The Cow Creek Chronicles - A series


This is the third in a series of stories about the lives of a pioneering cattle family and the vast ranch they established.


The Cow Creek Chronicles is the true-life story of a pioneering Florida family and the vast ranch they established. In the first two episodes, Keightley Raulerson arrives in Fort Pierce in 1896 and later wins political office, helping form the early governments of Fort Pierce and St. Lucie County. 

His younger brother, Frank, arrives in 1907 with wife, Annie Louise, and their young son, Alfred. Keightley dies in 1913, leaving Frank to oversee a cattle business, slaughterhouse and grocery store. 

Frank grows the businesses and wins election to the county commission. He builds the landmark Raulerson Building in downtown and a new home on Orange Avenue in the 1920s boom era. 

In the 1930s, he wins office to the Florida Senate. He also begins making large purchases, creating a 23,000-acre ranch along the St. Lucie-Okeechobee county line called Cow Creek. Frank’s son, Alfred, is the presumed heir to all that Frank accumulates, but when Alfred dies in a boating accident in 1938, the only heir is Alfred’s 8-year-old daughter, Jo Ann. Frank and Annie Louise persuade Jo Ann’s mother to let them raise the young girl, arguing that they have better means to do so. 

She relents. Jo Ann grows up a child of privilege but is also conflicted. She is both influenced by her grandmother’s Victorian-era values and her grandfather’s desire to make her a cattlewoman capable of running Cow Creek and his other land holdings.

 The death of Jo Ann’s father and separation from her mother steels Jo Ann’s emotions, allowing her to endure almost anything. Annie Louise dies in 1951 and Frank sells off most of his real estate holdings, except Cow Creek, before his death in 1954, putting his assets in a trust that becomes available to Jo Ann after her 30th birthday and beyond the 1960s. 

Jo Ann marries a clothing salesman and lothario, Tommy Sloan, in 1952. She gives birth to their two daughters, Kathy and Debra, while he is in the Army. 

On his return home, he begins to learn the ropes of running the ranch and, despite an awkward start, wins his way to becoming president of the St. Lucie County Cattlemen’s Association in 1958.

He’s also on several non-profit boards and in 1963 becomes head of the Florida Beef Council. 

Feeling confident in his standing in the community, he makes an unsuccessful bid for the state House in 1966. 

At the ranch, Tommy develops a loyal work crew and mechanizes some of the ranching functions such as the vaccination and dipping of cattle against diseases. He learns to fly and purchases a plane that helps him manage the ranch. He also installs a runway. Jo Ann, active in the local Cowbelles, the auxiliary of the Cattlemen’s Association, becomes head of the state CowBelles in 1968.

Word of the couple’s accomplishments reaches a television producer who in 1968 films life at the ranch for the ABC television show Discovery. The show elevates Tommy’s national standing as a rancher. 

But the home life isn’t as perfect as pictured. In 1963, Tommy fathers a son by another rancher’s wife. By the end of the decade, daughter Debra has left home for boarding school while older daughter Kathy, a junior in high school, is experimenting with drugs and begins secretly dating a man seven years older than she is.

By 1970, a chance drive down a dusty road during a vacation in North Carolina creates a turn in the family’s direction.

End of an era

The Sloan family in the 1960s near their home on Orange Avenue. Jo Ann and TL are in the middle; Kathy is on the left; and Debra on the right. PICKERING FAMILY ARCHIVES

Years of business overextension and extravagant spending diminishes the Cow Creek brand

By: Gregory Enns

As 1970 arrives, the TL Sloan family of Fort Pierce is flying high.

Tommy has established himself as one of the preeminent cattle ranchers in the nation. He is in line to become president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and two years earlier, with wife Jo Ann at his side, he is depicted as a model rancher in a profile on the national ABC television show Discovery. An amateur pilot, he spreads his wings, using his plane both to manage his ranch and to expand his presence in the region.

The boy who grew up in a modest home by the railroad tracks on Avenue E in Fort Pierce in 1952 had married St. Lucie County’s wealthiest maiden, Jo Ann Raulerson, sole heir to all that her grandfather, wealthy cattle rancher Frank Raulerson, had accumulated. The family jewel: his 23,000-acre Cow Creek Ranch spreading over the borders of St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties.

Tommy is on high-profile nonprofit boards and appears in the newspaper frequently. Seemingly, his only setback is an unsuccessful run for the state Legislature in 1966.


T.L. Sloan
TL Sloan, with beard, shows two friends the fishing equipment aboard his yacht, Cow Creek, at Fort Pierce Marina.​

As he approaches 40, he is more confident and authoritative. One sign of this is that both family and some friends begin to refer to him as TL, for Thomas Leighton, instead of the more casual Tommy. 

Even his daughters refer to him as TL. Shirts are monogrammed TLS and, for the cigar-smoking rancher, soon his spittoons — placed in vehicles, offices, porches and almost wherever he spends any time — are emblazoned TLS.

“His initials were on everything,” says Darren Robertson, who lived at Cow Creek and would later come to consider TL his father. “He was a clothes horse. I think he had two pair of any boots that ever had been sold. I don’t remember how many suits he had. He had the boots and the belts. That was him. He liked to stand out with the big cigar and the dark glasses, and I don’t mean that in any bad way.”

For a man of such esteem, a lifestyle is needed to match. As an amateur pilot, TL purchases a Cessna and then graduates to a Helio Courier, a type of plane that can fly at low speeds and take off and land on a short runway — perfect for ranching — and then purchases a twin-engine Piper Navajo and hires a pilot. He has two runways installed on the ranch — one at the headquarters on the south side and another on the north side. 

Living at the ranch, Darren recalls the wonderful smells coming out of the bunkhouse kitchen in the morning, where he’d eat before heading off to school. He remembers TL flying his plane, while he and the other kids ran to the grass runway.

“He would sit and run his engine for awhile,” Darren says. “We kids would sit on barrels, he’d turn around and run his engine and blow us off the barrels.”

