Arts + Culture

Going Places: Just Like a Small Southern Town

Taking in Moore Haven’s annual festival—with wild heifer milking, traditional parade and curried goat—how could you think otherwise?

BY June 14, 2016

When I’m traveling up north and people ask where I’m from, I always say, “I’m from the South.”

These people nod their heads as if they already knew, and then they ask, “Which state?”

“Florida,” I tell them.

“Florida?” They throw up their hands, as if startled. “Florida’s not the South.”

I always have to shake my head. “Come with me to some of the small towns around Lake Okeechobee,” I tell them, “and then you’ll know it’s the South.”

I had this scene—the startled hand-wringing, the shaking head—on my mind during a recent trip to Moore Haven, which sits just west of Lake Okeechobee and has a population of less than 2,000. Moore Haven is, by any definition, a small Southern town. But it’s easy to miss. In fact there’s only one day a year you might look for it, and that’s for Chalo Nitka, the annual festival that celebrates Seminole culture and Florida heritage.

This year, I managed to reach Moore Haven in time for the festival’s parade. A small-town Florida version of a parade, anyway. First came a police officer on a motorcycle, blue lights flashing. Then a palomino pony ridden by a young man and a small boy, both in traditional Seminole dress. Then, for a long stretch, nothing.

“I reckon that’s all of it,” the man next to me said.

“Moore Haven’s only got one deputy,” the woman on the far side of him said. “He had to go back on duty.”

People laughed and shifted in their folding chairs. Eventually the parade started up again, and a line of swamp buggies rumbled past. Next came pickup trucks on massive tires carrying local candidates for sheriff and supervisor of elections. The candidates stood in the truck beds, waving. They threw handfuls of Tootsie Rolls and asked us, “How y’all doing?”

When they had moved off down the road, a stream of beauty pageant winners followed, Little Miss and Tiny Miss and even a Tiny Mister, car after car after car, so that I began to think beauty pageants must be big in this part of the world. There were more swamp buggies, more candidates, more handfuls of chewing gum and Dum-Dums, until the end of the parade and the people on horseback. They rode past at a slow pace, dignified, serious, some of the men carrying beers, one woman carrying a baby. They didn’t throw candy or hold up any sort of campaign signs, and I can only assume that they were there to represent Moore Haven itself.

When the parade ended, the midway opened. People stowed their folding chairs, and we moved en masse to the festival itself. Off to one side were rides and the usual stands for cotton candy and candied apples, but I wasn’t interested in any of that. I had my mouth set for Seminole fry bread. I waited in line at one of the booths and watched as women in the traditional cloth skirts patted out rounds of dough. When I handed over my money, a man in a Seminole jacket handed me a piece of pumpkin fry bread wrapped in foil. It was hot and sweet.

As I ate I wandered around the festival, peeking in booths that sold pickled okra and chow chow, looking at a display of alligator teeth necklaces. After a while I took a seat on a picnic bench next to a big guy tucking into a plate of ribs.

“You staying for the rodeo tonight?” he asked between mouthfuls.

I shook my head, no. “Are you riding?”

“Not tonight,” he said, “but I used to. I’d go out with two other guys, and we’d rope. Or we’d do the wild heifer milking.”

Wild heifer milking? I may be from the South, but it sounded outlandish even to me.

“One guy holds the head and the other one milks,” the man explained. He gestured at his cup of iced tea with one rib bone. “You use a cup like that. Just need a few drops to show you got it.”

I nodded as if I understood. Why not?

All around me, men in shiny belt buckles walked by, their cowboy boots kicking up dirt. Women talked in country accents as thick as anything you’d find in Georgia or Mississippi. “Not the South?” I thought. People should see this place.

If You Go…

  • Mark your calendars now. Chalo Nitka ( comes only once a year, usually in early March. It’s the best reason to visit Moore Haven.
  • If you want the full experience, plan on going for the parade in the morning and staying through the rodeo at night. Watch out for wild heifers.
  • Chalo Nitka offers opportunities for serious eating. Don’t miss the curried goat from the Pentecostal church booth or the Seminole fry bread.



Related Images: