Awash in memories of Cow Creek Ranch
BY GREGORY ENNS
Splashing around in the waters of Cow Creek swamp is one of my earliest memories of childhood. I was about 4 years old and my dad loaded my two older brothers and me in a Jeep for a ride around Cow Creek Ranch in the heart of Florida cattle country. As we drove down a lane along various pastures we approached Cow Creek crossing, a narrow swath where cypress trees and their knees had been cleared so you could drive through the creek.
On most days - as I later learned - the old Willys Jeep could pass through the creek. You merely had to stop the Jeep, put it in 4-wheel drive and trudge through, the Jeep's muffler often gurgling in the water. But there were certain days after heavy rains that you simply couldn't cross the creek. It became a matter of judgment when to take the chance, and my dad, who spent most of his time in the Army in Korea driving a Jeep in the motor pool, was a pretty good judge of when you could make it through.
On this day of my introduction to Cow Creek, rains had swollen the crossing to 4 or 5 feet, and my dad made the wise decision not to make the crossing. It was a hot day - perhaps in summer - so instead of crossing the creek, Dad pulled the Jeep over and we went swimming. It was before I knew about or had a fear of alligators, so I happily played in those tea-colored waters, squeezing my toes in the creek's white sandy bottom. That is all I remember of that day from a very brief memory reel of my childhood.
But ever since, I've always associated the name Cow Creek Ranch with the image of that creek crossing. Over the years, we would make many other trips to the ranch, crossing the creek countless times with only a few interruptions like that first day.
Visiting the ranch was both our recreation and entertainment. In the mid-1960s - before Disney World and other theme parks - who needed the Jungle Cruise when you had the thrill of entering the Cow Creek crossing and a dark cathedral of cypress and you often didn't know whether you'd make it out or not?
The Cow Creek Ranch of my childhood was 23,000 acres of cow pastures, oak and cabbage palm hammocks, citrus groves and pure fun. The ranch, equally situated between Okeechobee and St. Lucie counties, was so large that once you entered the main gate you had to drive four miles through the ranch just to reach the headquarters, which in those early days consisted of a horse barn, cowpens, dog runs, two barns for jeeps and tractors, a bunkhouse, a weekend house for the owners, the Sloan family, and three small houses for the ranch hands.
A VAST TREASURE
How my family - which consisted of my mom and dad and seven siblings - had come to enjoy unlimited access to this vast treasure probably started with my mother, Katie. As she recalled it, she had met Jo Ann Sloan, the ranch's owner, at a garden club event in the 1950s. As they talked and got to know each other better, they learned that they had something in common: they were both born on the same day and year. They became fast friends and dubbed themselves the "birthday twins'' and, despite the wide economic gap between Jo Ann and my mom, they shared an undying friendship for the next 60 years.
I imagine their early friendship led to an invitation by Jo Ann to visit the ranch. I'm sure my dad, Bob, an editor at The News-Tribune, jumped at the chance. He was a country boy at heart and had grown up at 11-Mile Creek west of Fort Pierce.
His father was the foreman of his family's citrus grove and from how my dad described his childhood up until the age of 14 it was something out of The Yearling or Old Yeller. He always qualified that he had lived in the country up to the age of 14 because it was at that age that he and his family moved into town, an event, at least in his mind, of monumental displacement. In the 30 years that I knew him, he always seemed to long for his country life, despite his college education and white-collar job. He was happiest in the woods, and it seemed to provide him a certain interior peace.
After those first visits to the ranch with Jo Ann and her husband, Tommy, Dad somehow wrangled himself into becoming a volunteer cowboy at the ranch one day a week. As a newspaper editor, he always worked Saturdays to put out the big Sunday paper. That left him with Sunday and Monday off. He occupied his time with family on Sunday but he needed something to do on Mondays. Why not be a cowboy? While he was pretty smart about the ways of the Florida backwoods, as far as I know he had no experience being a cowboy. But I'm sure the cowboys out there at the time - Will'um Thomas, Earl Storey and brothers Curtis and Aubrey Arnold - didn't mind the extra hand. And, after awhile, he became proficient enough that he proved of some value. In town, my dad was known mostly as Bob.
At the ranch, everyone called him Bobby.
The payoff was that he could go hunting at the ranch and could bring the family to enjoy it as well. I'm sure that Tommy and Jo Ann didn't mind having the ear of the local newspaper editor either. For Tommy and Jo Ann, allowing Dad and a few close others to use Cow Creek, which we affectionately referred to as "the ranch'' in a somewhat proprietary way, was without qualification. You didn't need to call ahead or ask permission. You had a key to the main gate and once you entered you simply respected the place and the resource that it was.
