The Cow Creek Chronicles - A series

 

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

Back at the ranch

Buddy Mills, Deroy Arnold and Alfred Norman
Buddy Mills, Deroy Arnold and Alfred Norman return to Cow Creek Ranch after decades. Norman’s days on the ranch go back to the 1930s, when his father was foreman; Deroy’s, from 1957 to 1976; and Buddy’s, from 1970 to 1977. GREGORY ENNS

Cow Creek Chronicles writer Gregory Enns retraces his steps writing the story of loss and love and returns to the ranch where it all started

A few months before my father, Bob Enns, died in 1990, his younger brother, Eddie, was sitting with him on my dad’s front deck on South Indian River Drive in Fort Pierce. I was visiting from Sarasota and their conversation turned to mutual friends, Jo Ann and Tommy Sloan.

Jo Ann was one of my mom’s best friends — they were born on the same date and year, July 22, 1930 — and called themselves the birthday twins. Tommy had gone to school with Uncle Eddie at Fort Pierce High and was also a friend of my dad, who cowboyed and hunted at the Sloans’ Cow Creek Ranch on his days off as editor of the local News-Tribune.

“Bobby, if you ever tried to explain that whole situation with Tommy and Jo Ann to someone, you just couldn’t,” Uncle Eddie told my dad.

In the decades of knowing the Sloans — I had mostly known them through visits to the ranch — I knew their lives were out of the norm. They were the first people we knew as millionaires, unusual for Fort Pierce.

Then there was their domestic situation. Tommy lived with another woman, Diane Robertson, from the early 1970s until his death in 1996 while remaining married to Jo Ann. 

It was the observation of my uncle, a former St. Lucie County commissioner and future Fort Pierce mayor, that made me realize how unusual — and complicated — their story is.

A Reader’s Digest version might go like this:

Frank Raulerson
Frank Raulerson founded Cow Creek Ranch about 1923, first buying a small section of land to run cattle during the days of the open range.

K.B. Raulerson arrived in Fort Pierce in 1896. A former state legislator, he was influential in the establishment of Fort Pierce as a city. His brother, Frank, joined him in 1907.

K.B. Raulerson arrives in Fort Pierce in 1896, followed by brother C.F. “Frank’’ in 1907. The sons of an early Florida cattle rancher from Geneva, Florida, they develop their own cattle operation in Fort Pierce, build a slaughterhouse and open the Raulerson Grocery Co. in downtown. 

K.B., a state legislator, is influential in the establishment of Fort Pierce as a city in 1901 and the creation of St. Lucie County in 1905 and serves as one of the first county commissioners. When he dies in 1913, younger brother Frank comes into his own.

He establishes the Raulerson Cattle Co., builds ice houses in Fort Pierce and Miami and becomes a St. Lucie County commissioner in 1919. In the early 1920s, he builds the landmark Raulerson Building in downtown and an impressive Mediterranean revival home on Orange Avenue. In 1923, in the days of the open range of cattle-grazing, he begins buying parcels of land that would become the 23,000-acre Cow Creek Ranch on the St. Lucie/Okeechobee county line.

The landmark Raulerson Building
The landmark Raulerson Building was built by Frank Raulerson in 1924 and designed by William Hatcher.

He wins election to the state Senate in 1931 but in 1935 resigns and returns to his position on the Livestock Sanitary Board, where he has more influence and sees the demise of the open range coming. By the time legislators in 1949 enact a law requiring livestock to be fenced in, Raulerson has acquired two other ranches the size of Cow Creek as well as a smaller ranch in Fellsmere.

His rise is not without tragedy. In 1938, his only child, Alfred, is killed in a boating accident. Alfred’s only child is 8-year-old Jo Ann, whom Frank and wife, Annie Louise, wrest from her mother, arguing that they have the better means to raise Jo Ann.

Rancher Frank Raulerson and his only heir, Jo Ann Raulerson
Rancher Frank Raulerson and his granddaughter and only heir, Jo Ann Raulerson.

The death of Jo Ann’s father and separation from her mother steel her emotions, allowing her to endure anything without complaint. She is raised a child of privilege, influenced by her grandfather’s desires for her to become a cattlewoman capable of taking over his empire while at the same time adhering to her grandmother’s Victorian view that women have both certain responsibilities and a limited and deferential role in a man’s world.

Enter T.L. “Tommy’’ Sloan, a clothing salesman at I.M. Waters men’s store in downtown. Jo Ann and Tommy meet at the store and fall in love, though Tommy is from a modest background. They marry in 1952. She’s 21 and he’s 19.

They have their first daughter, Kathy, in 1953 while Tommy is away in the Army. When Frank Raulerson dies in 1954, he leaves Cow Creek Ranch and his entire estate, worth at least $5 million in today’s dollars, to Jo Ann with the stipulation that the estate should be overseen by three trustees until past Jo Ann’s 30th birthday. 

Tommy and Jo Ann also have their second daughter, Debra, in 1954. After Tommy is discharged from the Army, he learns the ropes of running the ranch and raising cattle.

Despite an awkward beginning, he earns the respect of fellow ranchers, becoming president of the St. Lucie Cattlemen’s Association in 1958 and later developing an automated system for dipping and vaccinating cattle against diseases. He’s active in the community and serves on several nonprofit boards, becomes president of the Florida Beef Council and makes an unsuccessful run for state legislator. 

Jo Ann is equally active in the community and becomes head of the local Cowbelles, the auxiliary of the Cattlemen’s Association, and later president of the state CowBelles in 1968.

Jo Ann and Tommy, who eventually becomes president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, are hailed as model ranchers and their stature is elevated when they are profiled nationally on the ABC television show Discovery in 1968.

But the veneer of their lives is not all as it seems. Tommy had been unfaithful early in their marriage and in 1963 fathers a boy from another rancher’s wife. Jo Ann, whose emotions had been steeled in childhood through her father’s death and separation from her mother, continues in the marriage both then and in 1970, when Tommy’s extramarital relationship with his secretary, Diane Robertson, is revealed. Tommy continues to live with Diane as well as her three children, two of whom would grow to consider him their father.

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

After Jo Ann turns 30 and her trust is terminated, giving Tommy and Jo Ann free access to Jo Ann’s inheritance, Tommy begins a spending spree that includes the purchases of planes and a yacht and an entire city block around Jo Ann’s ancestral home in Fort Pierce. The block becomes known as “the compound,” with its most prominent features a big corporate office and a pool in the shape of the ranch’s cloverleaf brand. 

In 1970, the couple purchases the Tellico farm outside Franklin, North Carolina, which becomes a retreat for Jo Ann and her eventual full-time home. Tommy also invests in several developments and aviation businesses that never cover the cost of Tommy’s spending and maintenance of multiple families.

As debts mount, they are forced to sell Jo Ann’s beloved Cow Creek Ranch in 1976 while maintaining the more profitable grove sections of the ranch. But as debts and losses continue, the groves are sold in 1981. A decade later the bank forecloses on the “compound” and Jo Ann’s ancestral home is lost.

With the North Carolina farm their only remaining property, they look to create a trout farm to produce income. But the infrastructure to raise the trout is overbuilt and revenue never covers expenses. To cover debts, Jo Ann is forced to sell the farm, although she is allowed to live on it for several years. Tommy dies in 1996.

In the late 1990s Jo Ann leaves Tellico to live in a rented modular home until daughter Debra buys her one in a new manufactured-home community. When Debra is unable to afford to continue to support Jo Ann, Jo Ann is moved to Grandview Manor Care nursing home in Franklin in 2015.

Once one of Florida’s largest landowners and one of St. Lucie County’s richest citizens, Jo Ann dies penniless and without property on Dec. 22, 2020, at the age of 90. 

Through the Cow Creek Chronicles, I’ve tried to tell the story, or “explain that whole situation,” as my Uncle Eddie would say. It’s taken nearly two years and tens of thousands of words and I hope I’ve done the story justice. 

