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Black Cattle Rancher Family to be Honored In Immokalee

When people think of cowboys, they tend to think Texas, or the Wild West. But the sunshine state—famous for its oranges and beaches —has a nearly 500-year-old cattle industry.  In fact,  half of all agricultural land in the state is involved in cattle production, according the the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

But people of color and their contributions to the industry have often been overlooked.

The Immokalee Pioneer Museum at Roberts Ranch recently highlighted the story of a black family of cattle ranchers based in Southwest Florida that will be honored for the first time this Saturday during the Immokalee Cattle Drive and Jamboree

Huey P. Howard and his family have cattle on about 7,000 acres  in Southwest Florida. 

"I've always wanted to be in the cattle business, so I started off trying to raise dairy calves and that didn't work, so then we went to buying cows," Howard said while chuckling. "But I've always wanted to be in the cattle business." 

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Credit Photo Courtesy of the Howard family
Huey P. Howard poses with a bull.

The Howards’ business is part of  the $900-million-a-year cattle industry in Florida. 

Florida is a cow-calf state, which means it produces calves that will be sold to the beef industry.

Howard said from the moment he set foot in Immokalee back in 1953, he knew he wanted to be a part of the business. 

Florida was still segregated at the time, and Howard found that people didn't want to sell him land because of his race.

"A lot of land I tried to buy, they wouldn't even sell it to me," Howard said. "They'd say 'Oh if I sell you that land, my friends would be mighty mad with me,' and I said, 'Well, don't make your friends mad.'"

With the help of friend Ralph Watlow, Howard was able to buy his first 20  acres for  $5,000.

"He had to go buy it for me, they wouldn’t sell it to me, so he bought it for me," Howard said. "[Then] we went to the bank and changed it over in my name."

A Family Affair

Howard said wanted his children to learn the business, to ensure they could have financial stability throughout their lives.  

"It was very important to me, I wanted the kids to have everything I could give them." Howard said. "You know, I didn't have those kind of things when I was little, so I wanted to be sure they had whatever they needed at any given time."

His eldest son, Huey L. Howard, has been working by his father’s side since his earliest memories.

"I really didn’t have tasks when I was really small because I would ride with my dad on his horse. The first horse he bought me was a Shetland pony and this horse tried to kill me a few times, so I had to upgrade to a bigger horse," Huey said, laughing.  "I been with my dad, like, 37  years working with the cows, so pretty much all my life."

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Credit Photo Courtesy of the Howard family
Huey Howard’s grandson Louis Gachette (left), and family friend Jimmy Long.

The younger Howard calls himself a "cowboy from birth." He spends his most of time surveying property and tending to the more than 1000 head of cows the family owns.

"Most of my day is  in the woods somewhere," Huey said. "I’m checking cows, or checking fences, or making sure the cows got good water to drink, that they are healthy. But my whole day is checking cows, being around cows."

Howard Sr. is a self-taught cattle rancher, so the addition of his sons Huey and Ivan helped to fine-tune the cattle operation, as Ivan explains. 

"We do a lot of things differently now, even the way we handle our cattle," Ivan said.  "Dad used to put a feed bag on the back of the truck and either Huey or I would sit on the back, and the cattle would follow him to the pens—half of them would, the other half would just stay out there. But now we use dogs and horses and we rarely miss any now."

Ivan said the business has also evolved to include selective breeding and marketing, among other things. 

Ivan said 25 years ago, his father was inclined to purchase cows based primarily on color, so they keep a few visually appealing cows around just for the elder Howard.

Howard said he has a soft spot for cows with spots of different colors.

"I got a bunch of speckled cows, and I bought these speckled cows just for me to look at," Howard said. Pointing at his son, Ivan, Howard continued,"He always talking about making money. I don’t care if I don’t make no money, but these cows, I bought them for me to look at and I want to put a speckled bull on them so the calves become speckled."

Howard has enjoyed growing the business with his children by his side. He said he feels honored that his family is being recognized by the community.

"It makes me feel like I’m ten feet tall," Howard said. 

Representation

Howard's son Ivan said black cowboys and ranchers have been pretty much invisible in history books and underrepresented in pop culture.

"I think the first Western to really portray an African-American on a cattle drive was Lonesome Dove, I think, and that still was a little off because half of those cowboys would’ve been black not just one, you know?" Ivan said. "We have a long way to go, but I think things are changing slowly."

Howard's daughter Vanessa, said she felt honored when her family was approached to be featured in this year's annual celebration highlighting the cattle tradition in Immokalee.

"To me, it's important to know where you came from so you can teach your kids, your grandkids and all where you came from." Vanessa said. "And maybe they’ll be encouraged to live the same life or to do better."

Ivan said the family being honored publicly is a historic moment.

"To get really granular, you know Immokalee was not a integration-friendly place when dad first got here so to have the cattle drive honor someone like my dad, that’s huge," Ivan said. "It hasn’t been done before that I know of, and so I think it kind of sets a precedent going forward." 

The Immokalee Cattle Drive and Jamboree is scheduled for  Saturday March 14, from 7:30 am until 4 pm, at the Immokalee Pioneer Musem at Roberts Ranch. The event is free and open to the public.

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Credit Photos courtesy of Pam Brown (1910) and Don Columbus Photography (2018).
An Immokalee Tradition: Then and Now. Cattle drive in Fort Myers in 1910 and down Main Street in Immokalee in 2018.