In December 2022, the Great Florida Cattle Drive will hit the trail, driving approximately 1,000 cattle from Deseret Ranch in St. Cloud, zigzagging to Kenansville. Anyone can go, so long as you have a horse to ride or wagon or buggy and horse or mule to pull it. If you spent your childhood dreaming of riding the range and sleeping under the stars, this is your chance! But it’s not something you should attempt without preparation for yourself and your horse. My horse, Callie, and I are registered to participate in the drive. We’ll spend the coming months preparing for the trip. So follow along as we celebrate the Florida cattle industry and prepare for the adventure of a lifetime on Great Florida Cattle Drive.
OKEECHOBEE – If you have questions about cowboy hats, Jay “Jaybird” Crews at Eli’s Western Wear is the man to see.
Crews steams and custom-shapes straw and felt hats to order. He’s been honing his skills for 17 years, but didn’t set out to be a professional hat shaper.
Crews said he was a cowboy and a carpenter. Back in 2004, when Hurricane Charley hit Florida, the Eli’s Western Wear store in Dundee was damaged. Crews said Roland Durrance asked him to fix it. While he was working on the building repairs, Durrance’s wife asked if he needed some work shirts. When he went out to his truck he found starched and ironed shirts hanging there.
“I said, ‘we don’t work in ironed, starched shirts,’ and she said, ‘you do in the store’, and that was it,” said Crews. He had a job.
“Yes ma’am, is my standard answer to any woman,” Crews added.
Crews said he learned to steam and shape hats because the store manager was tired of doing it. “I learned by trial and error and practice,” he explained.
Eli’s sells some pre-shaped hats and some that can be custom shaped. While most cowboy hats have a generally similar recognizable silhouette, each custom shaped hat is different. Hat brims can be different widths. The brims can curve or be creased at an angle. It all depends on what the customer wants. The top of the hat, which comes rounded, can be shaped with a wider center crease and shorter side creases – a style called a minnick -- or it can be flattened into a square crease, sometimes called a Canadian crease or a box crease.
Rodeo cowboys prefer the hat be shaped so that it goes down further on the head, which makes the hat easier to keep on. A cattleman’s crease is a little looser, more comfortable for wearing the hat all day.
“A lot is just preference,” said Crews. “Most people have their own thing they want to put on it.”
He said over the years, the average width of the brim for a cowboy hat in Florida has gotten larger. The hat shades the face and neck from the brutal Florida sun, and modern cowboys are concerned about skin cancer.
“The bigger the hat, the more shade,” he explained. A short brimmed “boss man’s hat,” might be worn by someone who does not work in the sun.
Hats can be straw or felt. Straw hats are cooler, but don’t hold up well to rain. Raw palm leaf hats are cooler than felt but warmer than straw, he continued. The raw palm leaf hats can survive a rainstorm that would damage a straw hat, he said. The palm leaf hats will, however, absorb some water and get heavier.
Straw hats at Eli’s run around $37 to $160.
Felt hats can be made of wool, fur or a mix of fur and wool. The fur felt hats hold the shape and color better than the wool felt hats. The higher the percentage of beaver or mink fur in a felt hat, the higher the price will be for the hat. Felt hats can cost from $80 to more than $500.
Crews said local cowboys rarely wear felt hats because they’re just too hot to wear outdoors in the Florida sun.
“There’s still a few die-hards who wear felt in the daytime,” he added. “I call my felt hats my wedding and funeral hats.”
In a recent visit to Eli's, customer Michael Sheffield, 14, chose a straw hat for “Mr. Jaybird” to shape. “Everyone I rodeo with has the same style hat,” he explained.