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Driving around along the dusty outlying roads, past small farms, pastoral glimpses of grazing horses and cattle, you'll get a feel for a side of Florida that has little to do with sandy beaches and swaying palms but, is every bit as beautiful. This is the Florida that is home to a type of people that are as original as the land that they live on. There are many ways to describe these people but the way most fitting would be the Florida Cracker. The modern Florida Cracker has adapted when necessary to the changing world around them while retaining the traditions and legacy of their past.
The term Cracker has been used out of contempt and anger for so long that it has lost its original intent. Thus there is no easy definition for a Florida Cracker. The literal minded he is simply a Florida native. This has nothing whatsoever to do with it. It often was used as a way to characterize the poor backwoods white men of native to Florida and Georgia. A people who lived so intertwined with the land that they were said to be distinguished only from the savage by the color of their skin.
It takes more than being born in the state to be a true Florida Cracker. It includes a mixture several things like a love of the land and nature, growing things in soil, close family ties, and a deep sense of religion. It also means eating foods such as crackling' corn bread and grits and chittlins and swamp cabbage, okra and ham hock with collard greens and chicken fried in a cast iron skillet.
A Cracker's word is often his bond. If he looks you in the eye and says he will do something than he will, that is that. They have no pretense, never put on airs, and never try to appear to be something other than what they are. They either like you or they don't, it's as simple as that. Cracker kids say "Yes, Ma'am" and "Yes, Sir." Most of them can scale a fish, skin a squirrel, plant potatoes, change a tire, and sweep a room.
Crackers were practicing recycling long before it became a popular fad. They were and are a people who could create household items and garment out of the most unlikely material. This included everything from a dress made from a potato sack, a mason jar turned into a cup and even a old toilet turned into a flower pot for the front yard.
There are countless theories as to where the term derived from. The first claims roots in a Celtic word meaning Braggart or loud mouth. A person described as one who is shiftless, sadistic in temperament and brutish in behavior. Quite similarly the Spanish setters had a term for the 'bad characters' that were the forerunners of the poor white settler of the Florida colony, Quakers.
But a variation of the braggart theory developed during the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950's and 60's. Cracker began to be associated with opinionated, ignorant whites who could easily be incited to violence. It was through this time that the term was turned into a derogatory term.
The another origin of the word comes from the practice of "corn cracking" or grinding dried corn for use as grits and meal, as in the lyrics of the folk song Blue Tailed Fly, "Jimmy crack corn." When used in this sense, a Cracker is somebody who can't afford any other food. But this theory doesn't answer the question of how the word got applied almost exclusively to folks in rural areas of South Georgia and Florida. And, by the 1800s, the name "Cracker" wasn't used to describe only impoverished settlers (Cracker).
The third and most specific theory clings to the sound of the whips used to drive cattle and oxen. Florida cattlemen cracked whips to flush their stock out of the palmetto scrub while settlers used whips to spur on oxen that pulled their carts and wagons. Cracker has been used in this sense since the early 1800s. This is the most popular theory today. But it doesn't explain why people were being called Crackers for centuries before Florida cattlemen began working in the scrub lands.
Florida Cattlemen still use the whip, as well as some helicopters and ATV's to move large herds. It is primary the "CRACK" popping noise that alerts there is a direction that the cattle are to follow, be it up a ramp, into a pen, of even in travel on the open range (Ste.Claire). It is their fear of actually being whipped that motivates them to do as they should which is needed in the palmetto populated land of Florida.
It was said that the sound of the whips could be heard for miles, so the whips were also used for communication purposes. One crack meant come to dinner, two cracks something else, and so on. It was pioneer Florida's first wireless telegraph system. One problem with this very popular theory is the likelihood of the ownership of a leather whip where were quite expensive at the time of the creation of the story. According to Joyce Peters who is a Cow hunter historian, "these poor people had no leather shoes, much less cow whips which promoter are using to explain the term".
Different areas of the state embrace different theories. The "corncraker" prevails in the Panhandle and along the Georgia border. In those areas, Cracker is considered an insult. Meanwhile, the whip cracker theory is popular in Central Florida, were it is a term of pride especially for modern cattle raisers.
No matter which origin of the term one chooses to secure in their mind as reality, there is no escape this term describing the people of North and Central Florida. The people have remained fairly unchanged from the first settlers to be given the name, to those currently belonging to the land. The physical description given by Comte de Castelnau in his Essay on Middle Florida in 1837 can still be applied with very little tweaking. He said "the Crackers are tall, sturdy, and bold, addicted to drinking, and are habituated in interlarding their words with terrible curses. Accustomed to living alone in the woods, they have adopted the habits of the savage with who they are in constant contact, at every moment their conversation is interrupted with war cries. They leap about and howl, and make no effort to restrain their passions."
