Cracker: Florida’s Enduring Cowboys on Display at MOFAC
Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist Jon Kral began taking pictures as a kid when his grandfather gave him a small box camera. As he got older, he noticed unique things and how people would often just pass them by unnoticed, so he decided to capture them with his camera. “I wanted to be places where things were happening, but I didn’t want to be involved in them,” Kral said. “I just wanted to photograph them.”
One of the unique things that appealed to Kral was Florida’s ranches and cowboys. Having grown up in Fort Pierce, Fla., Kral had many friends who lived and grew up on ranches. He spent much of his free time photographing them. “I fell in love with the pictures I would take of the working cowboys, their tools, lifestyles, and their ethics,” he said.
As years went by, Kral noticed that Florida’s ranches were disappearing. “All of Disney World and Kissimmee was ranch land once,” he said. “The area had the most beautiful variety of trees you could ever see. Now, developers will clear out every last tree on the land and give the subdivisions names like Hidden Oaks.”
Kral wanted to document images of the land before it was gone and, perhaps, help slow down the loss of the land and this unique way of life. Between 1970 and 2000, he photographed the daily lives of ranchers and their families at over 15 Florida ranches. “I wanted to show people how they lived, how hard they worked, how weathered they were from their work, and how much they loved it,” Kral said.
Over the years, Kral took thousands of black and white photographs and captured everything from cattle drives through swamp land, daily fence repairs, the friendly and not-so-friendly wildlife, and the families and children of ranchers inside their homes. Some of these ranchers welcomed him with open arms, but others were apprehensive and would not open up to him right away. So Kral put down his camera and worked with them, doing many of the same jobs they did to earn their respect. “I learned as much as they would teach me,” he said. “I worked side by side with them, doing many of the same manual jobs they did. That not only made them see that I was no different than they were, but it helped me learn what pictures I should be taking.”
Kral took many of his photographs on horseback. This often proved to be difficult at times. During the Last Florida Roundup, a three to four night trip in which cowboys, or cow hunters as they prefer to be called, led a group of cattle from Yeehaw Junction to Kissimmee, Kral had a mishap on a horse. “I was taking a picture, and my reigns fell. Someone came over and tried to grab them for me, but the horse I was on bucked. I realized later that some of my film had fallen out of my pocket. I lost several photographs because of that.”
However, one picture that was not lost, titled “Last Florida Roundup,” is one of Kral’s favorites in the collection. “It was early in morning,” he said. “The sun was rising, and it was foggy. It created this haze over the cowboys in the background who were just about to start the ride for the day. It added to the romanticism of the ride.”
In 1998, Kral released a book of some of his photographs, called Cracker: Florida’s Enduring Cowboys. “Before the book was released, the term “cracker” was a misnomer and considered a derogatory word for the poor people of the south,” he said. “These people were said to have kept large barrels filled with soda crackers, which they would eat directly out of the barrel. However, the word “cracker” is a term that has been widely used by the Florida cowboys about themselves. To them, the word means someone who was born in Florida, works on a ranch, and uses cow whips to move cattle out of the shrub and swamps.” According to Kral, once the book was released, the name then became more widely accepted by those outside of the life.
The book contains 66 of his favorite photographs taken over the years. Another one of Kral’s favorite pictures in the collection is of rancher Junior Mills on a horse. It’s a close-up of the same picture that is seen on the cover of the book. “Mills was a storyteller,” he said. “When he first began his life as a rancher, there were no roads or running water. He enjoyed telling stories about those days, and how they got along back then. In the picture, you can almost see his story through the detail on his weathered hands.”
It is through the subjects of his photographs that Kral shows just how difficult the life of a Florida cowboy is, but also what will be lost if this unique way of life is not preserved.
“It’s hard to find a cowboy that is dishonest or a thief, or who hunts just for the kill,” Kral said. “These ranchers are the stewards of the wildlife and natural environment. Once the land is gone, so is the way of life. Without them, there won’t be anything left, and we’ll never get it back.”
Kral’s collection Cracker: Florida’s Enduring Cowboys will be on exhibit through March 9 at South Florida Community College’s Museum of Florida Art and Culture (SFCC MOFAC), 600 West College Drive, Avon Park, FL. SFCC MOFAC is open to the public Wednesday-Friday, 12:30-4:30 p.m., and for group tours by appointment. Admission is free. For more information, call SFCC MOFAC Curator Mollie Doctrow at 863-784-7240, visit our website at http://mofac.org/, or like us on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/mofac.