Two local cowboys ride in Great Florida Cattle Drive 2016

Barbara Hootman

“Head ‘em up, move ‘em on” wasn’t just part of the theme song for the old hit TV show “Rawhide” for two Swannanoa cowboys, Gene and Clay Blankenship. Rather, it was their trail boss’ call each morning from Jan. 23-30 on the Great Florida Cattle Drive 2016.

Gene, a cowboy minister by calling, loaded his truck and horse trailer, and had his son a 15 year old Owen High School student and horses outside Kenansville, Florida. two days early having outrun the winter storm Jonas that brought Western North Carolina to a standstill for several days.

“We had planned to stay in a campground close to where the cattle drive started, but it was axle deep in mud,” Gene said. “I pulled into a parking lot, unloaded the horses to let them eat and rest, and a friendly police officer stopped by and said for us to load up and follow him. We spent the next two days camped in his yard.”

The Great Florida Cattle Drive 2016 is a once-a-decade event that draws hundreds of cowboys to Florida to reenact a part of the state’s history. The purpose of driving 500 head of cattle through central Florida for a week is to draw attention to Florida’s cowboy-cattle history. The January drive was the third since 1995. The modern day cowboys kept in mind how driving cattle used to be but carried modern day conveniences like cameras, cell phones, supplies, and rubber tires on the covered wagons.

Spanish explorers brought Andalusian cattle and horses to Florida in the 16th century. It made Florida the nation’s oldest cattle raising state. The Blankenships have strong ties to Florida with children born there, and Gene establishing and working with the cowboy churches around the state.

The $600 fee per person covered food for humans and horses during the drive.

“It was an expensive trip costing $1,200 in fees for me and Clay, but it was well worth the experience that it gave my son,” Gene said. “I saw a child becoming an independent young man who thinks for himself and doesn’t have to be told what to do often. If it needs doing he does it. I think a lot of his independence and maturity come from working on our farm in Swannanoa handling and taking care of the animals.”

The Blankenships dealt with torrential rains for two days that made Gene think about calling the event off and heading back to North Carolina. He would have been swapping rain and mud for snow and ice at the time. The fleeting thought didn’t last long. He had come for a Florida cattle drive and he lives by the cowboy code. One point he doesn’t let himself or his son forget is that cowboys finish what they start.

Clay set up the campsite up without help.

“I knew what to do, but I wasn’t expecting fire ants to have invaded our gear,” he said. “I got several stings, but nothing serious.”

The 2016 cattle drive was the second one that Gene has participated in, and the first one for Clay. Gene help drive cattle in the 1995 drive.

“I’ll be in my 20s when the next one happens, but I expect to go to it,” Clay said. “I learned a lot about myself and my dad, and just living the cowboy code. I expect I’ll always be a cowboy at heart.”

“The cattle in the drive are returned to the ranches that supplied them,” Gene said. “They are not auctioned off and butchered. Most of this type cows are used for breeding and nursing and shipped out West once they reach adulthood.”

At night Gene held devotions for the cowboys.

“My message was always wrapped around the Cowboy Code,” he said. “We had 400 copies of my book, “The Drive Living the Cowboy Code” printed just for this particular drive, and gave them to every rider. The book is a pocket devotional for the cowboy in all of us. It is only 80 pages long and has blank pages for the reader to journal experiences.”

The book can be ordered from Land of the Sky Cowboy Church. Gene Blankenship can be located at or on Facebook at You can find out more about Land of the Sky Cowboy Church from the same sources.

The “Frolic” closed the cattle drive on the last day at Kenansville Silver Spurs Rodeo Arena. The grand entry was made up of 400 riders driving 500 head of cattle home. Many of the riders and wagons displayed their county or state flags.

“I’ll never forget this cattle drive,” Clay said. “During the drive I not only learned to put into action to finish what I start, but to really practice finding joy in whatever I am doing. That really came in handy when the truck broke down and had to be towed to Asheville.”

Clay credits his best friend Lane Williams and his grandfather LeRoy Lundsford of Swannanoa for helping he and his dad and horses get back to Swannanoa from South Carolina where they were stranded.

“That is living the cowboy code, helping one another,” Gene said.