Since starting Indian River Magazine 17 years ago, I had been urged by my mother, Katie Enns, to write a story about her friend, Jo Ann. As the wife of a newspaper editor, my mom had developed a nose for a good story. Her most frequent suggestion was to write about Jo Ann.

I knew Jo Ann’s story would be complicated and sensitive and put off doing anything for years. Though my mom hadn’t seen Jo Ann in decades — Jo Ann pretty much had lived in North Carolina full time since the 1970s — they stayed in contact through Sunday afternoon phone calls and always a long call on their shared birthday, July 22. 

Over the years, my mom would update me what was going on with Jo Ann in snippets. Little of it was good and always seemed to involve a deterioration of living standards. Despite my mom’s reporting of Jo Ann’s many setbacks, they always seemed laced with a hint of optimism. 

In addition to Jo Ann, my mom also had kept in touch with Jo Ann’s daughters, Kathy and Debra, whom I hadn’t seen in nearly 50 years. I never knew how close my mom remained with them until I began interviewing them and they’d refer to my mom as Aunt Katie and my dad as Uncle Bobby. Both Tommy and Jo Ann were only children, so Kathy and Debra had always considered my parents and a few close others as their aunts and uncles.

When Kathy called my mom in December 2020 to let her know of Jo Ann’s death, my mom, who had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer, told Kathy, “I’ll be right there behind her,” as if excited to get to a party which she was missing out on.

It was only after Jo Ann’s death and my mom’s death a month later that I began working on the Cow Creek Chronicles. I began with calls to Kathy and Debra.

Both were amazingly forthcoming. They knew their mother’s life was remarkable — though in many ways tragic — and felt hers was a story worth sharing, the good and the bad. Over the next 18 months, I had dozens of telephone interviews with them leading up to a visit with them in North Carolina in April. 

I became close to them, mostly through the mutual affection we had for Jo Ann and Katie but also because of our shared love of Cow Creek Ranch and the memories we had there. So it was particularly difficult when Kathy, in poor health in recent years, died last October as the series was publishing.

During the course of my reporting, I found that many of the people I interviewed had that same affection for Cow Creek as Kathy, Debra and me. Those memories bond all of us even though it has been more than half a century since our days there.

As I began working on the series, I knew that getting back to the main ranch headquarters would be key to telling the story. For it was there that Frank Raulerson purchased the first section of property in 1923 that would become Cow Creek Ranch. The land purchase enabled Raulerson to create a home base — perhaps just the construction of a line shack where cowboys could stay overnight — back in the days of the open range, when cattle grazed on shared property that had no fences.

As the days of the open range ended — the politically astute Raulerson saw the end coming — he purchased additional land sections that would create the 23,000-acre Cow Creek Ranch. The original section, called the headquarters or home place, was expanded to included cowpens, a horse barn, tractor barns, a weekend home for Frank and his family, a bunkhouse and houses for the ranch hands.

The entrThe to Egan Family Groves
The entrance to Egan Family Groves on State Road 68 still carries the name Cow Creek Ranch.

GETTING BACK TO COW CREEK

For years, I had longed to return to Cow Creek, wondering whether in the last half century since I had seen it, the home place had been bulldozed and replaced with more modern buildings. I also yearned to go through the Cow Creek crossing and its cathedral of cypress once more or to find the old moss-covered tangerine trees my father said Seminoles planted on the south side of the ranch.

To get an idea of how big the old Cow Creek Ranch was, it extended all the way from Okeechobee Road, or State Road 70, on the south to Orange Avenue Extension to the north. It was about the size of a township, about 6 miles either way, and you had to drive 4 miles from the ranch entrance on Okeechobee Road just to reach the home place. 

Today, the ranch has been carved up into seven separate ranches, with two of them carrying the Cow Creek name. I needed help sorting through the real estate.

Realtor Phil Strazzulla
Realtor Phil Strazzulla drives on the western edge of the Egan grove, where excavation of a shallow marl pit created a reservoir in the 1970s.

I had told my friend Phil Strazzulla, one of the top land Realtors on the Treasure Coast, about the story I was working on. Phil and I had gone through 12 years of school together and shared a love of sailing. His family had also been in the citrus business and owned Strazzulla Brothers Groves in St. Lucie County, so he was comfortable and knowledgeable about the backwoods. 

He did some quick research of real estate records and noticed that the 2,500-acre Cow Creek grove sections on State Road 68 had been purchased by a company controlled by the late Bernard Egan. Phil contacted our old schoolmate, Greg Nelson, stepson of Bernard Egan and now president of Bernard Egan & Co., and received permission to drive around the grove.

I met Phil one early morning at Carter’s Grocery on Orange Avenue Extension, loaded up in his truck and headed west to the grove, where we entered through a gate that says “Cow Creek Ranch.”

Up the sandy road, we meet with Brant Schirard, who oversees the property for Bernard Egan & Co.

Citrus runs in Brant’s blood. His dad, Brantley Schirard, is in the Citrus Hall of Fame, and Brant’s son is also in the citrus business. 

We tell Brant the story I’m doing and how I’m trying to reconnect to the Cow Creek I knew as a child. The gate into the grove says “Cow Creek Ranch” and I ask him if the grove extends to Cow Creek crossing. It doesn’t.

Then I ask him about an old Volkswagen camper van. After the Sloans had sold the home ranch in 1976, Tommy and Jo Ann allowed my family to have a camp in a hammock on the grove side they retained. My dad and brother Chuck built a small cabin — barely more than a lean-to — and my brother Michael built a chickee. The hammock was also a final resting spot for our 1967 Volkswagen camper van, badly maimed in an auto crash but still usable for camping and which we left at the grove when Tommy and Jo Ann sold it in 1981.

I ask Brant if he remembers a camper van or if there is one still at the grove. No sign of a camper van, he tells us.

Then I ask if he remembers Curtis Arnold, who had overseen Tommy’s grove operation, and his sidekick and brother-in-law Will’um Thomas. After my father’s death in 1990, except for Jo Ann, we pretty much had lost contact with our friends at Cow Creek.

Oak-draped lanes that once were barren in the Cow Creek days create habitat for wildlife.
Oak-draped lanes that once were barren in the Cow Creek days create habitat for wildlife.

Brant remembers Curtis well. Curtis had continued managing the grove after Egan purchased it and he and his wife, Vee, had lived in a small house on the grove until Curtis’ retirement in 2008.

Then I mentioned Junior Mills, another cowboy at Cow Creek. Brant said he knew Buddy Mills, Junior’s son. I hadn’t seen Buddy since the main part of Cow Creek was sold in 1976. Brant gave me Buddy’s number, which would open countless doors for me in reporting the story.

With the newfound leads from Brant, Phil and I drove around the grove. The biggest difference I saw over the half-century was that where Tommy kept vegetation off the lanes around dikes and groves, Egan preferred the lanes less manicured to create habitat for more wildlife. So many of the once barren lanes are now shaded by oaks. We drive along the western border of the grove, where mining for marl had created a reservoir much bigger than I remembered it.

As we leave the grove, Phil helps me follow another lead. We learned from Brant that the Larson Dairy family owned the other side of the ranch. Phil knew Jacob Larson and called him to see if we could come by that day. Jacob referred us to his brother, Travis. We were unsuccessful at reaching Travis, so we called it a day and headed to lunch.

A view today of the Egan grove, formerly the Cow Creek Ranch grove.
A view today of the Egan grove, formerly the Cow Creek Ranch grove.

BACK WITH BUDDY

Buddy Mills
Buddy Mills continues to make cow whips, a custom established by his father. The whips aren’t used on cattle, but are popped to get them to move.

A few days later I called Buddy Mills. Buddy had followed in his dad’s footsteps and always kept his cowboy roots close to him, working as a day cowboy in his early years and still raising his own herd today.

I caught him on a Saturday morning just about as he was going to give a presentation at a folk festival. Did he remember my dad and my family? Did he ever. Looking over the notes from that first interview, we went over a lot of our shared memories. I learned very quickly that Buddy, who lived on Cow Creek for seven of the most important years of his life, had shared a deep love and fondness for those times. More importantly, he had good recall and could confirm many of my details while also providing plenty more.

