred to withstand heat, insects, and rough dense foliage. They are a registered breed and are listed as one of the five most endangered domestic farm animals in America. But it should be noted that oxen were preferred by Crackers as their primary work animals over mules because they were better able to withstand the swarms of horseflies and could be eaten at the end of their service.
The most notable Crackercow hunter called the “Crown Prince and King” was Morgan Bonaparte Mizell, nicknamed “Bone,” who was a true legend. He was free spirited, hard-drinking and fun loving and could outride, outshoot and outdrink any cowman in Florida.
Men told stories of his exploits but it was the famous Frederic Remington, a 19th century artist, who immortalized Mizell in a painting called “A Cracker Cowboy” which was published in Harper’s new Monthly Magazine in 1895. Bone was on his horse with his dog at his side when sketched by Remington in Arcadia. True to form, Bone Mizell’s death certificate in 1921 succinctly explained his demise: “Moonshine–went to sleep and did not wake up.”
Remington concluded his visit in 1895 to Florida by summing up the Cracker cowhunter this way:
“They are well paid for their desperate work and always eat fresh beef or razor-backs and deer which they kill in the woods. The heat, the poor grass, their brutality and the flies kill their ponies and as a rule, they lack dash and are indifferent riders, but they are picturesque in their unkempt, almost unearthly wildness.”
Thanks to Remington and to the colorful Cracker history on display at the Crowley Museum and Nature Center, Floridians who treasure the past can value even more their Cracker heritage. A visit to the Museum is truly an outing that provides a look into the tough, hardy people who paved the way for later development, farming, and agriculture in middle Florida.