One day while Darren was hanging out at the runway, TL offered to take him for a ride. “He popped the door open and told me to come on in,” he says. “We flew to the Fort Pierce airport, and we ate dinner at [his mother] Honey’s house. I remember him calling my mom at the office and telling her, ‘I have your youngest son. I took him for a ride in the airplane.’ ”

Besides his planes, TL buys a 48-foot Pacemaker yacht and christens it the Cow Creek, with its transom flashing the boat’s name in one of the most prominent spots in the Fort Pierce Marina. When not in the marina, the yacht is docked in the Bahamas, a favored spot for TL’s fishing excursions.

This sign, now on exhibit at the St. Lucie County Regional History Center, is once thought to have hung on TL Sloan’s yacht.
This sign, now on exhibit at the St. Lucie County Regional History Center, is once thought to have hung on TL Sloan’s yacht.


Cow Creek Ranch owner TL Sloan, left, with his ranch foreman Aubrey Arnold in the 1960s on the ranch’s old International Harvester 660. ARNOLD FAMILY ARCHIVES

But as the decade of the 1970s dawns, change is coming for Cow Creek Ranch, named for the cypress-covered creek held sacred by Seminoles that bisected the north and south sides of the ranch. 

“That creek made you feel like that ranch was a really special place, different from the others,” says Robin Robertson Longstreet, who also lived on the ranch as a child and is Darren’s sister. “It had a magical feel about it. I used to ride my horse out there and just hang out there for hours.”

In 1970, Cow Creek is a finely tuned cow-calf operation, a ranch in which cows and bulls produce calves which, after weaning, are sold and shipped to western feed lots for fattening and eventual slaughter. TL’s cow-calf operation is a different setup from the days of Frank Raulerson, when cattle were raised to maturity and then sold off for eventual slaughter to local or regional markets.

Since taking over the ranch after the death of Frank Raulerson in 1954, TL had mechanized many of the functions, such as vaccinating and dipping cattle against diseases. He wisely leased many of his pastures to tomato farmers, who rotate their crops to avoid disease and in the process clear and improve irrigation at no cost to the ranch.

Sport Pickering, who grew up at Cow Creek from 1960 to 1965 when his father lived and worked there as a cowboy, says TL had tight reins over the ranch in the early years. “I can remember going with my dad to the old bunkhouse for breakfast,” says Pickering, who also would later work as a cowboy at Cow Creek and is now a detective for the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office. “Everybody would be sitting at the table and Tommy would be at the head dishing out what everybody needed to do that day.”

Cow Creek Ranch
Cow Creek Ranch originated as a swamp with heavy scrub in dry areas. Tomato farmers helped clear much of the land for crops, and the land was later used as pastures for cattle. Through the practice of rotating their crops, the tomato farmers benefited the ranch, improving the irrigation of the pastures. GREGORY ENNS

He also remembers TL’s generosity. “Every year for Christmas he would buy me a hat or something,” he says. “He was just always a nice guy.”

A sign of the ranch’s success under TL’s leadership is the construction of a modern concrete bunkhouse to replace the olden wooden one. The new bunkhouse has central air conditioning, a television, a large bathroom with two showers, a kitchen equipped with a dishwasher, an ice maker, two ranges, a refrigerator freezer and a walk-in cooler for hanging beef and hog carcasses.

It’s decorated with paintings from wildlife artist Robert Butler and cowboy artist L.L. “Buster” Kenton. The bunkhouse’s most prominent feature is a large round table — capable of seating a dozen or more people — created from the bottom of the ranch’s old cistern.

Cow Creek swimming hole
The crossing at Cow Creek was a popular swimming hole for ranch families and visitors. ARNOLD FAMILY ARCHIVES


Aubrey, Ethel, Stevie and Patty at Cow Creek in 1965.
Aubrey, Ethel, Stevie and Patty at Cow Creek in 1965. ARNOLD FAMILY ARCHIVES

Though TL had no ranching experience — he was barely out of high school and working as a clothing salesman when he met Jo Ann — he develops a talented and loyal work force at the ranch, with some of the ranch hands having worked there since the days of Jo Ann’s grandfather. 

They include Curtis Arnold, who had begun planting and managing Cow Creek’s increasingly successful citrus groves on the north side of the ranch; Curtis’ brother-in-law, the talented horseman and cowboy Will’um Thomas; and the quiet strongman Earl Storey, who could handle almost any chore needed to be completed on the ranch and who took special pride in keeping the 4-mile entrance to the ranch mowed.

An exception was ranch foreman Aubrey Arnold, who by 1970 had left Cow Creek in a dispute with TL. Aubrey’s wife, Ethel, the ranch’s cook, left as well, along with their two children, Steve and Patty. Aubrey was Curtis’ brother.

Ethel, now 89, says the ranch was an ideal place to raise children: They could ride horses, play with the pet pig Spots or the tame deer Moses or swim in Cow Creek. “That was their swimming hole when it rained,” says Ethel, who divorced Aubrey in 1974 and remarried and is now Ethel Durden. “They always had something to do. It wasn’t like kids nowadays, sitting on the phone.” 

Ranch life was challenging. She says she’d start making the cowboys breakfast at 5 a.m., drive her kids 4 miles through the ranch to the bus stop, come back to feed the bulls molasses and clean the kitchen before beginning to prepare lunch and then serve it.

When the ranch was short-staffed, in between meals, she’d be called upon to saddle up and help with cattle roundups or work the parting gate separating cattle to be sold from cattle that will be kept. She even learned to work heavy equipment, a skill that would later became useful in the longtime job she held running bulldozers and front-end loaders for Osceola County.

Ethel Arnold
Ethel Arnold was the cook in the old wooden bunkhouse, which was replaced by a concrete building with air conditioning, a dishwasher and modern appliances. ARNOLD FAMILY ARCHIVES


Ethel and Aubrey’s son, Steve, recalls that TL was so closely involved in managing the ranch in the late 1960s that he even oversaw how workers would interact with each other. When two of the summer ranch hands got in a fight and nearly drowned each other while putting up fence, TL made them actually kiss and make up. “They either had to do that or pack their bags,” he says.

Steve recalls the kindness of Jo Ann, grabbing him to go squirrel hunting at the ranch with her or sometimes shuttling him around Fort Pierce, where he attended school. “You couldn’t ask for no better lady than what Jo Ann was,” says Steve, who followed the cowboy life and has worked for Perry Smith and Sons farms of Okeechobee for the past 37 years.