We promised to meet each other again in person. A few weeks later, I caught up with Buddy on a Saturday at his home in Basinger in Okeechobee County. It’s nestled in an oak-covered hammock that looks out to a pasture where deer and turkey appear frequently and without fear.

It was around lunch time, so Buddy had a big spread of pork ribs, barbecued chicken, greens and, best of all, swamp cabbage he had harvested from a palmetto that morning. I don’t think I could have received a higher honor than to have the pot of swamp cabbage placed before me.

During our meeting, Buddy introduces me to 36-year-old Spur, the last horse his dad rode. He also showed me the cow whips he is working on, a well-known tradition begun by his dad that Buddy continues today.

Buddy Mills with Spur
Buddy Mills with Spur, the last horse his dad, legendary cowboy Junior Mills, rode. The horse and Junior were featured on the cover of Jon Kral’s book on Florida’s cracker cowboys. Spur died last July at the age of 37.Buddy Mills with Spur, the last horse his dad, legendary cowboy Junior Mills, rode. The horse and Junior were featured on the cover of Jon Kral’s book on Florida’s cracker cowboys. Spur died last July at the age of 37.

We caught up on everybody and anyone I could recall at the ranch. Buddy knew about them all, attended many of their funerals, and even told me what their kids and grandkids were doing.

Buddy Mills at the graves of his parents
Buddy Mills at the graves of his parents, Cow Creek cowboy Junior Mills, and his mother, ranch cook Betty Mills, or ‘Miss Betty.’ They are buried in the Basinger cemetery.

Best of all, he had kept in touch with Deroy Arnold, Curtis’ son and nephew of Will’um Thomas, who had worked at Cow Creek since the late 1940s. Deroy was a continuous witness to Cow Creek from his birth in 1957 to 1981, when the Sloans sold their final piece of the ranch.

After lunch, Buddy looped his younger brother, Kent, to us by phone. As a kid I had remembered Buddy as the more talkative brother and Kent as being much quieter, but the passage of years and our time on the phone proved that Kent had become as gregarious as his older brother.

After our interview at his house, Buddy took me to the old Basinger cemetery where his parents, Junior and Betty, are buried. Nearby were the graves of Will’um and his wife, Punk. Through my reporting, I would learn that nearly all of the Cow Creek folks of my parents’ and Tommy and Jo Ann’s generation were deceased.

The large headstone for Buddy’s parents has a cowboy hat on one side for Junior and a nurse’s cap on the other side for Betty, who was the ranch cook during her days at Cow Creek. I remember Junior, who was one of the lead cowboys at Cow Creek, and Betty as being deeply religious. 

At the gravestone, Buddy talks about how his mom earned her licensed practical nurse degree after leaving Cow Creek. She initially worked at Raulerson Hospital in Okeechobee but found her work as a nurse at the Okeechobee County Jail far more rewarding. “I can’t tell you the number of people who were in jail who told me they turned their lives around because of
my mother,” Buddy says.

Wild turkeys often visit Buddy Mills’ pasture at his home in Basinger.
Wild turkeys often visit Buddy Mills’ pasture at his home in Basinger.

CATCHING UP WITH DEROY

Deroy Arnold and Alfred Norman
Deroy Arnold, left, grew up on Cow Creek Ranch and is now foreman of nearby Triple S Ranch. His father in-law, Alfred Norman, right, also grew up at Cow Creek and was the longtime foreman at Triple S.

After the visit with Buddy, I set about reconnecting with Deroy. After a few telephone interviews, I learn that his father-in-law is Alfred Norman, son of John Norman, Frank Raulerson’s longtime foreman who helped establish Cow Creek Ranch. Deroy invites me to visit them at Triple S Ranch, where Deroy has been foreman for the past five years. Before Deroy, Alfred, now 86, had been foreman of Triple S since the 1960s and still lives at the ranch.

During my visit to Triple S, Alfred recalls the early days of Cow Creek, how his father had to transform rough Florida scrub lands into pastures, and shares memories of Frank Raulerson and how he had a penchant for Tampa Nugget cigars and Cadillacs.

As I talk to Deroy, I realize that if Cow Creek had an exemplar, it would be Deroy, who spent his earliest days at Cow Creek, learning to ride horses and herd cattle. Essentially, everything Deroy learned as a cowboy he learned at Cow Creek.

Deroy’s Uncle Will’um and his dad Curtis were best friends and, except for Army stints, they had spent their whole cowboy careers working for Frank Raulerson and then the Sloans.

They married sisters, Arizona “Punk” and Vena “Vee,” who grew up with the surname Raulerson but were no relation to Frank. 

The four spent many of their weekends with Deroy camping out in a small trailer — and later a camp cabin — on the north side of the ranch. Their camp was a favorite destination for my parents when we were riding around the ranch, with Will’um often busting out a bottle of bourbon for the occasion.

Will’um and Punk didn’t have children and doted on Deroy as if he were their own son. The result was that Deroy was essentially raised by four people.

Deroy Arnold and Alfred Norman
Deroy Arnold, left, and Alfred Norman with photos from Norman’s father’s days as foreman at Cow Creek Ranch going back to at least the 1930s.

From my visits to the ranch over the years, I got to see Deroy become the cowboy he is today. I was envious of his ability to ride horses and work cattle and participate from the earliest age in the Cattleman’s Day Parade that rode through Fort Pierce every year. He also appeared as a young boy in the Discovery segments appearing on ABC television in 1968, working in a roundup in one scene and dragging his saddle to the barn in another.

I had only seen the show once — when it originally aired in 1968 — and during our meeting at Triple S Ranch Deroy produced a VHS tape of the show. After our meeting at Triple S, I took care of getting it digitized.

Newspaper editor Bob Enns
Newspaper editor Bob Enns gallops across the television screen on Matthews during ABC’s Discovery show in 1968.

It proved to be a great record of how Cow Creek appeared back in the late 1960s and how the ranch was being managed by Tommy and Jo Ann. It also confirmed a memory of how my dad used to joke about how the show depicted him galloping across the television screen on old Matthews, the cracker horse he rode working cattle at Cow Creek on Mondays, one of his days off from his newspaper job.

My dad had begun helping out at the ranch on Mondays through his friendship with Tommy and Jo Ann. Though no skilled cowboy, he enjoyed the ways of the Florida backwoods and the authenticity of his friends at Cow Creek.

I vaguely remembered the Discovery scene, but reviewing the video confirmed the ride across the screen. The host, Virginia Gibson, was talking about the expert horsemen at the ranch. The joke was that my dad was an amateur surrounded by far more skilled horsemen than he. Yet, the show’s editors chose to feature him riding. I guess you could call it his 8-second ride on national television. 


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A modern-day view of ‘the compound,’
A modern-day view of ‘the compound,’ now a drug treatment facility. The historic Raulerson house is in the foreground and the old Cow Creek corporate office is to the left.

BACK TO ‘THE COMPOUND’

 Bob Brackett
A limited family partnership founded by Bob Brackett purchased ‘the compound’ in 2001. Brackett sparked downtown revitalization efforts in Fort Pierce and Vero.

Next I revisited “the compound,” the one-block area on Orange Avenue between 10th and 11th Street where Frank Raulerson built his Mediterranean-revival style house in 1922. Raulerson had hired noted architect William Hatcher to design his impressive Raulerson Building downtown about the same time and it’s likely Hatcher designed Raulerson’s home as well. Many of those details — such as the barrel tile roof are gone — but the arches remain.

The block, which includes the Raulerson house, the old Cow Creek corporate office, the house Tommy and Diane lived in and various other houses, today is owned by the Brackett Family Limited Partnership. 

The partnership was founded by Bob Brackett, who sparked a renaissance in downtown Fort Pierce by renovating 214 Orange Avenue, the old McCrory’s building on South Second Street and then the Arcade Building on U.S. 1, now known as Kraus Square. Brackett, who lives in Vero Beach, also renovated the Theatre Plaza, Pueblo Arcade and Courthouse Executive Center, Seminole Building and the Seminole Courtyard in Vero Beach.

