Not Our First Rodeo

Lots of people associate the idea of a rodeo with the American West – Texas, Oklahoma, someplace dusty, hot, and dotted with cacti. And while rodeo is most certainly a big hit out west, it has deep roots here in the Sunshine State as well. Florida, after all, has been home to a thriving cattle industry for centuries. Native Americans and the Spanish were raising cows as early as the 1500s, long before organized ranching arrived in what would become known as the American West. As new settlers arrived and the era of Spanish ownership came to an end, the herds remained, changed hands many times, and continued to serve as a valuable source of food and trade.

Drawing of the

Drawing of the “cow ford” that eventually became the site of Jacksonville. This particular section of the St. Johns River was used for the purpose of fording cattle as far back as the late 18th century (drawing circa 1800s).

Rodeo developed partly out of the practical needs of a farm or cattle ranch, and partly because the tasks involved naturally lend themselves to competition and spectacle. Roping, herding, and branding cattle, breaking wild horses, and overall dexterity in the saddle were all basic needs of even the earliest cattle ranch hands. The events of modern rodeos are closely related to these traditional skills.

A man prepares to lasso a calf at the rodeo in Lakeland. Capturing cattle to brand and sort them was a vital part of the industry (photo 1950).

A man prepares to lasso a calf at the rodeo in Lakeland. Capturing cattle to brand and sort them was a vital part of the industry (photo 1950).

A cowboy struggles to keep his balance as he rides atop a wild horse at the rodeo in Bonifay (1950).

A cowboy struggles to keep his balance as he rides atop a wild horse at the rodeo in Bonifay (1950).

Aside from serving as a demonstration of skill, rodeos have a strong social element that brings together communities like few other traditions can do. In cities and towns where the surrounding region is highly involved in the cattle industry, rodeos are held frequently, and are designed for the entire family to enjoy. Floridians as far south as Homestead and as far north as Bonifay have special annual rodeos with a lengthy past. The Arcadia All-Florida Championship Rodeo, for example, originated in 1928 when the local American Legion post was looking for a fundraiser for a new building. Post officials invited all the local families, including the Seminoles located nearby, to attend a rodeo and parade to raise money for their cause. A band from Wauchula provided music, and even Governor Doyle Carlton rode in the procession. The first rodeo was a smashing success, and even with the arrival of the Great Depression, the people of Arcadia kept up the tradition of holding rodeo events each year. It still continues today.

Rodeo parade in Arcadia (1969).

Rodeo parade in Arcadia (1969).

Riders carry flags around the arena at Arcadia (1971).

Riders carry flags around the arena at Arcadia (1971).

One of rodeo’s most admirable aspects is its inclusiveness. While the crowd may roar at the spectacle of an adult rider using every ounce of strength to stay atop a bucking bull, there’s just as much enthusiasm for the large number of events held especially for the kids. From rodeo’s earliest days, children have been earnest competitors, demonstrating their horsemanship, roping skills, and overall athleticism in a variety of ways. Older kids with a little more size and experience may compete in junior versions of the same events as adults, while a few events are just for the small fry. At Arcadia, for example, youngsters can participate in the “calf scramble” and “mutton bustin’” challenges. In the calf scramble, an entire army of kids are unleashed on the arena where calves adorned with bandannas have been placed. Those participants who successfully chase down a calf and remove its bandanna are declared the winners. In the mutton scramble, young riders hold onto the backs of sheep as they scurry about the arena. Whoever stays on the longest wins.

Patty Blackmon and her horse Buck near Ocala (1948).

Patty Blackmon and her horse Buck near Ocala (1948).

A young man participates in a

A young man participates in a “calf scramble” at a rodeo in Lakeland. This version of the calf scramble had an interesting twist. If a participant could catch the calf and get him over the finish line, he got to keep it (1947).

These are just a few of the hundreds of images in the Florida Photographic Collection pertaining to the rodeo. Is there a rodeo event near your community? Tell us about your favorite rodeo experiences by leaving a comment below. And don’t forget to share this post on Facebook!

Bob Cobb, a rancher and 30-year rodeo veteran, tries to talk Patrolman H.M. Whitworth out of a ticket for illegally parking his 3-year-old Brahman steer in Ocala (1948).

Bob Cobb, a rancher and 30-year rodeo veteran, tries to talk Patrolman H.M. Whitworth out of a ticket for illegally parking his 3-year-old Brahman steer in Ocala (1948).

Please Pass the Rattlesnake

The diamondback rattlesnake doesn’t exactly enjoy the best reputation among Florida’s wildlife. Generations of Floridians and visitors have been warned of the potentially deadly consequences of its bite, and as a result this venomous reptile is seldom a welcome sight when spotted.

A diamondback rattlesnake in Cedar Key, Florida (2001).

A diamondback rattlesnake in Cedar Key, Florida (2001).

That being said, rattlesnakes have also been a subject of great curiosity, when viewed from a safe distance at least. Eager entrepreneurs have tried in a number of ways to tap into this cautious enthusiasm over the years, including reptile shows, theme parks, reptile-skin gifts and clothing, and even by offering reptile meat as a food item.

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, who founded the Floridian Products Corporation (circa 1930s).

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, who founded the Floridian Products Corporation (circa 1930s).

