“What really makes a person a true Florida Cracker (besides being born in the state)? Several things: A love of the land and nature, growing things in soil, close family ties, and a deep sense of religion. It also means cracklin’ bread and grits and periwinkle soup and swamp cabbage and okra gumbo and ham hocks with collard greens and chicken fried in a cast iron skillet and guava jelly and homemade blackberry cobbler.
A Cracker’s word is his bond. If he looks you in the eye and says, “Yes, I will do this for you,” then he will – and that’s that. They have no pretense, never put on airs, never try to appear to be something other than what they are, and they never “blow smoke” over you. They either like you or they don’t, and it’s as simple as that” -Patrick D. Smith
That definition fits Miss Norma Horton to a T. Norma is 89 years old now and trying to keep her on subject was a challenge. She is a treasure trove of stories about growing up in Florida before “the yankees“ discovered it.
When I first met Norma, she was a horse trader. We decided to say she was a horse “broker” as she felt that was a little “classier.” She knew how to sell a horse and would make sure it was safe for the owner. Now, if it had a homely head, she might comment on what a beautiful tail the horse had and what great hooves. But she assured me she did her best to be fair to the horse and the buyer.
Born in 1930 in Miami Florida, It was a different place than the Miami of today. “My mother’s people were from the Glades and I was sent to live with my grandad for most of my youth. There was no law down there at that time ‘cause the first game warden sent down was killed.” She continued, “We used to go to the movies by boat and it would be so neat coming home late at night cause we’d lay on the side of the boat and drag our hands in the water. There was white phosphorus in the water that sparkled…that was so beautiful.” They did quite a lot of transportation by boat. “We went to school by boat and we went to the grocery store by boat. At that time the swamps were full of many panthers and bears and alligators. If we visited a friend we’d run like heck coming home at night. We were always worried about being caught by a wild animal. Behind my grandpas’ sugarcane plot, it was pure swamp that went on forever. My grandpa had a banana patch too, and he was a charter boat Captain. I loved living with him on Chuckalooski Island.”
“My mother wanted me to go back and live with her, but I was headstrong and quit school in the 7th grade when I was 13. She couldn’t make me go. I ended up working at a stable since I was drawn to horses.” Though no one in her family had any relationships with horses, Norma had a yearning for them as long as she could remember. “Everglades Wonder Gardens had horses and other reptiles and animals. I got a job there. I started working with horses and loved it!”
From there, Norma got involved with the rodeo. “I took up with Dell’s father, (her first born), Robert Weeks. He was a Rodeo Cowboy and performed many acts. He was an expert with the bullwhip and convinced me to work with him. He could pop a cigarette out of my mouth with a bullwhip.”
Norma was young and pretty and started performing with her own acts. She rode bucking bulls, a feat very few women have ever done. “We wouldn’t be caught dead using sissy helmets in those days. I loved riding bucking horses, too. One act was with another girl, we both rode a mule. She sat in front and I sat facing backward behind her. A cowboy told me to be careful and not lean forward cause if I fall I’ll be kicked by the mule. So I thought about that and would lean way back. The girl started complaining as I would whack her with my head when the mule would buck too bad. The cowboys were trying to help me. When I would ride bucking horses, they would wire my spurs so they wouldn’t roll. That helped me with the wild rides as the horses wouldn’t buck as hard.”
“When not rodeoing we would rest up in Naples. People didn’t have a lot then. One of the things they would do for food was turn turtles. They would go down by the water and when the turtles would come and lay their eggs, they would flip them over and take them home to eat. I didn’t. I thought it was cruel. It was easy for me to say it was cruel, I didn’t have to provide for family. A lot of those fishermen, when the weather was bad, they didn’t catch much and they needed to eat. This was in the forties and early fifties.”
Around that time, Norma got married to a diesel mechanic and had two more children. “The marriage didn’t last, but the boys and I made do. I had a string of horses in Naples and gave trail rides. Horses were a novelty at that time and I got plenty of help. Young girls would come and I’d say, ‘let’s clean these stalls and then I’ll let you go for a ride.’”
Pop Horton was foreman for a big farming corporation. His farm was across the road from his job. I knew when he wasn’t there and I’d go and do a little shopping. He had cucumbers and tomatoes. I was loading my bag up and I looked up and here comes his truck. He had come back to check the irrigation. He drove up on the dirt road between the fields and said, ‘Can I help you there?’ I said, ‘If you want.’ He said, ‘You apparently have already helped yourself… keep getting what you need.’ I said, ‘I appreciate that.’ He said, ‘By the way, I’ve got a lot more vegetables up the road at my place. Get in my truck and I’ll take you up.’ I said no. Later he asked me to lunch. After about two weeks we were seeing each other. We were married for 42 years. He was a good man.
For years, Norma held court at The Main Street Cafe in Auburndale. She has been the unofficial ambassador. Now she is living at Spring Lake Apartments but can be seen at Main Street every Wednesday at lunch. She still moves pretty well in spite of all her injuries. “My legs been broke, my shoulders been broke, my neck been broke. Then of course there’s the time a wild boar gored me on the back of my leg and that was 32 stitches. They asked me at the ER, can’t you ever just come here with the flu or something?”
Norma embodies the spirit of a true Florida Cracker. What a tough group!