Doyle Carlton Jr.
A Journey into the Life of a Florida Cracker
Carlton Road is the first cross street I see as I follow State Road 17 into Wauchula,
Florida. The wild land, cattle ranches and citrus groves that have fringed the two-lane roads since
I left the interstate are now giving way to Wal-mart, McDonalds, a car lot, and other symptoms
of modern capitalism. Just a few blocks past the street that bears his family name, my Uncle
Doyle's office sits humbly and seemingly abandoned in the shadow of a neighboring real estate
sales building. Only on closer inspection do I see the name Doyle E. Carlton, Jr, printed in 2-inch
block letters on the door. I knock on the door, thinking it leads to a single room, before realizing
it opens to an office suite.
I have come from my suburban home in Clearwater to visit my Uncle Doyle, a man who
has lived in Wauchula for more than 50 years, the same place where his dad was born in 1885.
Located in the south, central part of state, Wauchula is in the Florida heartland, where Disney
World and Miami Beach are as foreign as New York City. Though I have been making
pilgrimages since my youth to family ranch land in nearby Limestone, this is my first trip to
My uncle is expecting me, and though I've seen him less than a dozen times in my life,
the last time being a year earlier at Cracker Country (a part of the Florida State Fair that he
started), his firm handshake and a warm "hello" make me feel like an old friend. Excited about
my interest in family history, he cordially invites me into his office to talk. He stands 6 feet tall
and his posture is strong, especially for a 77-year-old man. His fitness, which I credit to years of
hard work on the ranch, turns out to be maintained by a daily routine of push-ups, sit-ups, and
running. He is wearing a blue-and-white pin-striped oxford shirt tucked neatly into blue jean
colored slacks, with black boots and a black belt. His skin is tan and his paper-white hair is
parted cleanly on the left. His look is focused on me yet relaxed as he tells stories of the past
from behind his large, wooden desk, which serves as a pedestal for his strong, leathered hands.
The deep tones of his voice are accented by a subtle, Southern drawl, typical of rural Florida.
Hanging above him is a painting of a weathered ranch house, resting under oak trees
beside a shaded lane. There is also an assortment of family pictures, a framed receipt for buying a
car on May 12, 1939, for $25 and a photograph of a professional football player scoring a
touchdown. The photograph is signed with a handwritten note that I cannot read from a distance.
Across from his desk, he faces a portrait of Abraham Lincoln, and on the wall to his left, there is
a painting of a lone cowboy watching his herd.
The image of solitary cowboy seems fitting in my uncle's office, for in some ways that is
what he is. He grew up in the city of Tampa, where his father practiced law, but his Wauchula
heritage eventually brought him back to the heartland. Though he lived in the city and graduated
from Plant High School in 1940, he spent every summer working on his family's ranch in
Wauchula. "I was drawn to Wauchula," he explains to me, because of my loving family of 36
first-cousins that lived there. They were more like brothers and sisters to me. And I liked that
cowboyin," he adds. "You can take a man out of the country, but you can't take the country out
of a man."
The country being in his blood is the reason he decided to make Wauchula his home. He
had promised himself to live on the land if he could. So after three years studying business
administration (with plans to become a lawyer) and playing varsity basketball at the University of
Florida and serving one year in the U.S. Air Force, he made his move. He was released from the
Air Force due to allergies. "It made me sick at the time," he tells me about being discharged, "but
I look back on it and think, 'Well, the Lord knew what was best.'"
In 1943, he married Mildred, whom he had known since grade school, and together they
moved to Wauchula to start a new life. Meanwhile, his parents and two sisters were still living
the city life in Tampa.
Perhaps for the same reasons that Uncle Doyle decided to return to the Wauchula, I feel
that part of my identity is in rural Florida. Even though I grew up in the city, like my uncle, my
heritage in this state is something I choose to hold on to a part of who I am. I had heard stories
from relatives about family history and the length of my lineage, but details remained a mystery
to me until talking with Uncle Doyle.
