Cattle industry a big part of Clay County history

By Mary Jo McTammany
Posted 7/11/18

In the early 1800s, many early settlers in the county owned cattle. If a family accumulated a little bit of money over what was needed to survive, they bought land or cows, preferably both.

Cows …

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Cattle industry a big part of Clay County history


In the early 1800s, many early settlers in the county owned cattle. If a family accumulated a little bit of money over what was needed to survive, they bought land or cows, preferably both.

Cows were a good investment. With free-range grazing they were cheap to maintain, and multiplied all on their own. They required minimal attention. A cow was also insurance if a family’s economic situation took a nosedive – a cow was easily converted to cash or if the price wasn’t right could always be eaten.

These early Florida range cows were not a pretty sight. Scraggly and boney, they little resembled the majestic animals found on Clay County’s cattle ranches today. It took a series of near disasters in the industry, the scientific advancement of the progressive era and the relentless determination of local ranchers to produce this transformation.

Florida has a way of delivering presents with pain. The tropical climate produces the lush growth of range vegetation but also results in a profuse diversity and population of insects. The horse fly was a nasty one to man and beast alike. Natives talk of hearing a swarm of horse flies coming and seeing hundreds of cows bunch together and whip their tails for protection.

It is said a herd will do the same thing to discourage mosquito swarms. But no amount of tail twirls or synchronized formations was going to thwart the Texas tick and the screw worm that followed.

At first, Florida ranchers, ever an independent bunch, were not convinced that the Texas tick was a problem or that the new scientific solution of dipping cattle in arsenic was the answer. They took a real dislike to Tallahassee’s compulsory dip law passed in 1923. In Central Florida 15 dipping tanks were dynamited out of the ground.

Clay County ranchers just read the writing on the wall when Georgia installed two lines of four-strand barbed wire, 15 feet apart for 200 miles from the Chattahoochee River to the St. Marys River. Then stationed armed patrols every 20 miles along the Georgia side and threatened to shoot to kill. No cow could be transported into the state unless it was dipped and certified. Quickly other states endorsed the quarantine and the 40 dip vats constructed in Clay County became popular.

The larvae of the screw worm fly is a nasty little creature but by the time it transplanted from Texas and gained a foothold in Clay County in the 1930’s, local ranchers were converts to the new science of cattle raising. They had invested in their herds by improving, grazing, selective breeding with imported purebred animals, closer monitoring and were converts to periodic dipping to control insects.

The screw worm killed cattle, especially calves, so quickly that dipping was useless. Any open wound or even a scratch was an invitation to the larvae. New-born calves were especially prone to infection at the site of the healing navel and, in three days, could be dead.

Treatment of an infected animal was hands-on and grueling. First, the animal was roped, thrown, and the legs immobilized. Every cowboy carried a kit to kill the larvae and treat the wound. He pushed a wad of sterile cotton into the gaping hole then saturated it with benzoyl squirted from a spouted oil can and waited several minutes. He rooted the worm corpse out and swabbed the wound with pine tar to repel further infection. This rigorous exercise continued until scientists arrived at a more lasting solution in the ‘50s and the screw worm too was eradicated.

In 1943, the Florida legislature outlawed free range grazing. But by then, in Clay County as elsewhere, cattle ranching had become more business and more science.


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