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Living Sanibel: Babcock Ranch offers unique window into ‘cracker’ past

By Staff | May 11, 2016

An overlook at one of the ponds of Alligator Creek Preserve. PHOTO PROVIDED BY CHARLOTTE COUNTY VCB

Babcock Ranch is a working ranch that offers a 90-minute bus ride, Babcock Wilderness Adventures-Swamp Buggy Eco-Tours. While that may look good on a brochure, it is a bit misleading. Most of the trip is on a stripped-down, diesel-powered school bus. There is minimal walking involved, and no trails are open to hiking, or biking if you want to venture off on your own.

This may be a classic case of mis-marketing, since this is more of a historic than an ecological tour. Historically speaking, this 90,000-acre property is a treasure trove of “olde” Florida. One of the first things you see on your “Wilderness Adventure” hasn’t been found in the wild for almost 100 years: the herds of cracker cattle grazing on the pastureland the tour bus passes through. These cattle are direct descendants of the original Spanish cattle that escaped from St. Augustine and Ponce de Leon’s 1521 visit to the southwest coast of Florida. Spanish cattle at that time were a mixed breed of Celtic domestic cattle and the indigenous wild cattle of prehistoric Europe, the Aurochs. They have long sprawling horns similar in style to Texas longhorns and still have an aura of wildness to them. Anyone who has read Patrick Smith’s classic novel of early Florida settlers, “A Land Remembered,” will enjoy seeing these colorfully patterned animals.

The museum on the Babcock Ranch property is nothing out of the ordinary. Most of the displays are jammed into a replica cracker cabin that was built for the movie set for “Just Cause,” a 1995 film starring Sean Connery. The museum’s displays include old logging tools, historical photos, and miscellaneous saddles. Another display features the venomous snakes found on the ranch, including coral snakes, dusky and eastern diamondback rattlers, and water moccasins. In keeping with its “roadside attraction” feel, there is also the mounted head of Lulu, a freak three-horned cow.

The eco-tour bus ride provides a glimpse of life on a working ranch. The tour guides are fun and very knowledgeable about the Crescent “B” Ranch, which over the years has won several environmental awards for its land stewardship. The bus tour begins with a trip through the small town of Rouxville, where ranch hands and cowboys still live and work. The old commissary, cattle corrals, and converted boxcars that serve as homes for the cowhands all beg for more exploration, but the bus moves on. Next the tour enter Telegraph Swamp, which has plenty of wading birds, alligators, and wild turkeys to see. Flocks of Osceola turkeys trot about in the oak and pinewood forests, and wild hogs are common sightings. White-tailed deer are found everywhere, especially in the morning.

After crossing the swamp a second time, with the bus wheels almost three feet deep in flowing water, the vehicle comes to a dry field where everyone gets off to walk down a block-long boardwalk to see the fenced-in Florida panthers. Their pen is large enough and so similar to the surrounding habitat that it feels as if you are seeing these panthers in the wild. Many a Florida panther photograph has been shot at Babcock Ranch, since spotting a truly wild Florida panther is all but impossible.

Birding at Babcock Ranch. PHOTO PROVIDED BY LEE COUNTY VCB

During the winter months the ranch opens its Gator Shack restaurant, featuring pulled pork and ranch-style cuisine. A large cabin called Cypress Lodge can be rented for small corporate retreats or family get-togethers.

Babcock Ranch was sold in 2006, and 17,000 acres in its southwestern section are slated to become the world’s first solar-powered, self-sustaining city in the next 25 years. The balance of the ranch, some 73,000 acres, will remain a preserve and a working operation. Ironically, the city of Babcock Ranch plans to put in extensive hiking and biking trails, which would be a welcome addition to the current Babcock experience. While not exactly an eco-tour, a visit to the Babcock Ranch is still a good value, especially for families with younger children or older adults who might find the bus ride both entertaining and easy. Although far from perfect, this destination gives you a unique window into Florida’s “cracker” past.

This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.

Cracker cattle can still be found on the ranch. PHOTO BY BLAKE SOBCZAK