My dad had a column at the paper, and sometimes allowed his thoughts to drift to the ranch. "My favorite sport, in case I haven't told you,'' he wrote in one column from the 1960s, "is rounding up cattle at Cow Creek Ranch. Cow Creek has to be one of the prettiest corners of the universe.''
While my dad made his living by the written word, he was intrigued by the artistry of the cowboys' use of language - how they described something and relied on the oral tradition to pass on stories instead of writing them down. Their language is precise, economical and their stories become better after each telling. I am fortunate to be able to rely on some of these stories for the reporting of the series.
And though a half century has passed since my days at Cow Creek, Debra Sloan and Kathy Sloan Blanton, Jo Ann and Tommy's daughters, still refer to my parents as Aunt Katie and Uncle Bobby, though we share no blood relatives. Both Jo Ann and Tommy were only children and Debra and Kathy had no true aunts and uncles.
"My mother would always say of your mother Katie that they were birthday twins because they were born on the same day, which was July 22, 1930,'' Debra says. "Uncle Bobby would go out to the ranch and he loved to be a cowboy.''
Tommy and Jo Ann were so close to their ranch hands and their children that the children called them simply Tommy and Jo Ann. But we were taught to address them as Mr. and Mrs. Sloan, a convention of which Jo Ann, raised by a grandmother who clung to Victorian values, wholeheartedly approved. Jo Ann always thought I looked most like my dad, so she always called me "Little Bobby.''
The Sloan family to us were like royalty or rock stars. They drove the latest Cadillacs and Jeep Wagoneers. They lived in a stately home at Orange Avenue and 11th Street, they owned the beautiful Cow Creek Ranch and, best of all, they were stars of the annual Cattleman's Day Parade.
While Tommy commuted to the ranch almost daily in the early years, Jo Ann and Kathy and Debra, known as Debbie when she was younger, mostly visited on weekends. They stayed at what had originally been their great-grandparents' house right across from the horse barn. Because they were several years older and Debra went to boarding school at 13 and Kathy married young, I didn't have much interaction with the girls, except to remember that they were quite accomplished on horseback and participated in the chores required of running the ranch.
In my early days visiting the ranch, I slowly started to put the pieces together of how Cow Creek Ranch came to be. The old horse carriage in the barn gave the clue that it had been around along time. I learned what was the broadest outline of a story: That Jo Ann's grandfather, Frank Raulerson, had founded the ranch and that he and Jo Ann's grandmother raised Jo Ann after her father died when she was a young girl. Jo Ann then inherited the ranch when her grandfather died.
But it was only after a lifetime in journalism and the deaths of Jo Ann and my mom just a month apart a little more than a year ago that I started filling in the details. In the years before their deaths, my mom had been urging me to write a story on Jo Ann's life and it was only after their deaths that I began working in earnest on the story.
I began with calls to Kathy and Debra. I told them the story I wanted to write, and they agreed that their mother's remarkable life was worth sharing. And so began a yearlong journey that reconnected me with people I hadn't seen in 50 years and helped me recover a part of my childhood I had almost forgotten about.
SETTING UP CAMP
Some of my best ranch memories were of camping out, the one thing upon which our large and rowdy family agreed. We'd camp at the ranch at least once a year, at first in tents and then a rental pop-up trailer and finally a 1967 Volkswagen camper van where my parents slept and a tent for the rest of us.
One of our favorite spots was the creek along Son Arnold Gulley, a site also preferred by cowboy George "Junior" Mills and his extended family and which my dad called Millsville because they had discovered its outstanding qualities as a campsite first. Later, we had a permanent camp on the north side of the ranch where Dad and my oldest brother, Chuck, built a small cabin; my brother, Michael, built a chickee; and we retired the old camper van. We sometimes spent Thanksgiving at the ranch, with mom bringing out silver goblets and some of her fine china for the occasion.
Dad loved setting up camp and building a campfire. He'd whittle a palm frond into a hibachi stick for spearing sausage and cooking it over the fire. Mom was a former Camp Fire Girl who always imparted us with the expression, "Always leave the camp better than you found it.''
It was amazing how the ranch influenced our lives. We attended the Okeechobee rodeo almost every year, we listened to country music, memorizing all of Roger Miller's most popular tunes and many of Johnny Cash's, and we regularly watched Bonanza on Sunday nights.