After Tommy and Jo Ann lost the compound to foreclosure in 1991, it went through several owners, including Alpha Health Services, which used it as an inpatient treatment facility.

The Brackett family partnership bought the property from Alpha Health Services in 2001 for $335,000. Today, the property has an estimated $1,039,400 market value, according to St. Lucie County property records.

Since purchasing the property, the Brackett family has leased it to Counseling and Recovery Center Inc., which runs the Village of CRC there, a residential center for women with substance abuse issues or recurring mental health disorders. 

After checking with the management of CRC to get permission for a tour, Brackett meets me at the compound one morning and shows me around. We climb up the stairs to the old corporate office, where the focal point remains the big Cow Creek safe — no longer used to store valuables — that used to be housed in the Raulerson Building and which Tommy had moved when he built the new corporate office. Other signs of the old Sloan days are the iron gates in the shape of the Cow Creek cloverleaf brand, shutters decorated with the brand and, of course, the giant swimming pool in the shape of the brand.

 

A pool shaped in the form of a cloverleaf
A pool shaped in the form of a cloverleaf, the Cow Creek brand, still functions at the compound, now used as a drug treatment facility.

Downstairs is a great room with kitchen and dining areas and a massive fireplace Tommy had built, which seemed like it would be more in place at a Montana lodge than a corporate office in Florida.

We go inside the old Raulerson house, where an entry under the staircase was once used as a hideaway during Prohibition. Few changes or permanent adaptations have been made to the house in the last 50 years. I best remember the arched front porch, still the same, from where we could watch the Cow Creek unit ride by during the annual Cattleman’s Day Parade.

I can tell by the friendly banter between the staff and Brackett that relations are good between landlord and tenant, and I suspect that a break on their rent has allowed Counseling and Recovery Center to stay there so long.

While reporting the Cow Creek Chronicles was a story of loss, walking through the CRC Village that morning and seeing what was being done for the women treated there made me realize that good things were coming out of the ashes.

I thought of the hundreds of women who had been treated at the center, many of them recovering, and of Kathy Sloan Blanton, who had her own struggle with addiction and grew up in the house now used as a dormitory for recovering women. Good was coming from the compound Tommy and Jo Ann built.

BACK AT THE RANCH

Cow Creek Chronicles writer Gregory Enns, center, reunites at Cow Creek with Deroy Arnold and Buddy Mills after nearly 50 years.
Cow Creek Chronicles writer Gregory Enns, center, reunites at Cow Creek with Deroy Arnold and Buddy Mills after nearly 50 years.

It’s a dreary February day, cold and overcast but not raining. It’s taken weeks, but Buddy has been able to get in touch with Woody and Travis Larson, the new owners of the old home place at Cow Creek, and Travis agrees to let us come out for a visit.

I meet Deroy at the entrance gate at Okeechobee Road — it’s a couple of miles west of the old entrance gate, which now goes into the Wynne Ranch — and we wait for Buddy to arrive. When Buddy pulls up in his pickup, I load up and we head to the main ranch road, with Deroy and Alfred following behind in Deroy’s truck.

I hadn’t set foot on the ranch since the Sloans sold it in 1976 and Buddy had not been out there in almost as long. Deroy and Alfred had been out there about 20 years before working cattle for previous owner Vernon Smith.

We get to the main ranch road, which once was four miles long. It’s familiar and we stop by Sandy Lane, the big ranch thoroughfare where you could see pastures for miles and flush out wildlife.

We pass by “the county line oak,” the milestone for the separation between Okeechobee and St. Lucie county lines.

As we drive a little more, Buddy and I start talking about the small citrus grove we remembered on the south side of the ranch road. I don’t know whether it was true, but my dad used to say it was planted by Seminoles. Whenever we’d pass by it and fruit was in season, my dad would turn in to find some towering and ancient moss-draped trees that produced some of the sweetest tangerines I ever tasted.

Without a hint of what was happening, both trucks stop in unison, and Buddy, Deroy and I get out and walk south in search of the old grove to find out whether the old trees still were there or had rotted or been bulldozed.

Buddy Mills and Deroy Arnold
Buddy Mills, left, and Deroy Arnold at the site where a citrus grove had reportedly been planted by Seminoles.

After several minutes of foraging through the woods we found no evidence of the grove — our search literally turned up fruitless — but I discovered something else. I realized how connected I was to Buddy and Deroy through our love of Cow Creek and the mutual respect our fathers had for one another.

Though I was only acquaintances with Buddy and Deroy growing up — people I’d see and interact with when we visited the ranch — we had many of the same experiences and memories of Cow Creek. I’m not sure we were just looking for tangerine trees that day. Maybe we were trying to connect to our childhood or even to our departed loved ones.

“We could go anywhere we wanted anytime we wanted,” Buddy says during the search for tangerine trees. “We thought it was going to last forever. But nothing lasts forever. I thank God every day for the memories I’ve got, and as long as I’m alive that’s my forever, on this property right here.”

“Oh yeah,” Deroy interjects, as if in a church service.

In a way, it was a church service. I know my dad considered Cow Creek heaven on Earth and if there was one place his restless spirit might roam around it would be Cow Creek.

Woody Larson, left, and his son, Travis Larson, and their wives are the principals in a corporation that now owns Cow Creek.
Woody Larson, left, and his son, Travis Larson, and their wives are the principals in a corporation that now owns Cow Creek.

SEEING THE ‘HOME PLACE’

A view of the Cow Creek
A view of the Cow Creek home place, heading west, shows various residences and working structures nearly unchanged after decades.

Then we head to the home place, or headquarters. As we arrived I was amazed that, even after nearly 50 years, almost everything was in practically the same condition: the home Frank Raulerson built, the old horse barn, the cow pens, the jeep barns, houses for the ranch hands and the little house Tommy and Jo Ann’s friends, the Wrights, built.

It was as if it had been preserved in time, with much of it still in the same white paint and green trim Tommy used to match his compound in town. The only thing missing was the house in which the Millses lived that had been destroyed by fire.

As we walked around, we realized that even small things hadn’t changed. Even the old cypress tables in the barns were still there and the same pot used for scalding. I go into the old barn halfway expecting to see old Matthews in his spot in the first stall on the left.

The only exterior changes that could be detected were the tin roofs Travis had added to several of the buildings to keep them from deteriorating.

During an interview with Travis, and later in an interview at the ranch with his dad, I happily learn that Travis and his wife, Colleen, are in the process of restoring the home place. Talking to Travis, I realize how much he values the historical nature of the land and the home place.

“The original Cow Creek Ranch … is one of the few pieces of property that you’ll find in Florida that really sums up the way Florida was,” Travis says. “It has the big cypress domes, the pine flatwoods, the oak hammocks also the old tomato grade pastures and a lot of native pastures and big Bahia grass pastures as well as palmetto flats.”

The Larsons share the news that they have received a conservation easement for 3,280 acres of the ranch, on the Okeechobee County side. “It’s going to stay the same and is going to look just like this,” says Travis. And it’s likely the ownership will stay in the same hands. Travis and Colleen have two children interested in agriculture.

Travis Larson raises mostly Brangus cattle at his ranch.
Travis Larson raises mostly Brangus cattle at his ranch.

The easement, a legally binding agreement between a landowner and the state, protects the land from future commercial and residential development and keeps it in agricultural and open space uses, protecting the wildlife habitat. The state is paying the Larsons $5.92 million for the easement for the Okeechobee County side of the property. The easement excludes the 20 acres around the home place. The Larsons also have applied for a conservation easement on the St. Lucie County side.

The Larsons are better known for raising dairy cows rather than beef cattle. Woody Larson’s dad, Louis “Red” Larson, founded Larson Dairy in 1947. His first farm was west of Fort Lauderdale and then in the 1950s he expanded operations to Palm Beach County before making Okeechobee the home base in 1971.

While Larson Dairy continues to operate as an umbrella company for various descendants of Red Larson, Woody and his brother, John, also have separate farms they operate. Woody’s sons, Travis and Jacob, also have separate dairy farms.

