Dispatch from “Old Florida”



By Elizabeth Dunlop Richter



If your image of Florida is broad sandy beaches, Disney World, and shopping for Lily Pulitzer on Worth Avenue, there is another Florida equally worth exploring. Think cattle and horses, watermelon and clams, and over 500 years of North American history. On a recent trip to visit my sister Katherine, who with her husband Greg and their two horses lives on 10 acres in Chiefland, Florida (about an hour west of Gainesville), I got a taste of what some call “Old Florida.”

Straw hats are de rigueur in the Florida climate.

Florida’s 100-degree heat and humidity did not impede the 16th-century Spanish conquistadors, who in 1513 were the first Europeans to explore and exploit the land that would become the state of Florida. Such names as Hernando DeSoto and Ponce de Leon populated my childhood history books with their pursuit of gold and a path to the Far East. Spain would battle Native American tribes, French, and British forces for over 300 years until Florida became an American territory in 1821. It was Ponce De Leon who first brought horses and cattle to North America’s mainland.

Engraving presumed to be Ponce De Leon

A 1591 map of Florida by Jacques le Moyne de Morgues.

Cattle were imported as food for Spanish garrisons. As the conquistadors moved on, many of the original cattle ran wild. Early ranchers included Spanish settlers, Roman Catholic missionaries, and Native American tribes. Those later called cowboys were sometimes called “cow hunters” because they hunted cows roaming the tropical forests. These Florida cowboys (and their cattle) would later acquire the nickname “Cracker” from the startling sound of the whips they “cracked” to move their herds.

Cattle have been part of the Florida regional economy for 500 years.

Over decades of European settlement and conflict, by 1700 Florida’s cattle culture began to take shape. The region had an estimated 24 ranches and 20,000 head of cattle. During the battle-torn 1700s, Seminole tribes were the primary keepers of cattle herds. When Britain gained political control by the end of the 18th century, cowmen from northern colonies moved south and added to the cattle culture. The 19th century brought more homesteaders and new breeds of cattle, increasing grazing land to 200,000 acres by midcentury. Cattle fed soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. Today Florida’s cattle industry boasts nearly 900,000 head of cattle with 15,000 beef producers throughout the state. Several herds border my sister’s property.

Life on early Florida farms had similarities to 19th-century Illinois farmsteads with notable climate-related exceptions, like a mule-driven press for a sugar cane crop. We visited the Dudley Farm Historic State Park (Florida’s state park system has been four times honored with the National Gold Medal for Excellence in Park and Recreation Management) to see how an 1830s farmer/rancher lived. Still a working farm, the park features Cracker cows (descended from the first Spanish imports) and horses, bronze turkeys and heritage breed chickens tended by costumed volunteers, who demonstrate how three generations of Dudleys lived.

Dudley Farm homestead

Dudley Farm sugar cane press

Today’s Florida farmers, however, live a very different lifestyle. Across the county road from my sister’s pastures, two years ago Brian and Janell traded their Idaho lifestyle for Florida with a swimming pool and a brand-new canning kitchen open to the outdoors. The pair formerly raised alfalfa which they shipped from Idaho across the country to Florida, the same alfalfa that Katherine and Greg buy for their horses. In addition to raising cattle, the Idaho newcomers have planted a handsome vegetable garden so productive they continually offer products to their neighbors, who need not seek out a farmers’ market!

From Idaho snow to Florida sunshine

Florida’s climate is kind to a wide range of agricultural ventures. At another farm ten minutes away, the focus is on goats. 300 of them! Raised for their milk, meat, and as pets, they come in all sizes and shapes, from adorable little ones to docile, milkable “fainting goats” to more aggressive Billy goats. In fact, one big-horned fellow hit me in the back with his hoof (fortunately not his horns!) when I inadvertently leaned on the bars of his stall.


The boisterous Billy goat!

Pam, the owner with her husband Ray of Carriage House Farm, milks Buttercup, promising goat’s milk feta and chevre to come. 

A dozen or more peacocks plus guinea fowl, chickens, and horses keep the goats company.

“Farm to table” takes on a new meaning when you visit the farms in person. I was able to make lunch the next day with fresh beets and cantaloupe from Brian and Janell’s garden, with Pam’s goats’ milk feta cheese plus watermelon directly from the field. My brother-in-law Greg had stopped to chat – in Spanish – with watermelon pickers, who comped him two melons! Watermelon is big business in Florida, first in the nation in value which the Florida Department of Agriculture reports totaled $162 million in 2019. There is even an annual watermelon queen! I was used to seeing logging trucks in the Pacific Northwest. Here there are watermelon trucks, often made from creatively recycled school buses.

Miss Watermelon

Recycled buses await watermelon cargo.

Heading southeast, I saw a very different environment from the farmland around Chiefland. We explored Ocala, called “the horse capital of the world.” The first Thoroughbred farm was developed in 1943, relatively recently in Florida history. Today over 400 Thoroughbred horse farms dot the area. While equestrian events have been held here for decades, the World Equestrian Center, the largest equestrian complex in the United States with 378 acres and 300 more to be developed, just opened in 2021, setting a new standard. Developed by the Roberts family, owners of the R + L Carriers trucking enterprise, the center is estimated to have cost close to $500 million and includes a luxury hotel, a large outdoor stadium, four indoor arenas, shops, and restaurants. The handsome new facilities are available for everything from Hunter/Jumper competitions (that we watched) to dog shows and other special events. The adjacent residential development attracts horse-lovers from around the world.