My favorite pastime at the ranch was riding Matthews, the horse my dad rode when working cattle. In the barn, Matthews, a gelding with white coloring known as a gray, was in the first stall on the left, his stall assignment at the front indicating he was a more docile horse. The most rambunctious horses, including the studs, were kept in the back of the barn.
Dad would let us ride Matthews around the headquarters and we'd sometimes bring him with us on campouts. Dad sometimes rode Matthews with the Cow Creek unit in the annual Cattlemen's Day Parade as part of the Sandy Shoes Festival in downtown Fort Pierce.
In those years, the parade went right by the Sloans' house at Orange Avenue and 11th Street, and we'd proudly stand by the curb as the Cow Creek Ranch unit went by, Tommy and Jo Ann in the lead. They'd throw a party afterward, the horses from the ranch tied up on the sidewalk on 11th Street facing their house, so the ranch hands could partake before loading the horses up and trailering them back to Cow Creek.
Matthews and Dad were also on national television together, with Dad in the saddle as Matthews galloped across the screen for a few seconds when the ABC television program Discovery 1968 did a 30-minute feature on the ranch and the Sloans.
Besides the horses, the menagerie around the barn over the years included Moses and Warren, the tame deer, and Spots the pig, a wild hog Kathy and Debra raised at their home and later retired it to the ranch. There were also cow, hog and bird dogs in the pens, including for several years, my dad and his friend Vinnie Gorham's English Pointers, Speck and Laura, which they had acquired for quail hunting.
READY FOR A JEEP RIDE?
Our most common pastime was riding around in the Jeep, first in the old Willys in which a couple of kids could sit up front on the bench with mom and dad and the rest of us on the benches over the wheel base in the back.
Then Vinnie Gorham, who owned the road-contracting company Gorham Construction, had his shop crew outfit a newer Jeep with a dog box and a bench seat over it, a setup that elevated the bench and provided a terrific vantage point for seeing game if you were hunting or, in our case, for taking in panoramic views of the ranch on Sunday afternoons.
Depending on schedules and desires, we visited the ranch in smaller groups and when hunting. That was when Dad would usually just take one boy at a time, rotating who the lucky one would be. When we were all on the Jeep I'm sure we looked like something out of the Beverly Hillbillies or The Grapes of Wrath.
If Dad was just taking one or a few of us, we'd drive Old the Blue, his 1957 rusty blue Ford Mainline with holes on the floorboard that gave you a view of the terrain over which we were traversing, to the ranch.
If it was a family outing, more often we'd take Mom's '67 Plymouth Fury wagon, nicknamed New The White, in which the two youngest, Meg and Jonathan, were stowed, without seatbelts, in the middle luggage compartment. Once aboard the Jeep, we'd sing a highly repetitious verse we'd made up called "Old The Blue and New The White.''
After driving down the long marl road from the ranch entrance, we'd reach the headquarters, get out and switch to the Jeep, which was kept under the barn near the cowpens.
LAZY SUNDAY AFTERNOONS
Arriving at the headquarters, there'd be any number of people taking advantage of the Sunday afternoon off. Sometimes one of the cowboys was scalding a hog in the big pot in the motor barn near the cow pens. You could also often find Junior Mills harvesting honey from one of his bee boxes or making one of his famous cow whips.
As soon as we'd arrive, Little Earl, son of Earl Storey, would run to the Jeep from his house to give his Aunt Katie a hug. He was mentally disabled and Mom worked with him in the exceptional education department in the St. Lucie County school system. Little Earl was big for his age and built like his father, whom he called Honey, because that's what Earl's wife, Joan, called him.
After getting situated, we headed for the Jeep. My dad drove the Jeep mostly, but I think we all learned how to drive on it as soon as we were tall enough to push down the clutch and see over the steering wheel. We drove mostly in the well-worn ruts, which had been created over years of use, and almost never went beyond second gear.
Most of the pastures were separated by swing gates and some of the less-used pastures had barb wire gates. As we'd approach a gate, my dad would bellow, "Gate man,'' a signal to jump out and open the gate and then close it in the same manner that we had found it fastened.
Each part of the ranch had its own personality and resources. Wherever you headed going out of the barn - east, west, north or south - was pure paradise.
Closest to the ranch headquarters was the aforementioned Son Arnold Gulley, a small creek surrounded by an oak grove.