Darren Robertson says kids at the ranch were always glad to see Jo Ann’s big blue Cadillac barreling up the sandy ranch road to the headquarters. “You could see her coming from town a mile away with the dust coming up behind the Cadillac,” he says.

He also remembers Jo Ann’s kindnesses — and skills — and tales of riding cattle across Florida with her grandfather. “Everybody says what a good shot she was, well she was a good shot,” he says. “She had a .22 Browning. She could also crack a whip better than most guys could.”


With Aubrey and Ethel’s departures, TL and Jo Ann had to find a couple who could both cowboy and cook. Cow Creek had always been known to provide almost every meal to its cowboys, both those who lived on the ranch and the others who worked as day cowboys commuting in.

Junior and Betty Mills
Junior and Betty Mills arrived at Cow Creek Ranch in 1970, and Miss Betty became the ranch cook. This photo was taken of them in the 1990s. JON KRAL

George Harrison “Junior” Mills had worked as a day cowboy at Cow Creek going back to the 1950s and at the time was working as a day cowboy at a neighboring ranch.

Raised a Pentecostalist, Mills might have been a preacher if not for his love of cowboying and the backwoods. His wife, the effervescent Betty, whom everyone referred to as Miss Betty, was known for her country cooking, especially her biscuits. Betty, who came by her cooking skills genetically, was the daughter of Lula Nichols, creator of the famous Granny Nichols Bar-B-Q Sauce still produced today by her granddaughter.

To TL and Jo Ann, Junior and Betty are the perfect replacements for Aubrey and Ethel. When TL and Jo Ann locate the couple, they offer them a place to live free at the ranch in one of the three ranch hand houses, a grocery account and free gas, in addition to their salaries. Living in town in Okeechobee at the time, Junior and Betty quickly accept the opportunity to raise their three younger children — Buddy, Kent and Marty — in the country. Their three older daughters were already grown and out of the house.

The arrival of the Mills family to Cow Creek ushers in a new era and way of doing things. Buddy Mills, Junior and Betty’s older son, recalls his parents’ first day on the job, with TL driving in from town to have breakfast with the cowboys.

“Tommy made it a point to go out there that morning,” Buddy recalls. “Mama had made eggs and fixed biscuits and grits and everything for the whole crew. Before they ate, Tommy stood up behind the counter and said, ‘Men, we’re going to do something different than we’ve ever done out here. To honor Junior, every meal that we have in this bunkhouse from now on is going to be prayed over. You boys are going to give Junior the courtesy of saying a prayer over our meals. And he turned it over to Daddy, and Daddy prayed over every meal that I can remember, even on weekends when hunters were out there.”

aerial photo
An aerial photo shows the Cow Creek Ranch headquarters. The main ranch road comes in from the right, with the Raulerson house above the road on the right and the ranch’s horse barn across the road next to the cow pens. The big structure to the left is the tractor barn, and the ranch runway extends behind it.


Jimmy Percy
Once a summer ranchhand, Jimmy Percy returned to Cow Creek in 1970 as general manager after graduating from the University of Florida with a degree in agriculture.

For Buddy and Kent, growing up at Cow Creek was like a stage where the production was unfolding minute by minute. Their family lived at the ranch headquarters next to the bunkhouse in the first of three small concrete houses that had been constructed in the 1960s. The headquarters also included a weekend house for Jo Ann and TL [the historical Frank Raulerson house], a horse barn, a tractor barn, cow pens, dog pens and later a house for TL and Jo Ann’s friends, Dr. Jack and Sally Wright.

The Mills brothers remember where each of the cowboys parked their trucks, what their schedules were, which rockers in the bunkhouse they preferred to sit in, which horses they rode, what kind of spurs they wore, what they said and how they said it.

Not so for sister Marty, who was rarely seen. “When they were gathering cows, I yearned to be out there watching,” Marty says. “But, no sir. Daddy didn’t allow that because of the offensive language and behavior of cow crews, so his girls were not allowed around that. There were strict rules and because of pure respect for Daddy there were no questions. You were told something and you better do it.” 

Also in 1970, Jimmy Percy, who began working as a summer cowhand at the ranch at the age of 14, returns to Cow Creek with a freshly minted degree in agriculture from the University of Florida.

“Once he graduated from high school, Tommy said if you go to college you can become the general manager of Cow Creek, so my dad went to the University of Florida for four years, came back and pretty much was running Cow Creek Ranch,” says Jamie Percy, Jimmy’s son.

Jimmy lives in town with his wife and high school sweetheart, Julie, and their young son Jamie, and later another son, Jason.

Like his boss, Jimmy learns to fly and starts using a Piper Cub to help manage the ranch. The plane is especially useful locating cattle in the backwoods that have wandered off from the herd.

Before Aubrey’s departure and the arrivals of Jimmy and the Mills family, another cowboy, Don Robertson, had also joined the crew, living at the ranch with his wife, Diane, and children, Donnie, Robin and Darren. Diane and Don had met in high school in Miami and married young. Cow Creek would become the end of the road for their marriage.

Don was the son of wealthy Bolita kingpin Charlie Robertson and always had a fallback if he grew unhappy in a job. After having kids, Don decided to go to college to study agriculture at Texas Christian University. While he was studying there, Diane and the kids lived at a farm Don’s father owned in Georgia. Don got the job at Cow Creek shortly after his graduation from Texas Christian. Diane also begins working as a secretary at the ranch’s corporate office in the Raulerson Building in downtown Fort Pierce.

Don Robertson
After leaving Cow Creek, Don Robertson went on to work at the King Ranch in Texas and for the Seminole Tribe of Florida. ROBERTSON FAMILY ARCHIVES



Ocie Nanney
Ocie Nanney had been financial manager of Cow Creek Ranch for 34 years before taking his life in 1970.

The promise of the new decade is shattered with a shotgun blast on the afternoon of Feb. 2, 1970, at the Fort Pierce home of Ocie Glenn Nanney, financial manager of Cow Creek Ranch since 1936. Nanney had just returned home for lunch from Cow Creek’s business office in the Raulerson Building when he took his life.

Recently in ill health and discharged from the hospital, Nanney, 64, had been adviser to both Jo Ann and Frank Raulerson. Nanney, a guiding force in business decisions at the ranch, was always a welcome sight at Cow Creek, driving the 17 miles from the Raulerson Building in downtown to deliver payroll to the cowboys on Fridays. 

