The old Red Barn on the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s Brighton reservation is not what it used to be. Time and neglect—and termites—have taken a toll on the 30’ X 64’ wood-framed structure.
It was a place to shelter horses ridden by Seminole cattle ranchers from the time it was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps Indian Division in 1941 up until the 1960s and then a social center, where tribal members would gather for meetings and family reunions. But a three-phase restoration project promises to restore this tribal landmark and treasure to its former glory.
The Spanish introduced cattle to America in the 1500s; in fact, the first to come ashore in Florida were brought by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521. Whether some got loose or they were left behind when de Leon retreated to Cuba, the Seminoles got hold of them and have been cattle keepers ever since—rightfully making them America’s first cowboys. The tribe’s modern cattle industry, however, did not begin until six months after the Brighton reservation opened in June 1935, when the federal government funded the purchase of 700 Hereford cattle from the Apache reservation in Oklahoma. Even though only 200 survived the journey, it was enough for the Seminoles to develop a self-sufficient cattle ranching program. Today, the program boasts 11,000 head of cattle, which graze on over 80,000 acres of pasture land spread over five Florida counties, according to Alex Johns, director of the tribe’s natural resources program.
There is no doubt that the Red Barn, with its 13 horse stalls, two storage rooms and hayloft, had an important role in the Seminole’s cattle ranching heritage. Its historical significance was reinforced by the National Park Service in 2008, when it listed the barn in the National Register of Historic Places. “The Seminoles have always been concerned about looking after their own heritage,” said Paul Backhouse Ph.D., director of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum and the tribe’s tribal historic preservation officer.
The first phase of the restoration project, started in December 2012 and completed in February, included strengthening the foundation by adding rebar and a new poured concrete footing, according to a report by Carrie Dilley, an architectural historian with the Seminole’s tribal historic preservation office. Deteriorated and missing wood on the east and west facades was replaced with stained cypress; roof support posts were replaced with 4x4 cypress posts, nearly identical to the originals; and some of the floor boards in the loft were replaced. To help ensure that it will stand up to what the tropics often send to Florida, the building now has hurricane straps.
A date has not been set for the second phase. Dilley said the tribe is still seeking grants to help pay for the rest of the work. In her report, she summarizes what the second phase will include: repairing the stall doors, installing historically accurate coverings on the hayloft and main entrances, repairing the wooden siding, painting the exterior walls and trim and installing a wooden shingle roof. Once that is done, the project will go to the third phase—developing a park.
As an off shoot of the Red Barn restoration project, the Seminole’s Tribal Historic Preservation Office conducted a survey of historic camps and other significant sites on the Brighton reservation. Using a helicopter to help identify them and take aerial photos, the team has thus far identified 15 to 16 sites around Brighton, many of which were once occupied by Seminole cattle ranching families. About a dozen elders were also called upon to recite oral histories associated with these sites.
Willie Johns, outreach specialist for the tribe’s Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum, said this project is ongoing. “We are not only listing camps that are on the reservation but off the reservation also. These off-the-reservation camps are what’s the real hang up because we have to get on that private property, put a stake out there.”