To the east of the headquarters was an old citrus grove - reportedly planted by Seminoles - where you could pick tangerines. The trees had been untended and grew incredibly high and were covered with Spanish moss. Yet they produced the most succulent - and sweetest - tangerines I ever tasted.
You could ride along the long dike called Sandy Lane, which bisected the ranch, jump out and chase armadillos or ride on the top seat, the wind in your face, and watch a sow and her piglets run for cover across a pasture. You'd see the occasional snipe or flock of ducks or even a covey of quail along with the ever-present meadow lark. There were also smaller birds which my dad could not name but referred to as "stink birds.''
OLD SEMINOLE CAMP
And then there was Blue Mountain, one of my dad's favorite hunting spots. It was once a Seminole camp where an old wrought iron sewing machine that Seminole women had used to create their colorful garb stood discarded in a cypress forest; where a sour lemon tree, used for Seminole cooking, still grew.
Blue Mountain was "a place so-named because the tall cypress look like blue, rolling hills in the distant mist,'' my dad wrote in a column. One part of Blue Mountain was dubbed Vinnie's Smokehouse after Vinnie Gorham winged a deer but was never able to recover it. He also made a rare bear sighting there.
The ranch was big enough so that hunting areas were well-defined so that you didn't encounter other hunters. When not hunting season, sometimes we'd fish the drainage canals, which were home to respectable-sized large mouth bass and plenty of bony bream.
On days when we had a lot of daylight, we'd ride through Cow Creek on the north side of the ranch where a citrus grove had been planted and expanded over the years under the direction of Curtis Arnold. Curtis and another cowboy at the ranch, Will'um Thomas, had established a small camp with a trailer where they and their wives,Vee and Punk, and Curtis and Vee's son, Deroy, would spend weekends.
Will'um and Curtis were best friends and Punk and Vee, whose given names were Arizona and Vena, were sisters. When not working, the four were almost always together, so Deroy essentially had two sets of parents. Will'um, who was quick to recount all of his nephew's abilities as a young cowboy, proudly called him "the boy.''
Deroy was spoiled but not rotten. I always looked forward to visiting the camp because Deroy always had the latest and greatest, whether it was guns or any number of motor bikes. I remember shooting a BB gun with him, and then a few years later a pellet gun and then a .22.
Over the years, he also advanced from minibike to motocross bike, all of which he would generously allow us to ride. He became an accomplished cowboy, eventually working at Cow Creek and then for 35 years at Williamson Cattle Co., where he was foreman for 20 of those years.
For the past five years, he has been the foreman at Triple S Ranch next door to Cow Creek. Of all the people that I reconnected with in doing the Cow Creek Chronicles series, he is the one most closely following the lifestyle in which he was raised and carries the torch for all of us, living the life of an authentic Florida cowboy.
HOLIDAYS IN THE WOODS
I think my parents also looked forward to visiting the camp because Curtis and Will'um, possessed of a look of merry devilment in his eye, always seemed to bring a bottle of Early Times out to mark the arrival of their rare visitors. In the days before cell phones, the only way you knew whether they were at the camp was to drive by, and it was rare that they weren't there on a Sunday. "Every holiday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, we'd be out in the woods,'' says Deroy.
Deroy, now 65, spanned multiple generations at Cow Creek, so he was one of the first people I reached out to - and reunited with - in reporting the story of Cow Creek. His dad, Curtis, had worked under Frank Raulerson going back to the late 1940s and along with his uncle, Will'um, knew Jo Ann the longest and had great affection for her. Like her grandfather, Frank, Jo Ann favored Cadillacs, and Will'um once bought one of Jo Ann's when she was ready for a new one. "He sure was proud of that car,'' Deroy says.
Besides Deroy and Kathy and Debra, I've also reconnected with Buddy, Kent and Marty Mills, who lived at the ranch from 1970 through 1977, when their dad was a cowboy there and their mom was a cook; and Robin Robertson Longstreet and Darren Robertson, who lived briefly at the ranch when their dad started working there in 1969. Together, they have helped me reconstruct those days at Cow Creek.
If my recollections of Cow Creek seem romanticized, it's because they are. Time and life have a way of sweetening the past and I cannot remember a bad time that I ever had out at Cow Creek.
They are all good memories, and thank you for taking this journey back in time with me.
IN THE NEXT INSTALLMENT
Stay tuned for Part III of the Cow Creek Chronicles in the fall edition of Indian River Magazine arriving in early October.
What happens in North Carolina?
What's next for Cow Creek Ranch and its cowboys?
Does Tommy settle down?