Along with lawyer L.O. Stephens and Jo Ann’s great-aunt, Grace Lee, Nanney had also been one of the people who oversaw Jo Ann’s trust. Several years before his death, Frank Raulerson had sold two other ranches the size of Cow Creek, creating a cash reserve. 

The trust’s greatest assets at the time of his death were Cow Creek Ranch and the Raulerson Building, a downtown Fort Pierce landmark with both commercial storefronts and office space. It included the corporate office of Cow Creek, which held a large floor-to-ceiling safe brandished with the name Cow Creek across it. The assets also included the Raulerson’s stately home at Orange Avenue and 11th Street and several other smaller properties.

With Nanney executing his directives, Frank Raulerson espoused a program of austere spending at the ranch, reusing staples from old fence posts or frowning on extravagances like dessert for his ranch hands. The financially astute Nanney had been a steady hand and bridge over the generations and undoubtedly had helped Jo Ann’s trust grow substantially from its original $5 million value. 

As both personal and business adviser to Jo Ann and TL, Nanney also helped temper the free-spending habits of TL. With Nanney’s death, all links, limits and allegiances to the old way of doing things were removed.


Trusts are not public record under Florida law, so no record of the trust for Jo Ann Raulerson Sloan was available for review. From newspaper articles and legal ads, it is clear that Frank Raulerson had created the trust with Jo Ann as the sole beneficiary and the three trustees overseeing it. But at what age the trust ended and Jo Ann — and TL by virtue of his marriage — could control it is uncertain, though her daughters think it was about the age of 30, or 1960, a time when TL clearly was in control of the ranch operations.

A 1965 legal ad appearing in The News-Tribune hints at a change in structure for the ranch, known as the Raulerson Trust Ranch after Frank Raulerson’s death. The advertisement announces that Jo Ann is “desiring to engage in a business enterprise under the fictitious name of Cow Creek Ranch located in the counties of St. Lucie and Okeechobee in the state of Florida.” The ad further notes that Jo Ann “is the sole owner of said business.” So at the time, while TL was the public face of the ranch, at least on paper, Jo Ann remained the sole owner. Records from the Florida Department of State show Cow Creek Ranch incorporated in 1972.

After Nanney’s death in early 1970, Diane, TL’s secretary, becomes the ranch’s financial manager. It’s about the same time Jimmy Percy arrives to take up the job of general manager.


Tellico farmhouse
The wooden Tellico farmhouse, as it appeared when TL and Jo Ann Sloan bought it in 1970. The North Carolina home, built in 1870, lacked electricity and indoor plumbing at the time of purchase.

With the arrival of Jimmy Percy on the ranch, TL and Jo Ann spend less time at Cow Creek. Jo Ann had begun spending much of her summers at the old Franklin Hotel in Franklin, N.C., ruby mining with daughters Debra and Kathy. 

Jo Ann had come to know the hotel’s owner and their annual visits to Franklin prompt her to begin exploring buying property there. One day, she and Debra take off in their rental station wagon and happen along a remote dusty gravel road that leads them to an abandoned house and farm.

“Every time we’d go ruby mining we’d take a jaunt,” Debra says. “When Mother came out this way she saw the farm and the house and nobody had been in it in a long time. She said this just needs love, and so they ended up buying the first portion of the farm, 112 acres, for $50,000.”

And so began the start of the renovation by TL and Jo Ann of the rambling farmhouse and farm known as Tellico that, through additional land purchases, would grow to 230 acres.

The Cherokee had historically inhabited the region and the word Tellico is derived from the Cherokee language. A family named Ramsey was among the first European settlers in the region and in 1870 built the farmhouse, which once served as a general store, post office, grist and saw mill and blacksmith shop. TL and Jo Ann purchased Tellico from the Ramsey family.

The Tellico Creek runs through the property, which is also known for the Tellico white oak, considered one of the largest oaks in the region and a legendary meeting place for the Cherokee.

With the purchase of Tellico, Jo Ann begins spending more time in North Carolina than in Fort Pierce, with TL flying in for frequent visits, working on refurbishing the farmhouse — it had no electricity or indoor plumbing — and improving the landscaping at the farm. They set about a plan to install miles of natural stone walls throughout the property.

Meanwhile, TL is spending less time overseeing the ranch. Once handling the marking and branding of cattle as the herd’s owner, he allows others to take on the duty. “I don’t know if he lost interest,” says Steve Arnold. “He was there all the time and then for awhile it seemed like he wasn’t showing up.”

The Tellico farmhouse
The Tellico farmhouse outside Franklin, N.C., as it appears today. GREGORY ENNS PHOTOS



In 1970, at about the age of 15 and visiting Fort Pierce during one of her breaks from the Bartram School in Jacksonville, Debra shares a secret with her parents. Always considered a tomboy and big for her age, she shares the news with TL and Jo Ann that she is gay.

Debra says her father was outraged while her mother was more accepting. “TL’s response was, ‘You’re going to go down and see Uncle Jack and have a talk with him,’ ” Debra recalls.

Uncle Jack was Riviera Beach psychiatrist Dr. Jack Wright. Wright, an avid hunter, had become friends with TL through the orthopedist who treated TL for the severe injuries and chronic pain he suffered to the same leg, first from a car accident in 1959 and then with a bull charging him in a pasture in 1963. Wright and his wife, Sally, had grown close to TL and Jo Ann and even built a small weekend house next to them on the ranch.

Debra says she went down to see Wright as instructed. “We talked and he said, ‘Well, are you comfortable with this?’ I said, ‘Well, yes of course I am.’ He said, ‘Do you think that you would change?’ I said, ‘No.’ It’s not like you can change your mind.”


Debra wasn’t the only person in the family keeping a secret in 1970. That was the same year that it comes to light that TL and Diane are having a romantic relationship. Diane had divorced Don that January.

Daughter Kathy says Jo Ann’s reaction was: “Here we go again.” 

Jo Ann had endured infidelity early in her marriage to TL, including TL’s fathering of a boy, William Thomas “Tee” Sloan, with another woman in 1963. Kathy and Debra say TL continued seeing the woman after the boy’s birth and providing support for her and the boy, including the purchase of a house.