While things like living alone in the woods and keeping in contact with the savage is not really relevant today in the in the lives of the Florida Cracker, they have found ways to transform the ways of old to make them practical today. Hunting, fishing and growing gardens are not necessary in order to have food on the table anymore they have become a recreation that sets the Cracker worlds apart from the 'City Slickers' that surround them. What once was a part of daily life has been set aside for mornings before work and weekend trips.
Not to say that the farm life has become extinct in modern Central and Northern Florida because this is not even the case. Citrus, strawberry and cattle are still critical crops within the land. Even so, unless you are an owner of the field were the crop is being produced, this means very little to the average person aside from cheaper prices on the finished product. Many of the jobs on the field have been given to migrant workers who will work longer hour for less pay. While this is good for the farmers and workers it has left everyone else searching elsewhere for suitable jobs. This paved the way for the phosphate industry that has exploded in central Florida.
The years of 1880 through 1920 are what are considered as the early days of phosphate mining in Florida. During those times there were a dozen or so major phosphate mining companies operating in Bone Valley covering the region of Polk and Hillsborough counties. The majority of these companies owned and set up villages, which provided housing for employees. These phosphate villages were simultaneously with mining equipment. The mines were isolated and workers needed to live near their jobs.
"One former inhabitant described life in the village as 'country club living.' There were morning coffees, afternoon card parties and neighborhood barbeques. Everybody knew everyone else, even the names of all the children and pets. Children walked to school, there were no locked doors. It was a wonderful time for families with small children but more difficult for teenagers who wanted more than the limited diversions of a company town," according to the March 1981 edition of Polk County Historical Quarterly newsletter written by Freddy Wright.
Company towns were an integral part of Polk County life until the mid 1930's when unions negotiated their first contracts with the phosphate companies, leading to the elimination of company commissaries and villages. The villages did not completely phase out, however, the 1950's when the mines expanded operations rapidly and workers no longer had to live as close to their jobs. As the need for company towns decreased, the companies sold the houses to workers for reasonable prices.
Today the phosphate community is a significant part of the life within Cracker Florida. Four out of five families have a connection to the mines past or present. They know not to curse the slow moving trains when they stop and go in reverse blocking the roads for what seems like an eternity. They know to simply put the car in park and see how many of the two hundred fully loaded cargo cars they can count. It is understood that without those trains most of us would not have food on the table that night or even be there.
Likewise these phosphate families know not to hug daddy when he comes home from a hard day's work because his clothes are so full of chemicals and phosphate dust that a simple hug could become dangerous to the children's health. It is the extreme kinsman ties that has been passed down from generation to generation that these families going. A responsibility is taken for the family and the consequences are accepted no matter how hard they may seem at the time.
However, good times do come from working your life away in an environment such as a mine. It is a requirement for there to be a truck that is specially designated for work because of the phosphate dust that rusts the metal and peals the paint thus leaving a requirement of one for play. This is one luxury that most modern Crackers will spurge for. After all, the type of automobile a person drives is most times a direct result of their culture and rearing. It's almost a requirement here for a man to have owned a truck at least once in his life. It's part of the southern culture. It doesn't matter if your truck is beat up or not; you just need a truck. The amazing thing is, even with rising gas prices, trucks are still selling very well.
My pawpaw Sidney Walton Wright always told us that the measure of a man is in the truck that he drives. If he spends an entire paycheck on his truck fixing it up and making it so high his girl needs a ladder to get in, than he a worth a lick and would rather put gas in his truck than food in the belly of his family. If a man makes do with the truck he has wither hand me down or brand new showing pride and respect for it than he will do the same for his family and never leave them lacking. In contrast if a man runs his truck into the ground not caring at all he will do the same with his family. But always look out for the man who has a different truck every time you see him because you can guarantee he goes through women the same way (Wright). While these are just some guidelines set up by a loving and protective grandfather, they do hold some truth.
Pickup trucks are an intricate part of the Southern culture not just within Florida. It has taken on some of the same mythos as the horse, portraying a symbol of male virility. They show the world that the driver is a "tough guy" and worthy of the fear and respect that a cowboy once got.
The Florida cracker usually has a southern heritage, and his ancestors sympathized with the Confederacy during the Civil War. You might even find a Confederate flag license tag on the front of his pickup truck or a large flag waving in the wind from the bed.
When modern civilization collapses, the Florida cracker will be hunting, fishing, trapping and growing his own food while the rest of us will be standing in line at the government owned grocery store with our ration stamps. Just as Hank Williams Jr. claims in his famous song "there ain't too many things these ole boys can't do because a country boy can survive" (Williams).
While this could be applied to any Southern American but it is important to note that there are several different labels that can be applied depending on area the individual lives. Such labels include Redneck, Hillbilly, Good Ol' Boy, and even White trash. Each of these could used and taken as an offensive term. But some people are offend to be called a Cracker or another of these terms, but not if you are truly one.
The modern Florida Cracker has adapted when necessary to the changing world around them while retaining the traditions and legacy of their past. They and their ancestors lived in Florida and prospered before the days of cars, highways, mosquito control, air conditioning, Medicare, social security and government welfare.