The entrance to the World Equestrian Center (WEC) provides a dramatic view of The Equestrian Hotel that overlooks the grand stadium, surrounded by indoor arenas, shops, and restaurants. The dark sky promised much-needed rain.

The WEC Summer Series Hunter/Jumper competitions offer prizes of $10,000 and more.

In addition to the English-style riding culture, Florida also supports the western trail-riding tradition, with hundreds of miles of riding trails through nature preserves and state parks. My sister and brother-in-law are part of this community. Following careers building boats, making sails, and serving as school administrators, they “retired” to a new career owning and boarding horses. Riding with groups of friends, they travel throughout Florida and the South to explore the natural beauty of the region. Their horses travel in style in a 36-foot trailer that includes an efficient apartment for their owners.

Katherine shows her sister how she trains her Tennessee Walker, Heart

Heart and his equine companion Jolie travel comfortably to destinations throughout the south

Their horses, Heart and Jolie, are Tennessee Walkers, just a few of the breeds in Florida today, supplementing America’s original Iberian stock. In addition to the Thoroughbreds raised in the Ocala area, the Paso Fino is the preferred breed of my sister’s friend Kathie. Described as “a naturally-gaited light horse,” Paso Finos are descended from the horses first imported to the Caribbean by the Spanish. According to US Equestrian, “the gait is smooth, rhythmic, purposeful, straight, balanced in flexion, and synchronous front to rear, resulting in unequalled comfort and smoothness for the rider,” making it a favorite of trail riders. Kathie and her husband Jerry have participated in Paso Fino Nationals in Carriage Driving, Pleasure, and Costume competitions.

Two of Kathie’s five Paso Finos

No discussion of north-central Florida would be complete without acknowledging the nearby Gulf of Mexico. The town of Cedar Key is just 30 minutes west of Chiefland and is a totally different world. Decades before Henry Flagler built the railroad that attracted northerners to Palm Peach, David Levy Yulee built a cross-Florida railroad in 1859 to ship agricultural goods from the Gulf to the prosperous seaport of Fernandina on the Atlantic coast. Here cargo was transferred to ships heading north. Cedar Key and its neighboring islands exported cedar planks to the Eberhard-Faber pencil factory in New York for the insertion of leads. A prime source of seafood for luxurious restaurants like Delmonico’s in New York, Cedar Key would develop into a thriving community.

The Island Hotel built in 1859

During the Civil War, the historic Island Hotel and Restaurant, built in anticipation of the railroad, housed both Union and Confederate troops at different times. Now a bed and breakfast on the National Register of Historic Buildings, the hotel has weathered numerous hurricanes and floods, thanks to 10-inch walls of tabby (a mixture of oyster shells, lime, sand, and water) and 12-inch supporting oak beams. Cedar Key prospered in the years following the Civil War. It was the unanticipated home for naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir for several months in 1867. Early in his career, he had embarked on a “1000 mile walk to the Gulf,” documenting his recuperation from malaria in Cedar Key in his journal.

During my long sojourn here as a convalescent I used to lie on my back for whole days beneath the ample arms of these great trees, listening to the winds and the birds…This is the feedingground of thousands of waders of all sizes, plumage, and language, and they make a lively picture and noise when they gather at the great family board to eat their daily bread, so bountifully provided for them.

–  John Muir

Surviving devastating hurricanes with some of its Victorian buildings intact, Cedar Key today is noted for its water birds, scallops, clams, and old Florida charm that attract both artists and tourists alike.

Charming Victorian homes

Canals weave through the keys

Special instructions for visitors who fish on the pier

Cedar Key’s main dock featuring restaurants and shops

14 miles north of Cedar Key, the Suwannee River empties into the Gulf, providing more access to fishing and boating. Locals, many of whom live along the Suwannee in houses perched on stilts to avoid frequent flooding, relish the ambiance at the Treasure Camp restaurant, a casual pirate-themed spot whose menu features nine fried seafood options served indoors or out. You can tie your boat up at the dock and walk right to your table.

The Treasure Camp restaurant reminds diners of stories of treasure-laden pirate ships sunk at the mouth of the Suwannee River. 

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Back in Cedar Key, however, a favorite place to go for fresh seafood is Robinson’s. 25 years of catching, serving, and selling the daily catch from the Gulf, Robinson Seafood includes both a restaurant and a retail outlet. You can also catch your own on Robinson’s charter, and you can check their website for weather and fishing conditions. It was hard to select the best choice for dinner, red snapper, scallops, clams…we settled on clams and a regional favorite, mullet spread.

Gulf seafood as you like it

Red Snapper ready for the grill

Sister Chef successfully tackles the clams


Clams steamed at home were the perfect note on which to wrap up my Florida visit. I never saw a beach or Mickey Mouse, but this is a Florida I won’t soon forget.