“She had basically learned to accept TL’s indiscretions,” Debra says. “She thought, ‘OK, if I’m going to be married to this guy, I’m going to accept that he’s not going to be exclusive to me.’ ”

Her daughters say Jo Ann assuaged her feelings of hurt by drinking. While diving into the work of renovating the farmhouse, she often was alone and isolated. Solace also was found in what she was achieving with the property.

“It was the enjoyment of resurrecting an old farmhouse and bringing it up to modern day amenities like electricity and plumbing,” Debra says. “And so for her, it was her little slice of heaven because she didn’t have to be down in Fort Pierce in the swirl of whatever TL and Diane were doing.”


Kathy Sloan
Kathy Sloan at Cattleman’s Day Parade in Fort Pierce in the 1960s. ARNOLD FAMILY ARCHIVES

Kathy also had a secret in 1970: The 16-year-old Dan McCarty High junior was in a relationship with John Edgar, a man seven years older than her who lived in an apartment a few blocks north of the Sloan family home on Orange Avenue. 

“I kept it a secret, but not for long because it’s hard to keep a secret in a small town,” Kathy says. “I had to be very clever about what I did.”

Within a few months, Kathy becomes pregnant. She is under the legal age of 18 and her parents refuse to give their permission to marry, so in January 1971 she and Edgar elope to Georgia, where she says she was able to produce a paper license that showed she was 18. They had daughter, Alexis, in June 1971.

Debra recalls that TL initially wasn’t going to be involved in the baby’s life and felt so strongly that he bet Fort Pierce housekeeper Alice Johnson a million dollars that he wouldn’t have anything to do with the girl. But Alice told him he’d fall in love with her once he held her in his arms and he’d grow close to her. Alice was proved right, and repeatedly joked with TL over the years to pay up on the million-dollar bet.

Kathy says her mother refused to have Kathy raise the baby in Edgar’s apartment and allowed them to stay in a garage apartment behind the Sloan home. TL eventually gave money for Edgar to attend a technical school in Tallahassee while Kathy remained in Fort Pierce.

The couple soon divorced and Kathy begins dating Tommy Summerlin, whom she marries in 1973. They remain married for 12 years and have three daughters: Tara Leighton, born in July 1974, Myrna Anne, born in April 1978, and Grace Lee, born in August 1981.


Cow Creek’s floor-to-ceiling safe once was housed in the Raulerson Building but was moved when the new corporate office was built on Orange Avenue.

After Diane’s divorce, she and her children live in the home on Peterson Road where Jo Ann’s great-uncle, Lucius Raulerson, who died in 1969, had lived. Meanwhile, TL begins a campaign to purchase the houses immediately around Jo Ann’s ancestral home at 1033 Orange Ave. so that he would own the entire city block. The family already owns several houses behind 1033 where Jo Ann’s great-aunts had lived. When the land purchases are completed — except for the purchase of one lot whose owner refuses to sell — TL’s Xanadu extends between 10th and 11th streets on the east and west and Orange Avenue and Boston Avenue on the north and south. 

“He wanted to create a compound where he was the ruler,” Debra says.

After the land purchases, he begins renovations on some of the houses and adds a swimming pool in the shape of a cloverleaf — the image of the Cow Creek brand used at the ranch. Other luxuries include the installation of a tennis court, fish pond and gazebo. 

The largest addition is the construction of a two-story corporate office for Cow Creek, complete with elevator and a downstairs kitchen. He has many of the buildings painted white with green trim, a color scheme he even extends to the houses and barn at the ranch.

The Sloans eventually sell the Raulerson Building, moving the floor-to-ceiling safe into the new corporate headquarters at 1025 Orange Ave. Shutters with cloverleafs appeared on the windows of the homes and cloverleafs were also used in the ironwork leading into the office complex. 

When TL is done with the land purchases, he has a concrete wall and chain link fences with barbed wire erected around most of the complex, enabling him to let his growing collection of German shepherds, which started a few years earlier with a single dog named Gunner, loose on the property at night. He always was concerned about security and often had one of the dogs with him in his vehicles. 


Jo Ann’s in-laws, Honey and Aubrey Sloan
Jo Ann’s in-laws, Honey and Aubrey Sloan, were like the parents she no longer had. Aubrey Sloan died in 1979 and TL Sloan later had his mother move into one of the houses inside the family compound on Orange Avenue.

His block on Orange Avenue soon begins to be referred to as “the compound.” Into the historical Huston house — once home of school superintendent Ben. L. Bryan Sr. and just two doors from Jo Ann’s family home at 1033 Orange Avenue — he moves Diane, her three children and himself. He also eventually moves his mother, Honey, into one of the other houses and Diane’s mother in another house. The historical Raulerson family home at 1033 Orange Ave. remains reserved for Jo Ann and the girls.

The domestic arrangement was highly unusual for the 1970s and perhaps even today. Debra and Kathy say Jo Ann was hurt by TL’s relationship with Diane but her upbringing had steeled her into accepting it. She had lost her father in a boating accident at the age of 8, with her grandparents, Granddad Frank and Mother Lou [Louise] Raulerson, successfully strong-arming Jo Ann’s mother, Mae, to allow them to raise Jo Ann.

Her father’s death and the separation from her mother resulted in Jo Ann showing little emotion or expressing her feelings, both as a child and adult. Her daughters say she also clung to the Victorian values held by Mother Lou, deferring to her husband and staying by his side regardless. 

“I think in the day and time Mother was raised that you were kind of taught just to stuff it down,” Debra says. “You didn’t speak your true feelings. It was hard for Mother as an adult to express those.”

Jo Ann was also incredibly close to TL’s parents, Honey and Aubrey, and divorcing TL would mean no longer being their daughter-in-law. “She didn’t want to start all over again,” Kathy says.

TL Sloan and Robin Robertson
TL Sloan and Robin Robertson Longstreet net a trout at Tellico. ROBERTSON FAMILY ARCHIVES

Ultimately, says Debra, there was another reason she never sought a divorce. “I think that her love for him just caused her to be blind to the other things,” she says.


While Jo Ann’s love for TL may have been unabiding, Diane’s children, Robin Longstreet and Darren Robertson, say it was their understanding that TL and Jo Ann’s marriage was over as husband and wife when TL and Diane became a couple. 