Woody expanded to beef cattle in the 1990s when he converted his Dixie Ranch in Okeechobee County from raising dairy heifers to beef cattle. He’s been expanding his beef operations ever since, seeking out leases and purchasing additional pasturelands.

Travis also raises beef cattle, in addition to dairy. In 2011, the father and son were made aware of the lease opportunity for Cow Creek, then owned by former Riverside Bank president Vernon Smith and under the threat of foreclosure. They began leasing 6,800 acres — with about half the acreage on the Okeechobee side and half on the St. Lucie side — and continued to lease the ranch under several subsequent owners until purchasing the property from Sunbreak Farms in 2016 for $22 million.

To swing the deal, the Larsons sold two farms and refinanced other properties.

And while conservation easements typically involve property held by families over multiple generations, Woody says he and Travis purchased the Cow Creek property with the intention of getting it put under a conservation easement. Meanwhile, they had to service a huge mortgage for six years.

“It was a real stretch to be able to acquire the property,’’ Woody says. “But we did it with conservation in mind and wanted to keep it as a ranch.’’

The Larsons acquired the property under the name Cow Creek Ranch Land, a limited liability corporation. The principals are Woody and his wife, Grace, and Travis and his wife, Colleen. Travis runs his cattle at the ranch under the name Cow Creek Cattle LLC.

Travis Larson takes his horse out of the old barn so the two can set off to work cattle on the new version of Cow Creek.
Travis Larson takes his horse out of the old barn so the two can set off to work cattle on the new version of Cow Creek.

Woody has a keen interest in the history of the ranch and shares his discovery of an early 1950s map of St. Lucie County showing the main ranch road as the Old Basinger Road, an indication that the ranch road may have been the main road between Fort Pierce and Basinger, before state roads 70 or 68 were constructed. If so, the road would have gone right through the Cow Creek Ranch headquarters, which would explain why the headquarters is so far away from either of those roads today.

I pretty much conclude that the story of Cow Creek Ranch has a good ending — the historical nature of the headquarters is preserved — and the ranch is in the hands of people with a vision for the future of agriculture.

The Larsons have also restored the name Cow Creek to the ranch, which had undergone several name changes since the days of the Sloans. It was known as the V Bar 2 when Charles Vavrus bought it in 1976 and then the Vernon Smith Ranch under Smith’s ownership. During the Larsons’ purchase of the ranch, Travis persuaded his father to return Cow Creek to the name because of the historical ties and its location on Cow Creek.

UP THE CREEK

Buzzards mark the spot where the cypress-domed Cow Creek once flowed.
Buzzards mark the spot where the cypress-domed Cow Creek once flowed.

After our visit to the home place, at my urging we load back into the trucks and head for the Cow Creek crossing, which Buddy and Deroy assure me will not be the same as I remember. I am riding shotgun with Buddy with Deroy and Alfred in the truck behind.

Driving along, Buddy points to a dike where a barbed wire fence runs alongside it. Buzzards are perched on the fence, an ominous sign.

“That’s it,” Buddy says. “That’s Cow Creek.”

My heart sinks. Where once was the creek crossing — a large swamp with a swath cut through a cathedral of trees — is now merely a dike that you drive over, with culvert pipe carrying the creek underneath.

Buddy explains that Vavrus, who bought Cow Creek from the Sloans in 1976, and his manager, Larry Kesner, had diked the creek and harvested and sold the abundant cypress in its waters.

The creek, which seemed almost as wide as a football field in the rainy season, always had presented an obstacle getting from one side of the ranch to the other and the dike certainly solved that problem. But removing the creek crossing robbed the ranch of its soul and South Florida of one of its most scenic vistas, undoubtedly one held sacred by the Seminoles who lived by the creek.

We park the trucks where the creek once was, get out and start sharing memories again. Deroy, Buddy and Alfred talk about the days of driving cattle through the creek. “I remember this, right here, you could swim your horse across it,” says Alfred, who dropped out of fourth grade in the 1940s to work as a full-time cowboy at Cow Creek.

Cow Creek
Cow Creek as it looks at Adams Ranch after the installation of a weir to manage water levels. ROBBIE ADAMS

The visit was especially heartfelt for Deroy, who was observing his 65th birthday on the date of our return to Cow Creek.

Deroy recalls a day when tin cups were hung from the cypress trees so cowboys could use them to scoop up water from a creek so clear you could drink it. He remembers catching perch out of the creek and frying it up right away.

“This used to be my whole world here,” he says. “This is where I grew up, where I planned on being my whole life. My parents were here over 50, 60 years. When I come back even after all these years it just seems like home.”

We load back into the trucks and head for the main gate on State Road 70. I’m numb. It was an emotional day for all of us, where we had some of our earliest and best memories. Though the creek crossing was gone, we were greatly comforted that many other parts of the ranch had not changed and the news of the conservation easement meant much of the wildlife areas would be protected.

As Buddy is driving across the ranch back to the gate, he tells me how important Cow Creek was to who he is and how it formed him as a man. He recalls the wonderful life his parents gave him there and how Tommy and Jo Ann were important in creating an environment where those connected to the ranch were made to feel like they were stewards of a great cause.

“It was the best of any world that anybody could dream of: the freedom, the beauty, the knowledge you learned from being here,” he says. Then he turns to the many cowboys he learned from and looked up to over the years.

“The No. 1 thing I picked up from all of them was the appreciation they had for the land and the animals,” he says. “The land is important — you didn’t destroy or take from it without giving back or trying to protect it.”

In many ways, Buddy is an advocate for the cowboy way of life. He attended college on a rodeo scholarship and later worked as a day cowboy and rodeo performer. After a stint with the Florida Department of Agriculture, he became an agriculture teacher at Yearling Middle School. He coached rodeo at the middle school as well as at Okeechobee High School.

He says he was never bored as a child growing up on Cow Creek. He and his younger brother Kent always had chores to do such as fences to mend, minerals to put out and cows to check on. Then there were more relaxing pursuits such as fishing, hunting or trapping. “We’d leave in the morning on our bicycles or horses and Momma wouldn’t see us ’til dark,” he says.

When I ask him what the day means to him, he chokes and can’t get any words out. Long silence. He apologizes. No need. The moment reaffirms the hold Cow Creek has had on our lives and how all who experienced this time and place are connected.

BACK TO BLUE MOUNTAIN

As a child, Robbie Adams found this brand from Cow Creek Ranch in Punkin Hammock on Adams Ranch, several miles from Cow Creek.
As a child, Robbie Adams found this brand from Cow Creek Ranch in Punkin Hammock on Adams Ranch, several miles from Cow Creek.

After the visit to Cow Creek, I called my friend Robbie Adams, co-owner of the neighboring Adams Ranch, which in 1976 had bought the Blue Mountain sections of Cow Creek from the Sloans. Anytime I can think of an excuse to go driving around Adams Ranch with Robbie I give him a call. I knew the eastern part of Cow Creek ran through the property the Adamses had purchased, so I asked him if we could take a ride to Blue Mountain.

I meet him at the ranch office early one morning and his brother, Mike Adams, president of Adams Ranch, is there. I ask Mike about the vitality of Cow Creek and its relationship to ranches in the region.

Mike tells me the problems diking the creek caused during the Vavrus years. The dike broke during heavy rains in 1991, putting part of Adams Ranch under water.

“It probably helped them harvest all that cypress by holding that water back,’’ Adams says. “If you look at the creek at their dam, all the cypress to the west has died out. It doesn’t look anything like it should.”

Mike says Cow Creek extends for 6 miles, originating west of the old Cow Creek Ranch and running east through Adams Ranch. The creek’s water, he says, comes from the seepage of a sand ridge rather than from a spring. The constant seepage allowed the cypress to grow in and around the creek. “It’s great habitat for a lot of birds and animals,” he says.

He has been working with the South Florida Water Management District to improve water flow at the creek. For example, a weir was recently installed at the creek at Adams Ranch to hold back water when needed, he says.