George Kenneth End of Arcadia, Florida was one such businessman who made a living selling rattlesnakes in any way he could. Around 1930, he was helping his two young sons skin a rattlesnake they had just killed when the idea suddenly struck him to try cooking the meat to see what it would taste like. End found the meat tender and the flavor good, and he began experimenting with it to see how it could best be prepared as a marketable product.

An advertisement for the Floridian Products Corporation, showing a list of prices for its various products (1933).

An advertisement for the Floridian Products Corporation, showing a list of its various products (1933).

The result was the Floridian Products Corporation, Rattlesnake Division. End began selling every part of the snake that might capture the whimsy of a customer, from the skin to the rattles, the fangs, oil made from snake fat, and even live snakes themselves. Among the most popular products was End’s “Genuine Diamondback Rattlesnake with Supreme Sauce,” a canned portion of rattlesnake meat prepared with a sauce of meat stock, mushrooms, and heavy cream. Advertisements recommended serving the meat in pastry shells or on thin slices of toast as an appetizer for cocktails. End and his associates promoted the meat as a delicacy, and encouraged customers to “be the first in your neighborhood to give a rattlesnake dinner.”

A can of George End's famous rattlesnake in supreme sauce (circa 1930s).

A can of George End’s famous rattlesnake in supreme sauce (circa 1930s).

End’s bid for greatness as Florida’s main purveyor of rattlesnake products was successful. He first set up a factory for processing the rattlesnakes in Arcadia, not far from Florida’s Gulf Coast near Port Charlotte and Sarasota. The surrounding territory was largely undeveloped and full of scrub palmetto and other heavy growth, which made it ideal hunting grounds for the snake hunters who captured rattlesnakes to bring to End for processing. Later, as business picked up, End moved his main operation to Tampa, where he established his own “Rattlesnake Cannery and Emporium” in a two-story building at the corner of Bridge Street and Gandy Boulevard. In addition to processing the snakes, he also put on shows for visitors, who gasped in amazement as he and his associates handled the live rattlers and “milked” them to obtain the venom for medical purposes. End even managed to obtain permission to operate a post office at the site, naturally called “Rattlesnake.” Tourists were only too happy to send mail from this location, since it bore the unique “Rattlesnake, Fla.” postmark.

The original headquarters of the Floridian Products Corporation in Arcadia. Pictured out front are representatives of Elks Magazine, who were on their annual goodwill tour around the United States (circa 1933).

The original headquarters of the Floridian Products Corporation in Arcadia. Pictured out front are representatives of Elks Magazine, who were on their annual goodwill tour around the United States (circa 1933).

End’s success stemmed in part from the novelty and allure of his product, but his skills as a promoter were none too shabby. In addition to his “Rattlesnake” post office and attractive stop-over for tourists, he also at times took to the road to promote his products. Anyone who partook of a rattlesnake meal was furthermore entitled to membership in one of End’s reptile-related “clubs,” and would receive a membership card with their order. No doubt many a tourist left Florida proudly credentialed as a member of the “Reptile Science League,” the “Ancient Epicurean Order of Rattling Reptile Revelers,” or the “Subtle Society of Snake Snackers.”

A membership card for George K. End's "Rattling Reptile Revelers," obtainable with the purchase of a can of End's rattlesnake with supreme sauce. This card was found in the collection of longtime Florida folklorist Stetson Kennedy at the State Archives of Florida (circa 1933).

A membership card for George K. End’s “Rattling Reptile Revelers,” obtainable with the purchase of a can of End’s rattlesnake with supreme sauce. This card was found in the collection of longtime Florida folklorist Stetson Kennedy at the State Archives of Florida (circa 1933).

As the shadow of World War II emerged on the horizon at the start of the 1940s, George End was threatened with the loss of his most vital helpers in the rattlesnake industry, the young men of soldiering age who went out and actually caught the snakes. Unfazed, he reputedly claimed that Rattlesnake, Florida would “go on to bigger things and better things, in spite of hell, Hitler, and high water.”

He was almost right. On July 27, 1944, End was working with a six-foot rattler that had just arrived at his headquarters when the snake struck at his right hand between his thumb and forefinger. For all the time George End had spent working with deadly rattlesnakes, he had never in his life been snakebitten before, but once was enough. He administered anti-venom to himself, but it was ineffective. He died in a matter of hours.

The Rattlesnake, Fla. post office and the emporium at Bridge Street and Gandy Boulevard closed down eventually, and End’s rattlesnake empire began to fade into memory. Mrs. End sold the cannery equipment along with its patents and formulas to herpetologist Ross Allen, whose Reptile Institute at Silver Springs, Florida served as both a tourist attraction and a site for anti-venom research.

Ross Allen milking a rattlesnake for its venom, which could then be used to create anti-venom and conduct research (circa 1940s).

Ross Allen milking a rattlesnake for its venom, which could then be used to create anti-venom and conduct research (circa 1940s).

George End’s rattlesnake attraction was one of a multitude of Florida tourist spots whose peculiar nature and humble origins make them treasures of the history of the Sunshine State. What kinds of tourist attractions do you remember from Florida’s past? Did any of them have to do with snakes or other reptiles? Post a comment below and share your story!