Kathy, Debra, Robin and Darren say TL always said that it would be too expensive to get a divorce, with the marriage of TL and Jo Ann continuing largely as a business arrangement. “He had a way of making you feel that everything he said was gospel,” Kathy says.

Debra says that was just a ploy on TL’s part. “He just wanted control,” Debra says. “He wanted to control her property.”

Deeds from the 1970s reveal that the ownership of their ranch — their greatest asset — was not 50/50. The deeds show that Jo Ann owned 77 percent of the largest sections of the ranch, while TL owned 22 percent and Kathy and Debra owned 1 percent. 

Despite her majority ownership, however, Jo Ann turned all business decisions over to TL. Jo Ann’s daughters say the reason she gave was always the same: “I trust him and I love him.”


While Jo Ann at first was cold about TL’s relationship with Diane, she grew to accommodate it. TL and Diane would fly to North Carolina for a visit, sitting down to the dinner table together with her. TL and Diane would also stay overnight at Tellico.

When in Fort Pierce, they would all gather in the kitchen of the Cow Creek corporate building for dinner — always served by housekeepers — with Jo Ann walking next door from the house where she grew up and TL, Diane and her three children walking next door from the renovated Huston house where they lived.

“We were Dynasty before there was Dynasty,” says Darren, referring to the 1980s television drama about interwoven family relationships.

“It was an unusual thing growing up,” Robin says, “but it worked for them.”

Cattleman’s Day Parade
In this photo of a Cattleman’s Day Parade in the 1970s, the Cow Creek unit is led by Diane Robertson, a position once held by Jo Ann Raulerson Sloan. Riding next to Diane is ranch manager Jimmy Percy and his young son, Jamie.


Robin says neither Diane nor TL were ashamed of their relationship or hid it. TL, Diane and the children would typically attend services at the First Presbyterian Church on Sundays and then have brunch together at the Hilltop House on U.S. 1. “We didn’t have an inkling of that being a bad thing in our lives,” Robin says. “We just were a happy family.”

At the annual Cattleman’s Day Parade, a showcase for St. Lucie County ranching families, Jo Ann no longer rides and Diane became one of the Cow Creek unit’s most visible riders. Cow Creek wins best ranch unit in 1972 and 1974 and in 1976 Diane earns the award for best horsewoman, a title once held by Jo Ann.

Both Robin and Darren say they eventually grew to call TL Dad. Their own father, Don Robertson, had moved to Texas, working at the King Ranch and their brother, Donnie, often lived with him. Don would also go work for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, overseeing their cattle programs and transferring their herd into a predominantly Brangus — a cross between Angus and Brahman — breed of cattle.

“We had a good life,” Darren says of TL. “I still carry a lot of stuff I learned from him. He was tough, and he wasn’t a picnic some days. But there were 100 times more good days than bad days.”

One thing TL was adamant about was everybody gathering for dinner and arriving by the time it was served at 6 p.m. “‘We eat at 6 o’clock, not 6:01,’” he’d tell the kids.

“I tell a lot of people if it weren’t for him I’d be either dead or in prison,” Darren says. “He took me in when I was young. He fed us, clothed us, housed us. Tommy Sloan raised me. He was my dad.”


One of Robin’s favorite memories was when TL, a history buff, took the family on an extended vacation through New England to celebrate the country’s bicentennial in 1976. The group included TL, Robin, Darren and Tee, TL’s son from the previous relationship.

“He was a wonderful man,” Robin says of TL. “He was very, very generous. He loved to show us the world. He took us on wonderful family vacations. Like the bicentennial year, we flew from Palm Beach to Boston, went up all through the [New England] states. And we went to all the landmarks you could think of back up to Maine and then back down to New York City and took a train to Washington, D.C. And it was a three-week trip. It was wonderful. We did stuff like that all the time. He wanted us to see everything and know about everything.”

Darren also appreciated the benefits of being associated with TL. “He liked himself and he liked nice things,” Darren says. “I was along for the ride, so I got to appreciate a lot of nice things.” 

Both Darren and Robin say Jo Ann was always gracious to them, with Darren spending one summer working and living with her in North Carolina when she and TL started a trout farm at Tellico in the 1980s. 

“It was a lifestyle to us and it was a normal lifestyle to us,” Robin says. “Jo Ann never made us feel uncomfortable when we saw her in North Carolina.”

Robin says Diane and Jo Ann talked on the phone almost daily. As Cow Creek financial manager, Diane paid the bills for the corporation and the family, including Jo Ann’s expenses in North Carolina. Robin says her mother knew intimately about the corporation’s financial affairs but did not make decisions.


To outsiders, the money from the Sloan family well seemed endless.

In the 1970s, TL’s list of financial obligations included:

• Expenses for the ranch, including the construction of a modern bunkhouse;

• Purchase of Tellico, land and improvements;

• Purchase of land to acquire the Orange Avenue Compound and improvements, including the pool, tennis court and new office complex;

• The planes and yacht;

• Debra’s boarding school expenses and later college expenses at schools in Boston and at Western Carolina University, where she would graduate;

• Support for Tee Sloan, TL’s son from an extramarital relationship;

• Support to help Kathy and her new husband as he attends the University of Florida; and

• Private schools for Diane’s kids.

And then there were the incidental luxuries like new cars for the kids when they came of driving age. “At 16 he’d say, go down and pick out a car and when you find something call me,” Darren says.

How do you support such obligations? 

“There just ain’t that much money in cattle,” says 87-year-old Alfred Norman, a longtime ranch foreman who grew up on Cow Creek and whose father was foreman of Cow Creek from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s.

With narrow margins earned from raising cattle, TL is confronted with finding additional ways to raise cash. He is expanding his groves, leasing property to tomato and other farmers and shipping cattle to Puerto Rico. Marl mining — used in Florida road construction — also brings in revenue while creating a huge reservoir at the northwest corner of the ranch. 

Palm Beach Post
A 3-day series appearing in the Palm Beach Post depicted life at Cow Creek Ranch in 1972. TL Sloan is pictured at the bottom right of the page.


In one of his first forays outside the ranch, he spreads his wings and pursues one of his greatest passions: aviation.