The water flow is essential to the health of cypress trees, sensitive to both too much water and too little, that grow in and along the creek.

Where Cow Creek was a natural free-flowing waterway going through only a few ranches, today it travels through multiple ranches with each owner having his own approach to managing the creek.

Mike says properly managing the creek’s flow could also reduce the amount of water that runs into the C-25 Canal, which discharges into Taylor Creek and the Indian River, and the C-24 Canal, which empties into the St. Lucie River.

After talking to Mike, Robbie and I head for Blue Mountain, one of the prettiest parts of the old Cow Creek Ranch and one of my dad’s favorite spots to hunt. We drive his truck off road and come upon Cow Creek. It’s relatively dry and in some places the creek bed is just a swampy area with a trickle. But the cypress are abundant, in contrast to the lack of cypress where the creek had been diked.

A narrower section of Cow Creek
A narrower section of Cow Creek shows how the flow of water and the personality of the creek itself change along its length. MIKE ADAMS

Blue Mountain is no mountain but an illusion. It’s actually a large stand of cypress trees that look like a blue mountain in the mist. Seminoles had once lived at the site, the last evidence being the base of a wrought iron sewing machine in a raised area before the land gets swampy. Robbie points to an area of raised elevation at the edge of the swamp that had been built up by the Seminoles and where sour citrus trees, used for cooking by the Seminoles, still grow on the edge of the swamp.

As a child seeing the sewing machine, I could visualize Seminole women making garments and ponder what life must have been like living on the edge of the swamp. In reconnecting with the children of Cow Creek cowboys, it was amazing to me how many remembered the sewing machine and spoke of the images it conjured up for them as well.

Robbie says shards and glass bottles have been discovered at the site. The Seminoles have a long association with Cow Creek. Members of Fort Pierce’s Seminole Tommie family say their family lived along the creek, including family matriarch Sally Tommie.

A 1930 article in the Fort Pierce Tribune makes the Seminole connection to Cow Creek, noting that a “party of some twenty-five Seminole Indians from their camp on Cow Creek, several miles west of the city, has been in the city for several days.” In a 2007 interview with Jo Ann Sloan for a story on the Tommie family, Jo Ann told me that she could recall Seminoles living on the ranch in the 1930s and ’40s.

Adams Ranch patriarch Bud Adams saw the sewing machine shortly after Adams Ranch purchased Blue Mountain in 1976. In a separate visit to Blue Mountain Robbie also saw it and hid it in the brush, fearful it might be taken.

Robbie had never told his dad he had hidden the sewing machine, so Bud considered it lost or taken when he went by to check on it again. But years later, when the subject came up, Robbie told his dad he had hidden it. It took Robbie a while to find where he had hidden it, but he eventually located it in a palmetto brush and brought it back to the ranch headquarters, where it is displayed in the ranch museum today.

Gregory Enns with Kathy Sloan Blanton, left, and Debra Sloan
Cow Creek Chronicles author Gregory Enns with Kathy Sloan Blanton, left, and Debra Sloan during a visit to Tellico last April. The Tellico farmhouse is in the background. GRETCHEN ENNS

BOUND FOR CAROLINA

After having visited many sites on the Treasure Coast for the Cow Creek Chronicles, I felt I needed to visit North Carolina and see Kathy and Debra in person. My parents and siblings and I had visited Jo Ann at Tellico several times in my youth, including one overnight stay.

My wife, Gretchen, and I make an annual trek to New England, so on our way up last year we stopped in Franklin to visit Debra and Kathy, whom I hadn’t seen in 50 years. Debra drives up to our hotel in her Kia. After hugs, we load up in the car and head for Tellico, with me riding shotgun, and Gretchen and Kathy in the back seat. Conversation flows easily as if we’d been keeping up with each other for years.

We travel down a dusty road to arrive at the 1870 Tellico farmhouse that once served as a post office and general store and was lovingly restored by Jo Ann. The Tellico farmhouse was also the place where for more than a decade Jo Ann, with the help of Debra, raised Kathy’s four daughters during a time of Kathy’s drug use.

Kathy eventually moved to North Carolina and reconciled with her family and healed the strained relations with them. During our ride, it’s apparent that Debra and Kathy remain close despite their differences and experiences. Sometimes when addressing Kathy, Debra calls her Lou, after her middle name. Born Kathryn Louise Sloan, Kathy acquired her middle name in honor of her great grandmother, Annie Louise.

“Simpatico,” Kathy says, describing her relationship with Debra in recent years.

Where once the line of Frank Raulerson was at risk of extinction, with Jo Ann the only survivor, Kathy made the family flourish. Kathy’s daughters gave Jo Ann 10 great-grandchildren and 8 great-great grandchildren.

After walking around the Tellico farmhouse, Kathy and Debra take us over to an old white oak tree said to be the largest in North Carolina and where Cherokee were reported to meet for counsel. Kathy encourages us to get close to the trunk where we can get the best view looking up to the tree. She sits down on a rock slab, as if taking the energy from it. She talks about the crucifix that can be seen in a white dogwood flower. It makes me think of how, spiritually, she’s connected to the land, a connection that probably began at Cow Creek.

We drive down along the creek to see the raceways, where trout of various sizes are kept in concrete containment areas, with the largest fish at the top of the creek and the smaller ones at the bottom. It’s an impressive operation. Most of the fish are sold to stock recreational ponds in the region, but the operation also has a small pond at the bottom of the property where tourists can fish for a fee during summer.

Debra started the fee-fishing when she managed the farm as a way to bring in extra revenue. Debra, who counsels entrepreneurs such as aqua farmers in her job with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, talks about how farmers can often improve their revenue through agri-tourism.

It makes me realize that her own experiences — as manager of the trout farm and watching her father’s various ventures fizzle out — help her in her job of counseling farmers. She says her father had vision but lacked the business skills needed to make an enterprise successful. The availability of Jo Ann’s inheritance didn’t force him to live within a budget and eventually he depleted their assets entirely, she says.

“I don’t believe Mother knew the money train was about to crash,” Debra says. “TL, on the other hand, knew he was digging a hole deeper than he could get out of. That’s why we lost the ranch and sold the grove.”

I observe that Kathy had many of Jo Ann’s qualities while Debra was more like her father, charming and analytical. Debra is not necessarily flattered. Though it’s been more than a quarter-century since her father died, Debra still is resentful toward him because of what her mother endured and how she had to live the final years of her life penniless after her husband went through an estimated $11 million estate.

The final lost asset was the 220-acre Tellico farm and farmhouse, which was sold in the 1990s in a break-even deal that paid off Jo Ann’s debts but yielded no money to sustain her in retirement. In the transaction, Debra got to keep the 10 acres of Tellico where she was living and had built a house after paying off the mortgage.

Atlanta businessman Michael Macke bought the farm from Jo Ann for $660,000 and Macke continues to own it. “I’m glad Mike owns Tellico because he loves it as much as I do,” Debra says.

To visit her house, Debra takes us up a winding drive to a spot overlooking the valley. We take a short walk around her house and she tells us she once raised goats on the property and also tried her hand at raising koi.

Later, sitting on her porch, she offers to pull out some moonshine that she says she only drinks on special occasions. We each take a shot and toast our mothers, the birthday twins, Jo Ann Raulerson Sloan and Catherine Duster Enns, the women who brought us together.

Kathy Sloan
Kathy Sloan Blanton sits on a rock at the Tellico farm last April. She died Oct. 11 while ‘The Cow Creek Chronicles’ series was being published.

WHY?

In our conversation that day visiting Kathy and Debra and in several subsequent phone conversations, Debra asks me, “Why do you think Aunt Katie wanted you to write the story?”

I didn’t have a good answer. At first I think I told her, “Because she thought it was a good story.”

But knowing what a romantic my mother was and having all those conversations with Jo Ann over the years, I think she was amazed that Jo Ann stayed in love with Tommy until her death despite his betrayals and the loss of her fortune.