"I am a sixth-generation Floridian, making you of the eighth," he informs me in a slow
and deliberate voice. "First, there was John Carlton, who settled in Perry, Florida, near
He goes on and I learn that John Carlton's son, Alderman Carlton, lived in Fort Mede,
followed by Daniel Carlton, who lived in Desoto. Then there was Albert Carlton, of the fourth
generation, who settled in Wauchula in 1867. I count back four generations in my mind to realize
that John Carlton must have come to Florida in the late 1700s, before Florida was a U.S. territory
and possibly before the Revolutionary War. Sitting in my uncle Doyle's office, some 200 years
after my first Florida forefather came into the state, I feel directly connected to the past and eager
to hear more.
"My grandmother and grandfather Carlton," he tells me, now speaking of figures from his
lifetime, "Albert and Martha McEwen Carlton were married in 1867 and settled about four miles
west of what is now Wauchula, Florida. He pioneered in citrus. He pioneered in cattle."
I learn that they had 10 children, one girl and then nine boys, including his father and my
great-grandfather, Doyle E. Carlton Sr. With encouragement from his parents, Doyle Sr. pursued
his education and enrolled in the academy at Stetson.
"He got two jobs at Stetson," my uncle continues, "his dad helped him some, and he met
my mother at Stetson."
"My mother told me just a few years before she died, 'Doyle, when your dad came to
Stetson he was so far behind academically coming from rural Florida that he would actually put
wet towels on his head to stay awake to study.'"
He pauses, reaches into his desk and brings out an old, but surprisingly clear, black-and-
white photograph. The 5-by-7-inch picture, like our conversation, feels like a window in time,
and before he tells me so, I can see that the figures are his young parents They stand with a proud
posture that has been inherited by Uncle Doyle, whose expression resembles his father's as he
stares sternly into the past. He places the photograph back into his desk and then returns to the
biography of his Doyle Sr. "He goes to the University of Chicago and gets a law degree. He gets
a degree from Columbia University in 1917. While living in Hillsborough County, he was elected
to the Florida state Senate, and then in 1928 he was elected governor of Florida," he recalls.
Through his public service, as state senator and as governor, Doyle E. Carlton Sr.
established himself as "a strong moral source in public affairs," according to Gene M. Burnett's
Florida's Past. As a senator he worked on behalf of child labor laws, women's suffrage, free
textbooks and worker's compensation. Then as Florida's 25th governor his integrity was tested by
the pressures of the Great Depression and the element of criminal gambling.
"I know that when he assumed the governorship there were enormous deficits," my uncle
Doyle tells me. "No one had money. The first thing he did was to cut his salary from $9,000 a
year to $7,500, and he encouraged others to do likewise."
While the state's economy was struggling, criminal gambling confronted him in the form
of the pari-mutuel betting bill. According to Uncle Doyle, tremendous sums of money were spent
by racing interests from the East buying votes in the Florida Legislature to get that bill passed.
But Governor Carlton would not put his name on it.
Uncle Doyle recounts an instance of particularly strong outside pressure. His dad was
visited privately by representatives of the racing interest, and they asked him, "'Governor, do you
know how much your name's worth today?' He said, 'No, it isn't worth much.' They said, 'Well
it's worth $100,000 if you'll sign the race track bill.' That would have been like $10 or $20
million now. And he told them, he said, 'Well, you know if my name's worth that much to you, it
ought to be worth that much to me, so I believe I'm just gonna keep it.'"
