- December 19, 2022
Inside the bedroom of his Myakka City ranch house, right over top of his "sock drawer," Hansel “Cully” Rowell keeps a painting of a Pony Express station back in 1860, during the days of the wild West.
Workers are waiting for a delivery, and one rider is headed inbound, carrying the mail. Rowell, who received the painting as a gift from his son Timothy, likes to say that rider is "just boogieing along."
The Pony Express, only in existence about a year and a half, reduced the time of mail delivery from the East Coast to the West Coast, and vice versa, to 10 days.
Those fortunate enough to know Rowell understand why that particular painting is one of his favorites.
"The Pony Express could get you a letter in 10 days from back East," he said. "Now it takes 10 seconds."
While Rowell respects the past, he understands it mostly gives way to improvements in the future. He's not a good old days kind of guy, even if he spends much of his time researching the agricultural history of Manatee County.
He said we all will be better off if we attempt to understand our past so we can continue to make improvements. Toward that goal, he has worked with friends and county personnel such as Brenda Rogers to create maps of former ranches and farms in Manatee County.
Along with his research, the 79-year-old Rowell is known for donating countless hours to supporting the youth programs of Future Farmers of America, the 4-H and the Manatee County Junior Cattlemen's Association.
His years of service were recognized Nov. 17 when he was named the 2020 Manatee County Agriculturalist of the Year during the Bradenton Kiwanis annual Farm City Week Luncheon, which this year was held virtually.
"I still have to pinch myself," said Rowell, who still raises about 60 cattle. "When my name was called, I acted foolish. Never in my life did I think I would get it. You know, I've always enjoyed the kids. If you don't train them, they won't take over right. But we have the best FFA, the best Junior Cattlemen's Association, the best 4-H."
Fellow rancher Buddy Keen, like Rowell a past president of the Manatee County Cattlemen's Association and a former Agriculturalist of the Year, said Rowell didn't act foolish when his name was called, he just became emotional in talking about his work with the kids.
"He is so involved with the kids," said Keen, who manages the 6,000-acre L3 Partnership ranch. "He started to break down. I've known him 40 years, and if you ever needed anything, you could to go Cully. He is down to Earth and he won't tell you a lie. He will give you a straight answer."
East County's Kelly Davis Strausbaugh, who is a member of the Cattlemen's Association, said "Mr. Cully" has made countless positive impacts on her life.
"Honestly, it's hard to think of people he hasn't positively impacted in some way," she said. "He is such a major part of what makes our association and our local industry so great, and so solid. He is the first to volunteer, to give his time, his guidance, his energy. He always has been a support of the Junior association and he is a cheerleader who never shies away from rolling up his sleeves, all while telling a story about something funny that happened in the past. It's easy to love Mr. Cully."
Rowell is a Manatee County native who graduated from Manatee High School. He grew up on a farm on Tallevast Road and was influenced by his parents, Wesley and Jesse Rowell, and his many aunts and uncles, who mostly were involved in agriculture or farming in some way.
"I guess it's a lifestyle and I liked it," he said. "My mom and dad worked in the celery fields at Whitfield and Prospect. I remember the younger generation celery was boarded, but eventually they thought if it would get more sun, it would be better. They took out all the boards, and it was better."
It became a theme of his family members. He said his grandfather had a ranch adjacent to where Linger Lodge is now and remembers the scrawny 350-pound cattle that were prevalent at the time. His grandfather wanted to develop superior cattle.
"My relatives always were looking to do something better," he said. "I had an uncle who was looking for a better tomato. Another uncle was looking for a better pepper. My uncle John grew vegetables where Southeast High School is now. My relatives were trying to find something they knew the tourists would eat. I also had an uncle who raised hogs, but I guess my family never did get a better hog."
After high school, Rowell was an assistant at the Gulf Coast Experimental Station where Braden River High School is now. He said one of the scientists had a tomato named after him.
After getting married to his wife Donna in 1963, Rowell began to seek his own better vegetables.
"I would grew watermelon that would weigh more than I do now," he said. "But they don't do that anymore."
Cully and Donna would sell vegetables at area roadside stands and they eventually moved to a Prospect Road farm in 1968. He eventually moved to his current Myakka City ranch in 1988.
Cully and Donna no longer grow vegetables, though.
"The ground moved too far down," he said as he bent over to pull some make-believe weeds. "We would have more vegetables if it moved back up."
The cattle, though, will stay. FFA and 4-H members help him out on the farm and he pays them "a little." Because they are helping, he doesn't have to get on a horse anymore.
He wakes up at 5 each morning, eats at 6 and is out the door at 7. He gets on his tractor each day to see if he has any new calves.
He doesn't spend much time walking in the fields because "I can't climb the fence before my hip pocket is on the horn," he said with a laugh.
Actually, there are no horns on each ranch anymore for that exact reason.
He is retired from a "30-odd-year career" as a foreman with Florida Power and Light and spends much of his off time researching the county's agricultural past.
"We're losing our lifestyle," he said. "And people should know where we come from.
"The biggest thing I worry about when it comes to losing our (agricultural) land is the kids. What are they going to do in the future? But they can raise a lot more now on a smaller piece of property. And you can see where young people make things better."