Just after the close of the Civil War that wrenched the nation in two, William Jackson Scarborough was a 17-year-old boy living in O’Brien, Florida, just southwest of Lake City near the banks of the Suwannee River. In the aftermath of the war, Union soldiers came into the area and began confiscating horses and cattle and other valuables. Young William Jackson, or “Jack” as he was called, got into a scuffle with one of them, pulled out his knife and injured the man.
He wasn’t sure how badly he had hurt him, and afterwards he ran home and told his mother. She said, “Well, you’re gonna have to leave. They’ll hunt you down and they’ll probably kill you.” She gave him a little knapsack and sent him off on foot. He had plans to go to Cedar Key and catch a steamer to Texas, but instead wound up running into a fellow named Irvin Locklear who hired him to come to the area near present day Crewsville and work for him.
And that’s how the Scarborough family first came to the Heartland, as told by 74-year-old Jack Scarborough, his great-grandson.
“His first job was to kill wolves,” Jack explained. His great-grandfather and another worker would kill a cow and pull it up into a wagon. With a sharpened stick they would cut off the meat in pieces, poison it with strychnine and throw it out for the wolves to eat.
“He did that for a number of years,” said Jack. And there are plenty more stories where that came from, like how William Jackson met Jack’s great-grandmother, Mary Jane Daughtry, whom he still remembers although he has no memory of his great-grandfather.
One day while working loading cattle onto Spanish sailing vessels off the coast of Sanibel Island, the elder Jack had his fortune told by a Spanish woman. She told him he would soon learn about a woman with a child whose husband had recently died. Not long after, he heard of woman who was living in Bassinger. “She had a new baby and her husband had died. She had a pretty good string of cattle,” the younger Jack recounted. That was his great-grandmother, Mary Jane.
There are many more stories, including stories of his great-grandfather staying at times with local Native American tribes, and even nursing back to health a Native American man who had been left for dead. In thanks, that man named himself Jack Scarborough. The younger Jack can confirm this story firsthand, because he’s met the man.
Fast forward to the next generation. Jack’s grandfather “Willie” Scarborough was a real cracker cowboy and rancher, driving cattle across the old Cracker Trail. It was a rough life in the outdoors, and Jack recalled riding horses and eating grits and tomato gravy with his grandfather and great-uncle, fighting off the heat and bugs. Willie put down roots in the Heartland and bought up land in DeSoto, Hardee and Highlands counties, continuing the family’s ranching and citrus tradition.
Next, Jack’s father, WJ took over. When it became Jack’s turn, he and his brother Bobby expanded into caladiums as well for 27 years, starting around 1976. They haven’t grown the ornamental plant for the past seven or eight years, stated Jack.
Now, fifth generation Scarborough, 50-year-old Robert, oversees the family’s operation of cattle and citrus. They also grow much of their cattle feed, including sorghum and grasses.
The family ranch off of present day County Road 29 in Lake Placid, where both Robert and Jack live, used to be swampland. Jack remembers cutting canals with bulldozers. Robert pointed out fenced-off Indian mounds, hardly noticeable as mounds now but which were high ground back when the area was wet. Remnants of pottery and arrowheads can still be found on the mounds.
Things have changed a lot in five generations. Robert sells most of the cattle from the family’s cow-calf operation via online auctions, but he does still move the cows on horseback with help from his son, Parker - the sixth generation.
A day in the life now isn’t eating grits and salt pork on the trail, but rather involves managing the right mix of cattle feed to grow a high-value calf, keeping up with the citrus spray schedule, and, earlier that day, filing a police report on some stolen young orange trees.
Despite the challenges in today’s citrus environment, upbeat and friendly Robert said the Scarboroughs are increasing their investment in citrus: “We’re gambling on that. We’re trying to push them fast, to grow out that young tree quicker. I’m hoping it’s just another bump in the road.”
“It’s not a dot com business. It’s agriculture. You’re never going to be able to live like a rock star, but it’s a great life,” he added.