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News Section: Community

Discovering Old Florida through Dry Creek TV Series set in Parrish

Published Saturday, August 14, 2010 3:00 am

Les on the set of Dry Creek
PARRISH -- There is a saying that it is easier to get an actor to be a cowboy than a cowboy to be an actor. The statement may hold true, but it didn’t stop Les McDowell from starting his own TV series in Parrish featuring real-life cattleman as performers.

“The American cowboy is revered world-wide. I don't like to use actor-actors, I like to use real people and real cowboys. The men here today have done it all. They are ranchers and they're playing themselves -- John Wayne always used to say that he played himself -- and when they play themselves you can really get a point across. The character comes to life because it is you,” said Les.

“I’m the only person you’ll ever meet that’s been told to get on his horse and ride out of town by present-day law enforcement,” said Bunky Hall, part-time actor and real-time cowboy.

Cowhunters gather at Shaw's Point

Photo: Manatee County Historical Archives

McDowell wanted to return to a simpler time. After getting fired from his country radio show career at Clear Channel, he made his property into his own historic town and named it Dry Creek. The show features the Florida crackers (hunters that cracked a whip to round up their cattle) of the 19th-century. After building the set, he called his roping, horse-riding amigos to come on down to cattle town and they took to acting like a horse takes to oats.

“I want to get back to the basics of your word is your bond -- get back to the principles we all grew up with without being preachy or anything. Back then, they had the same problems we are facing now,” said Les.

McDowells’s self-described "fluff western" emphasizes Florida history but incorporates modern problems of the townspeople while highlighting lessons as simple as the golden rule. The target audience is 50 plus -- an era that can relate to wholesome shows like the Lone Ranger. Though the village is fictional, the set is nostalgic of Manatee County way back when.

“The West at this time had the romance – pictures were plentiful, articles and books were written of their great trail drives, cattle wars, fence cuttings, cattle Kings and longhorns. Songs were sung about their cowboys. Florida had all those things but little was ever written about it and not a song was composed,” said Joe G. Warner in his book "Biscuits and Taters, a History of Cattle Ranching in Manatee County."

On the set of Dry Creek

One can hardly picture a time when there were no fences to go around or properties to trespass -- ranches were free range and cowmen rounded wild piney-wood cattle that were decendents of the longhorns brought over by Ponce de Leon in 1521. Florida farmers kept track of the cows by brands -- In Manatee County alone there were 1036 recorded. The original horseman only had one saddlepony for these epic hunts.

They would direct the clannish livestock and drive them to a pen or loading dock. Steers were sold from four to 10 years of age or more. It took age to produce size and since it cost nothing to raise the animal (it lived off the of swamp cabbage and nut grass), time was unimportant.

“People think the west happened out west, but there was a west here in Florida. This could very well be Parrish Florida in the 1880’s, said Les McDowell.

In fact, just a few miles down the road from Les’s 40-acre-ranch was one of the more popular cattle-crossings on the Manatee River.

Cattle round-up near Parrish

Photo: Manatee County Histoical Archives


Parrish was named after Crawford Parrish who was a famous cattleman. He owned a lead ox that would go with them on hunts and take the lead in the round-up.  He was such a good guide that when the ox got too old to swim across the Manatee River, Parish built him a raft to stand on while they transported the lowing beast across—the herd still following his calls.

Most settlers lived off of wild hog, rather than cow. Since there was no refrigeration, a newly slaughtered pig was divided evenly between families. The cattle were mobile and muscular – they didn’t produce much milk, only about a teacup each.

At the heart of the ranching and was the town of Rye-Mitchellville and though the cattle trade was profitable, consistently bringing in gold doubloons for settlers, they were not without hardships.  

Seminole Indians are first credited with domesticating the wild cattle and ponies. After the wars, they were pushed south and migrants from Georgia took over their vacated lands. The natives wanted them back. During the Billy Bowlegs Wars (1885-1858), a tribe of Seminole natives attacked area pioneers.  

“For nearly two years the Indians terrorized the settlements, killing and burning in swift hit-and-run raids, slipping into the forests to lay deadly ambushes for pursuing militia and army troops,” said Kenneth F. Tricebook in his guide to historic sites and buildings in the area.

Roger James/Power of Four Mountains

“Back then the people were also battling corporations the same way we are now-- the railroad for instance,” said McDowell.

In 1900, barons from the railroads tried to squeeze out the little man by fencing off large tracts of land, but the ranchers just cut the fences. The first train shipment of cattle was in 1908. Up until then, horsemen drove their herds to shipping docks destined for Cuba. There is evidence of at least four cattle shipping docks in Manatee County, the one at Shaw’s Point being the most active.

It was not the railroad, but two epidemics along with a development boom that killed the trade escalation. The first was the fever-tick in 1917 which had been brought over with the Spanish Cows that had traveled through the Caribbean. Several would latch onto the animals and suck blood until they were too weak to carry on. Florida cattle were immune to the fever it carried but were spreading it to other territories. Georgia placed a double fence with barbed wire across the state line to keep them out. The U.S. government eventually required the cows to be dipped ever two weeks. Ranchers who’d been raising them for less than $2 a year took a hit.

Then came the screwworm. Ranchers battled this flesh-eating parasite for 25 years. They would die off from cold weather in northern states, but in Florida they prevailed year round.

William's Farm near Rye

Photo: Manatee County Historical Archives

Many of Les’s actors are from traveling rodeo shows famous for their rope tricks. It wasn’t until the latter outbreak that Florida cowhunters learned to lasso -- not wanting to touch livestock for fear of infection. The worms would lay eggs on any bloody spot on mammals and larvae and maggots hatched and bore through the flesh (They finally killed them off after a major freeze with the help of the University of Florida).

After that, real estate properties sold and fences went up. Manatee County still exports a large number of cattle, but with the Cuban Embargo and the end of free range it could never be what it once was. In Les’ world it still manages to prevail.

“I’ve done this all my life,” said Navajo American Roger James/Power of Four Mountains, actor on the set of Dry Creek. “I’ve outfitted on horses and mules – spent a lot of time on a horse, even more than I have in a car.”

Hats off to the ranchers and Dry Creek for bringing Manatee County’s real calling back into the light.

“I’m all about making people smile. If I walked through a neighborhood without a horse, the neighbors would call the cops, but if I’m riding my horse they hand me their children without even asking me my name,” said Bunky Hall.

The facts in this article are based on three history books: The Singing River by Joe Warner, HIstoric Sites and Buildings in Manatee County by Kenneth F. Tricebrook and Biscuits and Taters, A History of Cattle Ranching in Manatee County by Joe G. Warner.

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