Pete Clemons was iconic cowboy

OKEECHOBEE — The Okeechobee community was saddened this week by the passing of Pete Clemons, 91. Mr. Clemons died peacefully in his sleep on Sept. 16.

Mr. Pete Clemons, 1927-2018

Mr. Clemons was a famed former rodeo star, a successful citrus grower and rancher, and the owner/operator of Florida’s premier cattle market, the Okeechobee Livestock Market. Highly regarded for his friendliness, honesty, and genuine desire to help people, Mr. Clemons was considered by many to be the best-known and best-loved cattleman in the state.

In 2008 he was inducted into the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame. He has also traveled twice to South America to serve as an ambassador of U.S. rodeo. The high regard for Mr. Clemons by his peers was reflected by his selection as “Big Boss” of the National Day of the American Cowboy celebration in Okeechobee in 2007 and 2008.

Silver Spurs Rodeo shared a heritage video featuring Pete Clemons.

In 2009, Mr. Clemons was the recipient of the Florida Folk Heritage Award. In 2013, he was named to the Florida Sports Hall of Fame.

In 2011, the National Day of the Cowboy honored Mr. Clemons with the Cowboy Keeper Award. The Board of Directors of the National Day of the Cowboy organization bestows its annual Cowboy Keeper Award on organizations, events, projects, and individuals it determines have made, or are making, a substantial contribution to the preservation of pioneer heritage, as well as to those whose efforts support the continued growth and preservation of cowboy culture.

In 2016, the Florida House on Capital Hill in Washington D.C., added Mr. Clemons to their list of Extraordinary Floridians “as one of the best known and beloved cowboys in our state.” The Florida House honored Mr. Clemons with its first Florida Icon Award.

Mr. Clemons was born in 1927 and grew up working on cattle ranches in Osceola and Highlands counties. His parents, Oscar and Theressa Bronson Clemons, were both members of pioneer Florida cattle families. Mr. Clemons paid his own way through the University of Florida by working as a rodeo performer, and in 1950 he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in agriculture.

Mr. Clemons’ professional rodeo career began when he was in high school and continued until he was well into his forties. He won a record nine All Around titles at the annual Silver Spurs Rodeo in Kissimmee. This required excelling in five events: saddle bronc, bareback bronc, calf roping, steer wrestling, and bull riding.

This 1947 photo from the Florida State Archives was taken in Gainesville. The accompanying note states: They don’t teach this in college, but many of the students at the University of Florida, Gainesville, come from the ranch country and each year they stage their own collegiate rodeo. This winner is “Pete” Clemons, a Florida champion rodeo calf roper, who has just ridden down this “dogie,” roped and tied him up neatly in 16.8 seconds.” Special to the Lake Okeechobee News/Florida Memory Project.

In 1949 Mr. Clemons was the Kissimmee Jaycees’ representative at the National Jaycees Rodeo in Colorado Springs, and he stunned the western competition by entering all six events and coming away once again with the All Around title. As a rodeo cowboy, Mr. Clemons served as an unofficial ambassador for the Florida cattle industry both nationally and internationally. He competed throughout the U.S. as well as in Canada and Cuba. He appeared in televised professional rodeos on a regular basis and raised championship rodeo bulls on his ranch in Okeechobee.

In 1961 with the help of his father and another partner, Mr. Clemons purchased the Okeechobee Livestock Market. Under Mr. Clemons’ leadership, the market became Florida’s largest cattle market and one of the largest volume dealers east of the Mississippi. Today, the market provides a variety of special services, including locating buyers and sellers of cattle herds and bringing bull sales from out of state to local buyers. Clemons expanded cattle marketing to include video and internet marketing venues and helped start one of the first internet cattle auctions in the United States.

Okeechobee Livestock Market

Mr. Clemons has always been a strong supporter of the Florida beef industry and has worked hard promoting beef cattle ranching. In the early 1980s he served as chairman of the Florida Beef Council and helped guide the use of Beef Check-off dollars to raise consumer awareness about the healthfulness of beef and to build beef demand.

Mr. Clemons served as a board member or an officer of the Okeechobee County Cattlemen’s Association. He was president of the organization in 1979, and in later years he coordinated the group’s fundraising rodeos, which pay for beef promotion and college scholarships. In recognition of his many years of service, the Okeechobee County Cattlemen’s Association named him an honorary director.

Mr. Clemons was a strong proponent of property rights, fair trade, and reasonable business and land-use regulations. He was a past president of the Florida Association of Livestock Markets and was active for many years in the Animal Industry Technical Council, which works with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services on animal health and disease eradication issues.

Florida Farm Bureau honored the Clemons’ farm with a “This Farm CARES” designation. Since the 1970s, Best Management Practices have been used on Clemons Oak Creek farm to control runoff from the property and manage the water, nutrients and pesticides to reduce agriculture’s impact on the state’s natural resources.

With the news of Mr. Clemons’ death over the weekend, friends took to social media and websites with hundreds sharing fond memories of “Mr. Pete.”

“Today, we lost a great cowboy, a good friend, a lifelong mentor, a gentleman and a pillar of the cattle industry. Mr. Pete Clemons will be missed by all. His dedication to the cattle industry changed the way cattle have been marketed for the last 50 years. I can say I’ve learned a lot from him & I will miss his friendship. He’s in good company in Heaven right now. Rest In Peace Mr. Pete!” wrote Matt Pearce.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Adam H. Putnam posted: “Mr. Clemons was a veteran, successful farmer and rancher, long-time advocate for agriculture, and a champion rodeo rider. He will forever be remembered as a genuine Florida cowman, in every sense of the word. The world-wide brand and reputation of Florida’s cattle industry today would not be possible without the invaluable contributions of Mr. Clemons. My thoughts and prayers are with the family, friends and loved ones of Mr. Clemons during this difficult time.”

“We commend his longtime commitment and dedication to the beef industry,” posted the Arcadia Stockyard.

“He was one of the sweetest men I have ever met in my life. He was always so kind to me in every way,” wrote Maria Saylor.

“Mr. Clemons will always live on in Buster Kenton’s caricature of him, Kowboy Jake, mascot of Osceola High School,” wrote Robert Collins.

Kowboy Jake

Viewing will be held on Wednesday, Sept. 19, from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Buxton & Bass Funeral Home in Okeechobee. Services will be held on Thursday, Sept 20, at 11 a.m. at First Baptist Church. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that contributions be made to First United Methodist Church Building Fund.

Sources for this article include the Florida Agriculture Hall of Fame and the National Day of the Cowboy website.

Publisher/Editor Katrina Elsken can be reached at kelsken@newszap.com

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