Crackin’ into the origins of ‘cracker’

When I told friends I was moving to Florida, a few of them began lecturing me on the meaning of “cracker.”
Wait, what?
Where I’m from, to call someone a “cracker” would be derogatory and cringe-worthy for several reasons or interpretations. According to an article from NPR, the slur was used in the 18th century to refer to “poor whites” then changed to refer to a white person who was “of lower caste or criminal disposition.” According to an article by CNN, the term also recognized a working class who drove livestock with whips and did not own their own land. It also meant white people who owned slaves. It can also mean “bigot.”
However, in Florida, it is a term that is reserved for people who herded cattle with cow whips that were made for the loud cracking noise.
I’m glad someone warned me. During my first assignment for The Arcadian former Sheriff Will Wise’s wife, Kay, came up to me, introduced herself and proudly told me she was a cracker. If I hadn’t been prepared, I probably would have keeled over.
While those in the West may be cowboys, Floridians are crackers, working the cattle industry longer than any state in the country. Florida Backroads Travel states what makes a cracker: “He or she is from a family that was here long before the huge population explosions in Florida after World War II. He or she is almost always Caucasian. They and their ancestors lived in Florida . . . usually have a rural upbringing, either on a farm or in a small town with plenty of woods and water for hunting and fishing and land planting. That’s because a Florida cracker is self sufficient.” Based on that definition, Arcadia seems like the heart of where to find legitimate Florida crackers.
Florida Backroads Travel added that crackers even have their own lingo. You might be a cracker if you know what the following words mean: corn pone, chitlins, Croker Sack, litard knot floater, perloo and Pineywoods Rooter.


Photo by Priscilla McDaniel

The terminology is also used for businesses, associations and to define objects. For instance, the Florida Cracker Cafe operates in St. Augustine, Florida Cracker Airboat Rides and Guide Service is located in Vero Beach, and Florida Cracker Ranch allows visitors to camp in historic-looking cabins in Bunnell. The “Florida Cracker” is a breed of cattle, recognized as a breed since the 1500s, according to The Livestock Conservancy. There’s also a breed of horse by the same name, which was designated as Florida’s official heritage horse in 2008. The Florida Cracker Trail Association works hard to preserve “the Old Florida Cracker Pioneer ways of agriculture, animal husbandry and the respect for the land,” according to their website. And, I live in a “cracker house” in the heart of Arcadia.
I had no idea I was moving into a home with such history, and even a name, but I must say I love the style. According to Old House Web, cracker farmhouses were popular from 1840 to 1920 but are starting to make a comeback, known as “Cracker Chic.” A cracker house must have: Native materials, simple symmetrical shape, a crawl space beneath the home, a steep roof because of the rain and a deep-shade porch. There are actually a few types of cracker homes — a single pen, which had one room and one door; a double pen or “saddlebag,” which was two single pens put together with two front doors, and the Dog-Trot House, which had “two pens” with an outdoor breezeway between them as well as additional porches and large windows.
My house has been added onto some many times that I don’t believe it falls in any of the three categories. However, it does have one of the greatest porches I’ve ever encountered. My cats regularly sunbathe or chase anole lizards on the screened-in porch, which wraps around the front and side of the house. My cattle dog regularly runs back and forth across the wooden planks chasing people who dare peddle a bicycle down our street. And, I love sitting out there watching the thunderstorms roll in or catching up on the latest book I’ve got my nose in.
While I’m not a cracker, I do love the way they built their homes. And, I love how they fiercely they preserve their history and traditions. Mark your calendars for Saturday, March 18! I, for one, am going to be first in line to get a helping of some cracker history at Pioneer Day at DeSoto Veterans Memorial Park.


Hitting a wall

My first big mistake upon arriving in Florida was assuming that all houses are created equal. Well, that the walls are all made of the same materials, anyway.
I’ve moved several times in my life, and when I reach a new home, one of the first things I like to do is hang up my pictures. Maybe it’s because I can’t stand the vast blankness of white walls, or maybe it’s because my movie posters and framed cartoon of cats sitting around a table playing Hungry Hungry Hippo or the stretched canvas frames of seashells make a new place feel like home. However, pictures don’t just stick to a wall by themselves. You need a hammer and nails. Just a hammer and nails … right?
I knew where I had packed the nails, but for some reason the hammer was missing. For five days I searched in every box looking for the hammer. I searched the same box multiple times, knowing that I had just glanced over the hammer during the previous search. Even more frustrating was that I knew I owned more than one hammer!
Finally, a week after moving in, I walked into the laundry/mud room where I was storing things and I saw a box full of stuff I don’t use. Inside, I noticed a bag dedicated to emergency medical supplies for my pets. At my old place in North Carolina, this bag had been kept on the same shelf as the hammer. I thought to myself, “I bet someone put the hammer in this bag while helping me pack.” Sure enough, I unzipped the bag and there was the hammer I had been so desperately hunting.
With great glee, I immediately grabbed a thick, long nail and started planning where I would hang the first picture. After a careful measuring to find the middle of the wall, I started hammering the nail. It took about three hits of the hammer on the nail head for me to realize that sucker wasn’t going in the wall. I hammered and hammered, but the nail stayed put.
My first thought was maybe I’d hit a stud in the wall (I now have been told that would have been a good thing!), so I moved the nail to the left. Bang! Bang! Bang! The sound of the hammer striking the nail echoed within my house, sending the pets scattering in fear.
After getting nowhere, I thought the nail must be the problem. So, I grabbed a shorter nail. After I got the point into the wall, I started taking out all my frustration on the nail and didn’t hold back in beating on it with the hammer. It’s a miracle I didn’t put a hole in the wall. The end result was my nail was bent in two places.


The sad, useless nail

Finally I texted my boss, Steve Bauer, who has turned into my walking, talking “How to succeed at being a Floridian” self-help book. Earlier, I had asked him to please bring a hammer to the office the next day since I couldn’t find mine. Now, I sent him a text saying I had found the hammer, but something was wrong with my nails.
“A lot of walls are made of concrete in Florida … the whole hurricane thing, you know,” Steve answered.
Concrete? Concrete!
“No, I didn’t!” I replied.
In North Carolina, we get hurricanes on occasion and small tornadoes, but no one builds their houses differently in preparation for those weather phenomenons. Maybe that’s shame on us, but I had certainly never heard of it. I have since learned that houses in Florida must be built to withstand hurricane-force winds.
Steve told me I’d need to drill a hole in the wall and use a screw anchor, but I’m impatient so thank God for Command Strips. I had purchased a few to hang up posters without frames and ended up using them all on framed photos. The next morning everything was still hanging in place, and I walked out the door on a mission to purchase Command Strips after work.
Keep following From Carolinian to Arcadian to read more about my adventures battling cockroaches and dealing with the heat.


Command Strips are my best friend!