"He vetoed the bill," Uncle Doyle continues with an approving smile, and I was told by
other sources that they must have spent another quarter of a million dollars and passed the bill
over his veto. And I asked my daddy, jokingly, one time, 'Daddy, why didn't you take that
money? With land at a dollar and a half an acre, we could have bought south Florida.' And he
said, 'Yes, and wouldn't that have been something for you kids to have to live with the rest of
your life.' And you know, he came home, after his term expired probably with negative net
But he finally got his law practice re-established and because he loved the cattle and he
loved the land, he bought property near Wauchula for $2 an acre. "He re-established himself
economically," my uncle points out with a grin, "but he didn't take anything that didn't belong to
It is clear when he talks of his father that Uncle Doyle admires him for not taking
shortcuts or bribes in a time when Florida's economy was suffering and for maintaining his
moral standards despite extensive pressures to compromise. He shares another story about his
father's confrontation with crime to illustrate this point.
"You know Al Capone," my uncle Doyle continues, "the big gangster whose
headquarters were in Chicago, moved down to Dade County in the late '20s. I remember my dad
invited him to leave the state, because he brought his gangster element with him, and it was a
very immoral program."
Capone threatened Governor Carlton's life, according to Uncle Doyle, and President
Hoover had some FBI come down as security. In the face of danger, Governor Carlton held his
ground and in the early '30s Capone was convicted of income tax evasion and sentenced to 11
years in Alcatraz.
"You know, my dad was a man of quiet courage," Uncle Doyle insists. He never did
fear about it [the death threats]. He just kept on doing what he thought was right. My daddy
always impressed me because he was gonna do what he thought was right."
"I remember that old proverb," he adds, "'The wicked flee when no man pursuit, but the
righteous are as bold as a lion.' Daddy was a man who had what I call quiet guts, courage, and he
was brave within himself and he did what he thought was right. He was not a big mouth and he
shared that with us. He taught his family, 'You keep on with quiet courage and do what you think
Quiet courage is a concept that Uncle Doyle embraces. He mentions it as a defining
characteristic of his father, and through our conversations, it becomes evident as a standard of
personal behavior in his own life. When I ask the significance of the Abraham Lincoln portrait in
his office, I am not surprised that he replies, "I respect him most of all the presidents. Despite
criticism by friends and enemies, he did what was best for the country."
His dedication to doing what is right and then standing behind it is apparent as we talk,
and is evident in his stories about his own political past. "You know when I got into politics
myself I had never planned to," he points out to me. He made some speeches for a university
friend, George Smathers, who ran for the United States Senate in 1950. Uncle Doyle was a
27-year-old cowboy, not involved with politics or public speaking, but was well received by his
heartland audiences, and George got elected.
"Two years later I thought, 'Well, I'm gonna run for that state senate, and if I get elected,
I won't last but four years because I'm going to vote on everything the way I think I should," he
He went on to win a seat on the Senate at age 29, representing Hardee, Highlands,
DeSoto, and Glades counties, and continued to serve for 10 years. He shares with me an
experience from the 1959 session of the Legislature, when LeRoy Collins was governor. A bill
was introduced in the House and the Senate known as the Last Resort bill. It stated that if one
school in Florida is integrated, all of the schools in the state would close immediately.
"Well, Governor Collins was very much opposed to the bill, and I was opposed to it," he
It passed in the House and the Senate, but the governor vetoed it. Then the Senate brought
it back, doing everything they could to pass it over his veto. It took 14 votes to sustain a veto,
and at that time my uncle Doyle and the others opposing the bill could account for only 13 votes.
Finally, after two or three days of intense debate, Uncle Doyle and his allies rallied enough votes
to sustain the veto and deny the racial bill.
"Can you imagine?" he asks me, shaking his head. "One school integrated and all would
"No," I reply, thinking how ridiculous segregation seems in 1999. But I imagine the
gravity of such a decision 40 years earlier and acknowledge the importance of his moral
Later that year, 1959, he ran for governor, a 37-year-old from Wauchula against five other
candidates. It came down to a run-off between him and F rris Bryant, who went on to become
governor. Ironically, considering his push for integration in the Senate, there was some
propaganda accusing my uncle Doyle of being a racist, which must have cut into his votes. "That
was quite an experience," remarks Uncle Doyle, speaking of his gubernatorial campaign without
a hint of regret. "I was a greenhorn, a cowboy."