It was an unusual love story because it involved a litany of losses for Jo Ann, the loss of her parents at an early age, the loss of her husband’s fidelity, the loss of her beloved Cow Creek and the loss of Tellico.

I think my mom was also impressed that, as unconventional as it was, Jo Ann lived life on her own terms and always with the utmost grace.

“My mother lived her life with such grace, no matter what happened to her,” Debra says. “She was pretty amazing. I don’t think other people could do what she did.”

Like Jo Ann, Tommy also lived life on his own terms. Though flawed, Tommy was charismatic and was good at enlisting people and making them believe in his causes.

And while he seemed to grow apart from Kathy and Debra in his later years, he developed a strong bond with two of Diane’s children, Robin and Darren, who considered him a father and credit him with many of their important life lessons.

When I started the Cow Creek Chronicles, I wondered whether Jo Ann, emotionally vulnerable because of her upbringing, was victimized by Tommy. But my research revealed that Jo Ann was always in majority control of their assets. The Cow Creek Ranch sale in 1976 showed Jo Ann with a 77 percent share of the ranch and Tommy with a 22 percent share, and Debra says the arrangement was similar with other assets, including the property in North Carolina.

I don’t think Jo Ann ever thought of herself as a victim. She was a strong woman who had the control of the family assets at her fingertips. She trusted her husband to handle the finances and that trust was misplaced.

“She always had majority control on paper in any kind of business matter, but she didn’t actively make the decisions, which was her downfall,” Debra says

The children of the Cow Creek cowboys I interviewed had a special place in their heart for both Tommy and Jo Ann.

Almost everybody remembered how much Jo Ann loved to go squirrel hunting and what a great shot she was with a rifle, the smell of Tommy’s cigars, the sewing machine at Blue Mountain, the tangerine trees in the old Seminole grove and the crossing at Cow Creek.

Those shared memories and our mutual love for Cow Creek Ranch bonded us and brought us back to a special place and time. “It’s occasions like your Cow Creek Chronicles that lift up those who lived the Cow Creek days,” Debra wrote me as I was finishing this story. “The only thing we can do now is to celebrate what Cow Creek has given us and how it has made our lives richer.”

Though Tommy and Jo Ann’s story is unusual, the story of Cow Creek Ranch isn’t unique. I suspect that there are hundreds of ranches across the Florida landscape where hard-working people are living out lives of authenticity like those at Cow Creek. They are close to the land, close to nature and close to the Creator.

The only difference between Cow Creek and the other ranches is that what transpired at Cow Creek has been documented, first with my dad’s stories and columns about Cow Creek going back to the early 1960s, then with the Discovery feature on ABC television in 1968 and now with the Cow Creek Chronicles series.

Over these past few months, I often questioned whether I was making too much of the story. Was it really worth writing about?

But in the end, I realized I was witness to a remarkable place and time and people who should be remembered.

THE PEOPLE OF COW CREEK RANCH

Here are some – not all – of the people who passed through the gates of Cow Creek Ranch from 1923 to 1976. If you would like to add your biography to the list, email your experiences to cowcreek@indianrivermag.com

Frank Raulerson
Frank Raulerson

Founder Frank Raulerson began purchasing parcels that would become Cow Creek Ranch in 1923. A former state senator and longtime member of the state’s Livestock Sanitary Board, he made the 23,000-acre Cow Creek Ranch on the St. Lucie/Okeechobee county line his home ranch. He owned two other ranches, Dixie Ranch and Taylor Creek Ranch, of similar size as well as a smaller ranch in Fellsmere. He sold all except Cow Creek before his death at the age of 80 in 1954. His wife, Annie Louise Raulerson, had died in 1951 at the age of 71, and he left his entire estate to his granddaughter, Jo Ann Raulerson Sloan.

Thomas Leighton “Tommy’’ Sloan and Jo Ann Sloan
Thomas Leighton “Tommy’’ Sloan and Jo Ann Sloan

Jo Ann Raulerson Sloan was raised by her grandparents, Frank and Annie Louise Raulerson, after the death of her father, Alfred Keightley Raulerson, in a boating accident in 1938. She married Thomas Leighton “Tommy’’ Sloan in 1952 and they had two daughters, Kathy and Debra. Jo Ann inherited Cow Creek Ranch and an estate valued at at least $5 million when her grandfather died in 1954. Tommy and Jo Ann took over the ranch, modernizing the vaccination and dipping of cattle against diseases and by the late 1960s were hailed as model ranchers and featured on the ABC television show Discovery. Tommy became president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association and Jo Ann was president of the auxiliary organization, the Florida Cowbelles. The Sloans sold the home ranch sections of Cow Creek in 1976 and their grove in 1981. They sold their North Carolina farm in the 1990s. Tommy Sloan died in Fort Pierce Nov. 10, 1996, at the age of 64. Jo Ann spent the last five years of her life in a nursing home in Franklin, North Carolina, where she died in Dec. 22, 2020, at the age of 90.

Kathy and Debra Sloan
Kathy and Debra Sloan

Kathy Sloan Blanton was the oldest daughter of TL and Jo Ann Sloan. She learned to ride horses and herd cattle at an early age. She died Oct. 11, 2022, at the age of 68 as the Cow Creek Chronicles series was being published. She was survived by four daughters, 10 grandchildren and 8 great-grandchildren. “Kathy was always the wild child,’’ her obituary read. “She lived life on her terms.’’ It also noted that she was preceded in death by her husband, Steve Blanton, but was survived by three previous husbands: John Edgar, Thomas Summerlin, and Joel Burman.

Debra Sloan is the younger daughter of TL and Jo Ann Sloan. Like her sister, Debra learned to ride horses and herd cattle at an early age. She attended the Bartram School in Jacksonville and later graduated from Western Carolina University. She managed her family’s Tellico Trout Farm in the 1990s. A past president of the U.S. Trout Farmers Association, she has been an agri-business and aquaculture specialist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for 28 years. She lives in Tellico outside Franklin, North Carolina.

 

Diane Robertson
Diane Robertson

Diane Robertson was married to Cow Creek cowboy Don Robertson and was secretary at the Cow Creek corporate office and later financial manager. She divorced Robertson in 1970 and was in a relationship with Tommy Sloan until his death in 1996. She married Robert Orme in 2003. He died in 2005. Town clerk of St. Lucie Village for 24 years, she died in 2018 at the age of 81.

John Norman
John Norman

John Norman worked for Frank Raulerson as a young man going back to the early decades of the 20th century. He helped establish Cow Creek, where he served as foreman until the early 1950s. Norman died in 1993 at the age of 101. Two of Norman’s sons followed him in the cattle business. Ephraim died in 2016 at the age of 88. Son Alfred, 86, longtime foreman at Triple S Ranch in Okeechobee, is retired and lives on Triple S. Daughter Stella Rowland lives in Avon Park and daughters Bertice Harper and Josephine Bennett live in Okeechobee.

 

 

Will’um Thomas and Curtis Arnold
Will’um Thomas and Curtis Arnold

Cowboy Curtis Arnold worked at Cow Creek for 30 years, becoming manager of its grove operation. When the grove was sold in 1981 to a company controlled by Bernard Egan, Curtis continued to work for Egan and live at the grove until his retirement in 2008. A mentor to many of the sons of the Cow Creek cowboys, Curtis died in 2013 at the age of 82. His wife, Vena “Vee’’ Arnold, died in 2014 at the age of 80. They are the parents of Deroy Arnold, current foreman of Triple S Ranch in Okeechobee County and a former foreman and longtime cowboy at Williamson Cattle Co.

William Penn “Will’um’’ Thomas, one of the most colorful cowboys at Cow Creek, worked at the ranch for Frank Raulerson from the late 1940s. When Raulerson died, he worked for TL and Jo Ann Sloan until their last Cow Creek parcel was sold in 1981. He continued to work for Bernard Egan & Co. until about 2000. Will’um died in 2003 at the age of 79. Wife, Arizona “Punk’’ Thomas, died in 2015 at the age of 87, just four months after her sister, Vena “Vee’’ Arnold, died.