In 1971, he forms a partnership with Charles D. Ellis and Aubrey McCracken, Sun Aviation, and purchases the Piper Aircraft franchise at the Vero Beach airport. He is quoted in a newspaper article as saying the new company includes everything from sales and service of aircraft and equipment to charter flights and flying lessons.

He says he got into the business because of his experience flying. Sun Aviation several years later will also begin operating at the St. Lucie County Airport.

With other investors, he begins buying and building apartment complexes under the name Southern Properties. These include Cinnamon Tree Apartments in Jensen Beach and Southern Courtyard apartments, along with townhouses at 11th Street and Florida Avenue in Fort Pierce. He also forms a partnership creating a local gas company.

He is close with bankers in St. Lucie County, providing two of them hunting camps at Cow Creek. They are Bob Terry Sr., president of St. Lucie County Bank, and Howard Jernigan, president of First National Bank of Fort Pierce, where TL gets a seat on the board.

His image as a rancher is solidified in 1972 when he is elected president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association.

And later that year, Cow Creek is featured in a three-part series in the Palm Beach Post. The series, by William A. Clark with photos by Ron Smith, gives an insight to Cow Creek operations, as if freezing time.


While the series highlights TL’s ownership and the 25-year-old Percy’s management of the ranch, it also profiles the cowboys and cook.

It starts out with a profile of day cowboy Clyde “Pop” Coker, whom Clark qualifies as Mr. Florida Cowboy because he’s been in the saddle 57 of his 72 years in Florida. The real cowboying, Coker tells Clark, is done in Florida, not “in the West where all they do is rope ’n ride.”

“Bring one of those fellows down here, put him in the woods to look for cattle and bring ‘em in, and the next thing you know … he’s lost … lost so bad he doesn’t know where the barn is,” Coker tells the reporter.

Junior Mills is also profiled and talks about managing wildlife at the ranch. Among other duties, he’s in charge of keeping the ranch’s hog population down — the hogs root up ground, making it dangerous for horses and vehicles — and reports that 400 hogs were harvested in the last three years. The ranch is managed with some 30 horses and 18 dogs that are used for herding cattle or recreational hunting.

Also in the series, cowboy Will’um Thomas recalls the days of the open range before the Fence Act of 1949, driving cattle to markets in Fort Pierce or Tampa at a time when a cowboy’s pay was about $1 a day. 

For the Tampa trips, he says, “You carried ‘nuff groceries in your saddle pocket for yourself and your horse to last two-three days or until you met up with the chuck wagon. All the cookin’ was done over open fires and you slept rolled up in your blanket.”

The Fence Act required the construction of fences to keep cattle contained and ended the need for cattle drives. Where once the cattle were driven to market by cowboys riding on horses, tractor-trailers began arriving at the ranches and hauling the cattle to market.


A big part of one profile focuses on ranch cook Betty Mills, who begins every day at 5 a.m. cooking for as many as eight men. 

She fixes a breakfast of grits, bacon, eggs and toast. For lunch — the biggest meal of the day — she prepares turkey and dressing, potato salad, baked sweet potatoes, sliced tomatoes, mustard greens, black-eyed peas, lima beans, backed fresh pork ham with barbecue sauce, rice, gravy, biscuits, cranberry sauce, banana pudding and a choice of iced tea or Kool-Aid to drink.

“You never have two days alike on a ranch,” she tells the reporter. “The men never have the same type of day they had yesterday. Today, they may build a fence. Tomorrow, they may gather cows. There’s always variation.”


When ranch owner TL is interviewed, he declines to say how many cattle the ranch has at that time. “That’s just like me asking you how much money you have in the bank,” he tells the reporter.

He speaks with pride about the ranch’s advancement under his leadership during the last 20 years. “We’ve developed it [and] mechanized it to the point we have a good professional operation. We’re also diversifying — we have orange and grapefruit groves on the northern edge of the property.”

In the interview, TL laments the falling prices of beef and the low margins in the cattle business. “I could take what I have [at the ranch], sell it and invest in tax-free municipal bonds and make more money.”

Because of rising land prices, he predicts fewer ranchers will get in the cattle business, with a small number of ranches producing most of the state’s beef. 

The statement is ominous.

Like the menacing storm clouds that gather on the ranch in an otherwise sunny summer afternoon, rapid change is on the horizon for the ranch, and it isn’t good.


Jimmy Percy’s business card
Jimmy Percy’s business card. PERCY FAMILY ARCHIVES

On the outside, the Palm Beach Post series may have given the appearance of success at the ranch. But as Jimmy Percy settles into his job as general manager of Cow Creek, he finds problems in a different place: the books. 

TL and Jo Ann, he concludes, are spending too much money, with profits from the ranch and Raulerson Building rentals not covering the business and the couple’s expenses. 

“Jimmy told them, ‘Y’all can’t keep spending like this or you’re going to run out of money,’ ” Debra recalls.

As time went on, the issue grew as a source of conflict, with Jimmy eventually leaving and working at St. Lucie County Bank as a loan officer. With Jimmy gone, TL had to take back management of the ranch at a time when his other businesses were pulling him in a different direction. 

He begged Jimmy to return. “And then Tommy wanted my dad back and he said he’d come back and he did, and stayed there for multiple years,” says Jamie Percy, Jimmy Percy’s son.

Nevertheless, the return of Jimmy — who gained the title of vice president of Cow Creek — didn’t seem to temper TL’s spending. But then, as luck would have it, TL had a new card to play in 1973. That’s when Shell Oil came calling.

TL Sloan, with beard at right, and Jimmy Percy, in hat, survey land at Cow Creek where an oil rig was erected in the 1970s. PERCY FAMILY ARCHIVES


Shell had been conducting seismic explorations in the four-county area and to great fanfare, with the permission of TL and Jo Ann, announced that it planned to drill a test well on the western side of Cow Creek, a quarter mile over the St. Lucie County line into Okeechobee County. A derrick 15 stories high, visible for miles, is erected with the intention of drilling to a depth of 11,300 feet. 

But after months of hope that oil would bring new riches to Cow Creek, the well comes up dry. The discovery of oil wouldn’t be the Hail Mary needed to pull TL from his mountain of debt. 

Darren Robertson says that while some of TL’s investments went sour, others panned out. Both he and TL’s daughters lack specifics because TL rarely shared details with them.