A story he had told me earlier flashes into my mind, about his high school basketball
coach telling him that its O.K. to foul out with one minute remaining as long as you're playing at
He continues, "I think that he [Ferris Bryant] probably did me a favor by winning because
I got involved in some other activities in the early '60s that were very beneficial to me."
Free from public service, he and Mildred were able to move back to Wauchula, where
they took up ranching full time. Managing some of his father's land in addition to his own, he
was able to grow his holdings through tax-free land exchange. Shortly after leaving Tallahassee,
he acquired his Horse Creek Ranch, 15,000 contiguous acres south of Wauchula. In order to
avoid becoming land poor, a condition when you own too much land without sufficient income
to pay property taxes, he maintained an extensive cattle and citrus operation. His stayed loyal to
the land, while many other Florida land owners were selling their property for personal wealth.
After years of work and careful management, he increased the size of his ranch seven-fold, to
60,000 acres and 15,000 heads of cattle.
Despite the vastness of his property, he tells me, "I don't really own the land. The earth is
the Lord's and I'm just taking care of it for him." Then he shares a lesson on stewardship that he
learned in the 1940s, from a Wauchula Baptist preacher named Brother Garland.
"He would deal with those subjects in the Bible," he recalls. "'For thine o' Lord is the
power and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and the earth is thine,' which
tells us that we don't own anything but what God entrusted to us, and he says if we're faithful in
our stewardship, we'll receive more blessings. And after becoming familiar with these scriptures
I realized that they're not going to put one cow in my casket when I die."
He has already given ownership of his property to his three children, Doyle III, Susan
(and her husband Duck), and Jane (and her husband Lefty), who all currently live in Wauchula
and work the land.
The land around Wauchula is so meaningful to my uncle and has been such a significant
factor in his life, that I am excited when he asks me if I'd like to tour it with him. We leave the
office in his Ford truck, and after a buffet lunch at a Wauchula diner, where he greets nearly
everyone by name, we drive south out of town toward his Horse Creek Ranch. We pass an old
barn, dilapidated but still standing strong, and he points out, "We used to shear sheep by that
barn in the 1930s, before we had electric shears."
As if the landmark opened a flood of memories, he starts sharing stories from his youth.
He looks out over the barbed-wire fences that parallel the road and define the boundaries of the
pastures. Then he tells me, "We used to drive cattle for more than 10 miles across this land.
Sometimes we'd sleep with the herd and keep going the next day. But we never crossed any
When we reach his ranch, the gate is open, and we turn west onto a white dirt lane that
bisects the land and runs straight as far as I can see. Palmettos cover the ground on both sides of
us, and brigades of pine trees stand at attention in the distance. My eyes dance across the
landscape, catching a glimpse of a few white-tailed deer bounding toward the horizon with their
tails flashing, and I understand why this place is my uncle's favorite.
After driving for about a mile, we come to Horse Creek, where a ranch house rests in the
shade of oak trees. We park the truck beside the house, and I walk out on the wooden bridge that
crosses the creek and look back toward the east. Uncle Doyle is standing on the front porch, and I
realize that he is now a figure in the same scene painted on canvas behind his desk at the office.
The house from the painting is constructed of solid wood, and he points out that he purposely
modeled it after old-time Florida homes when he built it in the 1960s. I can easily imagine a
building like this in the 19th century, and the structure seems sturdy enough to stand strong well
into the 21st
Concerning homes like my uncle's at Horse Creek, the author of the book, The Florida
Cowman, Joe A. Akerman, Jr., draws the following analogy: "Perhaps nothing reflected the
cowman's character better than his home. Durable, unpretentious, and dependable, both were
able to withstand any of nature's ill winds."
But that modern man calls progress, threatens the Florida cowman and his institutions.