Don Robertson
Don Robertson

After receiving an agriculture degree at Texas Christian University, Don Robertson worked as a cowboy at Cow Creek, living at the ranch with his wife and three children. After leaving Cow Creek, he worked with King Ranch in Texas and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, retiring as director of natural resources for cattle programs. A 50-year resident of Okeechobee, he died in 2014 at the age of 78.

 

 

 

Donnie Robertson
Donnie Robertson

Diane and Don Robertson had three children, with two of the boys working at the old Cow Creek grove. Donnie Robertson lives in Texas and is a certified ultrasound technician whose business uses ultrasound to measure potential beef quality in cattle.

Darren Robertson
Darren Robertson

Robin Robertson Longstreet
Robin Robertson Longstreet

Darren Robertson is logistics manager for Guettler Brothers Construction in Fort Pierce. Their sister, Robin Robertson Longstreet, is a real estate agent for McCurdy & Co. in Fort Pierce and is the owner of Island Pet Services. She and husband, J.L. Longstreet, are the former owners of the popular Ramp Raw Bar in Fort Pierce.

William Thomas ‘Tee’ Sloan
William Thomas ‘Tee’ Sloan

William Thomas “Tee’’ Sloan was the son of TL “Tommy’’ Sloan. He died of COVID-19 in 2021 at the age of 58.

Joan and Earl Story
Joan and Earl Story

Cowboy Earl Story worked at Cow Creek from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s. After leaving Cow Creek, he was a tractor operator for Agri-gators. He died in 2011 at the age of 70. Wife, Joan Story, died in 1998 at the age of 57. They were the parents of three children. Son Mordie Story and daughter Nancy Sparkman live in Okeechobee. Son Earl Story Jr., who was mentally disabled and one of the best-loved children at Cow Creek, died in 2018 at the age of 54.

Ethel Arnold Durden
Ethel Arnold Durden

Aubrey Arnold worked at Cow Creek from the late 1950s and was foreman when he left the ranch in the late 1960s. Wife, Ethel, was a cook at the ranch in those years. They divorced in 1974. Aubrey died in 1984 at the age of 54. Ethel remarried and was a longtime tractor driver for Osceola County. Their son, Steve Arnold, followed his dad into the cowboy life and has worked at Perry Smith and Sons farms of Okeechobee for the past 37 years. Daughter Patty Boney lives in Okeechobee.

Betty and Junior Mills
Betty and Junior Mills

Kent Mills
Kent Mills

George Harrison “Junior’’ Mills worked as a cowboy at Cow Creek from 1970 until it was sold in 1976 and continued working for the new owner Charles Vavrus one more year. He continued working as a day cowboy into his 80s. His wife, Betty Mills, known as “Miss Betty,’’ was a cook at Cow Creek during the same period. After leaving Cow Creek, she returned to school and became a licensed practical nurse, working at Raulerson Hospital and later the Okeechobee County Jail. Junior died in 2006 at the age of 87 and Betty died in 2012 at the age of 85. Their son, Buddy Mills, followed his father into the cowboy life, working as a day cowboy in his early years and competing in rodeo events. He worked for the Florida Department of Agriculture and later was an agriculture teacher for 21 years at Yearling Middle School in Okeechobee and rodeo coach for the middle school and high school. He lives in Okeechobee County. Brother Kent Mills also followed his father into the cowboy life, working as a cowboy at Arrow B Ranch in Highlands County from 1979 to 1980. Trained to operate heavy equipment under Cow Creek grove manager Curtis Arnold at the Cow Creek grove, Kent began working as a heavy equipment operator with the South Florida Water Management District, retiring in 2014. He now runs a u-pick farm in Oxford, Florida. Junior and Betty’s daughters, Marge Chandler and Marty Mills, live in Okeechobee, and daughter Cheryl Woodson lives in French Camp, Mississippi. Daughter Ernestine Caldwell of Reedsville, Georgia, died last summer in a car crash.

Howard ‘Sport’ Pickering Jr.
Howard ‘Sport’ Pickering Jr.

Cowboy Howard Pickering Sr. and his family lived at Cow Creek from 1960 to 1965. Pickering’s father-in-law, Sherrod Evers, owned and operated two sawmills at Cow Creek. Howard Pickering Sr.’s son, Howard “Sport” Pickering Jr., was a summer cowboy at Cow Creek and later worked at the successor ranch, V Bar 2, as a day cowboy. He now is a detective for the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office. Howard Pickering Sr., who also worked at the Okeechobee Sheriff’s Office, died in 1987 at the age of 50. Besides Sport Pickering, two more of Howard Pickering’s sons also work in law enforcement: James Pickering is a detective for the Okeechobee City Police Department and Kenneth Pickering, who also worked for V Bar 2 Ranch, now works part time for the Martin County Sheriff’s Office after retiring as a lieutenant with 35 years of service. Howard Pickering Sr.’s wife, Phyllis Story, lives in Okeechobee.

Jimmy Percy
Jimmy Percy

Jamie Percy
Jamie Percy

Jimmy Percy started working as a summer cowboy at Cow Creek in high school in the 1960s. After attending the University of Florida, he returned to Cow Creek and became its general manager until the final sale of the ranch property in 1981. After Cow Creek, he was fresh fruit manager at Ocean Spray in Vero Beach, general manager of the Winter Haven Growers Association, and later a real estate agent with Mark Walters & Co. He died in 2009 at the age of 61. His wife of 39 years and high school sweetheart, Julie, died in 2006. Their sons, Jamie and Jason Percy, are Marine Corps veterans. Jamie is owner of J.S. Percy & Associates LLC Home Inspection and Renovation Group in Port St. Lucie and Jason is operations manager for Reliance Orthopedics in Nashville, Tennessee.

William ‘Bud’ Hallman
William ‘Bud’ Hallman

William “Bud’’ Hallman was raised in Palm Beach County and as a young boy worked at his grandfather’s Red Cattle Ranch. Wanting to strike out on his own, he worked as a summer cowboy at Cow Creek in 1970 and 1971. While working as a day cowboy at Circle H Ranch, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Nova Southeastern University. After attending law school at Nova, he worked as an assistant state attorney in the 5th Judicial Circuit and later in private practice before being appointed by former Gov. Jeb Bush as a judge in the 5th Judicial Circuit, where he served from 2003 to 2021. Now retired, he has his own herd in Sumter County. Throughout his legal and judicial career, he competed in rodeos and is a two-time Florida state champion steer wrestler. At age 69, he still competes in rodeo steer wrestling competitions.

Sally and Dr. Jack Wright
Sally and Dr. Jack Wright

West Palm Beach psychiatrist Jack Wright and wife, Sally, had a small house at the Cow Creek home place in the 1970s next to their friends, Tommy and Jo Ann Sloan. The Wrights would visit and hunt during the weekends, traveling from their home in Palm Beach County. A World War II veteran, Wright died in 2011 at the age of 89, just three months after his wife of 56 years.

Katie and Bob Enns
Katie and Bob Enns

Bob Enns began working as a volunteer cowboy at Cow Creek in the early 1960s on his off days as editor of the Fort Pierce News-Tribune and soon began writing about ranch life in stories and his column, On the Level. He had a camp on the grove side of the ranch until the grove was sold in 1981. At the invitation of Bud Adams, Bob moved his camp to Punkin Hammock on Adams Ranch after the sale. Bob died in 1990 at the age of 63 and his ashes were spread at Punkin Hammock. His wife, Katie, Jo Ann Sloan’s birthday twin, died in 2021 at the age of 90. Bob and Katie were the parents of eight children, including Gregory, author of the Cow Creek Chronicles series and publisher of Indian River Magazine.

Jan. 2023

HEAR THE COW CREEK CHRONICLES PODCAST

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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

Financial problems persist for TL and Jo Ann Sloan even after they sell their beloved Cow Creek Ranch.

Part 5

The conclusion: Cow Creek Chronicles writer Gregory Enns shares his journey in reporting the series and visits Cow Creek and Tellico while also catching up with descendants of the Cow Creek cowboys.

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