“I think he did well on some stuff and not well on other stuff,” Darren says. “But again, he would tell you, ‘It’s none of your business.’ ”

Debra has a different take. “With TL supporting three families, mother and our family, Diane and her family and Tee and his mother, plus Honey, the monetary hemorrhaging was an inevitable fate of the collapse of the ‘empire’ TL thought he created,’’ Debra says. “It could have been done differently, but the way the money was managed meant that the money that was my mother’s was wasted on far too many nonbusiness things. TL never learned to make money work to generate income.’’

At the same time debt was mounting, TL was also battling medical issues. In 1976, while treating what he thought was an ear infection, he used a solution that was absorbed by his eardrum, which unknowingly had been previously perforated. The episode caused permanent damage and balance issues, causing him to give up flying and boating. That same year, he was afflicted with Bell’s palsy, a neurological disorder that left him paralyzed on one side of his face.

 He already suffered chronic pain from his leg injuries, and daughter Debra says he also had a longtime reliance on the opiod painkiller Demoral.

Cow Creek stamp
A sliver of manila paper with the Cow Creek stamp commemorates the date of the sale of 17,000 acres of Cow Creek Ranch on Oct. 1, 1976. PERCY FAMILY ARCHIVES


Debra remembers meeting with a tax attorney around their dining room table in North Carolina. At the time, in addition to other debts, TL and Jo Ann owed an estimated $675,000 in back taxes. On the table: selling part of the ranch to cover the taxes and debt.

“TL would go to the bank and borrow a couple hundred thousand dollars and when that was due he’d go to another bank,” Debra says. “You can run a negative cash flow for awhile, but eventually it’s going to catch up to you.”

At the ranch, cowboys more frequently were being summoned by TL to identify cattle that could be taken to market for a quick cash infusion.

“There were times that would occur that he’d say, ‘You fellas pull up such and such group and let’s get a load or two of them to the market,’” says Kent Mills, who grew up on Cow Creek.

Along with these impromptu sales, the herd was growing smaller for another reason. Kent says many of the ranch’s bulls were not reproducing and TL wasn’t spending the money to have them tested by a veterinarian so that the less fertile bulls could be replaced.

Deroy Arnold, who also worked and grew up at the ranch, says the herd by the fall of 1976 had dwindled to about 1,000 from a peak of 5,000.

Ultimately, the painful decision was made to sell 17,000 acres of the 23,000-acre ranch Jo Ann’s grandfather had established more than a half century earlier. Alto Lee “Bud” Adams Jr. was interested in buying 3,800 acres of the Blue Mountain section of the ranch and brought investor Charles Vavrus in on the deal to buy the largest chunk, 13,200 acres.

With little notice, the Raulerson/Sloan family ownership of 17,000 acres of the ranch ended on Oct. 1, 1976, when three deeds for separate sections in St. Lucie and Okeechobee counties were transferred to Vavrus and one deed for sections in St. Lucie County was transferred to Adams Ranch Inc.

The deeds show that Vavrus paid $5,281,800 for his sections while Adams Ranch paid $1,484,500, for a total sale of $6,766,300. The deeds show the ranch had a $3,500,000 mortgage in September 1975 from Travelers Insurance and a $1 million mortgage in February 1975 from Equitable life Insurance, for total mortgages of $4,500,000. The sale, after satisfaction of the mortgages, would leave the Sloans with $2,266,300. It’s not known what was paid for the satisfaction of taxes or other debts.

The sale included the prettiest parts of the ranch, including Dog Slough, Blue Mountain and Cow Creek, the waterway of the early Seminoles. It also included the ranch headquarters — perhaps the piece first purchased by Frank Raulerson — including the barn and the historical Raulerson weekend house.

The deed
The deed to the sale of the largest part of Cow Creek Ranch to Charles Vavrus shows Jo Ann Sloan with 77 percent interest, TL Sloan with a 22 percent interest and their daughters with a 1 percent interest.

The Sloans retained ownership of at least four sections on the north side of the ranch along Orange Avenue Extension, at least 800 acres of which had been converted to citrus groves.

Echoing the sentiments of the other children of cowboys at the ranch, Jamie Percy remembers the effect the sale had on his dad, Jimmy, the ranch’s general manager. “My dad always said that was the saddest day of his life,” Jamie Percy says. “It completely changed my dad’s life. He put his heart and soul into that ranch.”

Around the close of the sale on Oct. 1, 1976, Buddy Mills remembers Tommy and Jo Ann taking a last drive through the ranch to bid the cowboys farewell and to thank them for what they had done. 

By the time of the sale, Earl Storey had moved to another ranch. From its core crew, that left Will’um Thomas and Curtis Arnold, who would continue to work for TL, managing the grove acreage, and Percy, who would continue to oversee other aspects of the Sloan holdings. TL had received assurances from Vavrus that Junior Mills could continue to work at Cow Creek.

On their final visit to the ranch, Buddy Mills says the Sloans drove to see Cow Creek one last time and returned to the headquarters, stopping their Chevrolet Blazer to talk to Junior.

“He kind of coasted up there and stopped and they put down the passenger window. Daddy stepped up there, and he said Jo Ann broke down and went to crying. She told him what it meant to her to have him and Mama and us kids there. And finally, Daddy said she had just got to the point where she got so choked up she couldn’t say anything. And that was their last drive through.’’


Stay tuned for Part IV of the Cow Creek Chronicles appearing in the holiday edition of Indian River Magazine arriving in mid-November.

What happens after TL and Jo Ann sell the biggest part of Cow Creek? 

Will developing a trout farm at Tellico get them out from their mountain of debt?


Listen to the podcast here

Get the Cow Creek Chronicles series

Read the series to date online:

Part 1

Frank Raulerson creates Cow Creek Ranch and develops his granddaughter, Jo Ann, to take it over.

Part 2

Jo Ann and her husband, Tommy, take over the ranch in 1954 when Frank Raulerson dies.
Writer and publisher Gregory Enns shares his link to Cow Creek Ranch.

Part 3

Tommy and Jo Ann buy an old farmhouse in North Carolina while the family undergoes tremendous change. Kathy gets married and has children and Tommy reveals another extramarital relationship. Tommy’s free-spending ways continue, putting Cow Creek Ranch at risk.

Part 4

Publishes in November 2022


See the original article in the print publication

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