Amidst of the technological era, however, Uncle Doyle has worked to ensure that Florida's roots
will not be forgotten. He founded Cracker Country in 1978. An exhibit at the first Florida State
Fair, it is now a permanent fixture at the fair grounds in Tampa. Cracker is another word for the
Florida cowman. Coined in pre-Civil War times, it was associated with the cracking sound of the
cowman's buck-skin whip. More recently it has been adopted as a slang term for a native
Floridian. Describing Cracker Country's conception, Uncle Doyle recalls, "We [he and his wife,
Mildred] thought that we would establish a program that would tell the story of rural Florida
around the turn of the century. We started by bringing up the house where my dad was born
[from Wauchula to the fair grounds] because of its peculiar architecture and because he was the
25th governor of Florida."
The 1870s home is unique because there are two bedrooms upstairs for the children, one
for the older sister and one for the nine younger brothers. The two bedrooms each have their own
separate stair-case leading from the outside and there is no door joining them. The design was to
give the daughter some rest from the nine boys that she helped raise. This first home was soon
joined at the fair grounds by the Smith house from Pasco County. It is unique because when the
residing couple got married, their neighbors all chipped in and helped build the house, which
they could not afford on their own.
"People at that time," my uncle Doyle shares, "when they stuck their hand out, it wasn't
to grab something, but it was to share."
Today, the collection of original 19th-century Florida buildings at Cracker Country
includes a post office and a train station, in addition to the residences. They are set up as a small
community, and each year during the state fair, people gather to re-enact a variety of rural Florida
activities, such as grinding sugar cane into molasses with a mule-powered machine. In doing so,
the people at Cracker Country provide a first hand experience with Florida history for thousands
When I visited Cracker Country in 1999, two men from the Department of Agriculture,
dressed as cowboys, stood by a wooden cowpen with some cattle and horses. They were acting as
figures from the past and answering questions about their lives as Florida Crackers. While their
world at the fair grounds is not historic Wauchula, it serves as a direct link to Florida's roots. The
exhibits at Cracker Country help keep rural Florida tradition alive for many people who may not
otherwise meet an old Florida cowman like Uncle Doyle or visit a cracker ranch like Horse
By the time Uncle Doyle and I leave his Horse Creek cabin to retrace our route back to
Wauchula, I feel a new, tangible understanding of rural Florida. The sun is now lower in the
western sky, and the warmer light and lengthened shadows add depth to the landscape. We turn
from the dirt lane onto pavement, leaving the ranch behind us, though the place is seared into my
memory. We come back into Wauchula along the same path I had driven earlier that morning,
crossing Carlton Road before reaching Uncle Doyle's office.
This south-central Florida town has become increasingly meaningful to him ever since it
lured him away from the city as a young adult. He has developed strong ties with the community,
giving his time and resources to the church programs, the United Way, the Cancer Society, the
local hospital, the Main Street restoration, and the community youth center.
His support of local youth becomes more evident to me when we re-enter his office and I
take a closer look at the autographed football photograph hanging on his wall. The handwritten
note in the lower left corner reads, "Mr. Carlton, You've been there all of the time for me.
Knowing you has allowed me to achieve great things in my life. Thank you for that opportunity.
Love, Zeke Mowatt (New York Giants) Superbowl XXI Rosebowl Pasadena, CA Giants
39, Broncos 20." I ask my uncle about the photo to learn that Zeke Mowatt had played football
for local Hardee High and then for Florida State University before joining the Superbowl
Despite his apparent contributions to Wauchula, he insists, "the community has given
more to us that we have to them."
Uncle Doyle's experiences in Wauchula and the Florida heartland have served as a source
for his character and identity, and I am grateful that he was able to share some of those
experiences with me during our visit. I say good-bye at his office, where I see the ranch scene
painted above his desk with new familiarity and meaning, and I start my drive toward home. As
my truck picks up speed and the roadside groves and pastures stream by my eyes, there is a fresh
picture of Florida in my mind.