Doyle Carlton’s way of life

Ranching, the Florida State Fair and a strong family bond

Cattle ranching in Florida started nearly 500 years ago, most historians agree.

While the Carlton family’s history doesn’t go back quite that far, the family’s most recent six generations have been in the ranching business and the next generation is on the path to continuing the family’s way of life.

Roman III Ranches ranks 12th among cattle numbers, out of the approximate 5,000 cattle ranches in the state of Florida, according to the Florida Cattlemen’s Association.

For some perspective on just how large this industry is in Florida, there are 4 million acres of pastureland, and another million acres of grazed woodland, involved in cattle production in the state.

The total breeding herd value in Florida is more than $847 million and the annual calf “crop” value is more than $400 million. All told, Florida’s beef cattle herd is valued in excess of $1 billion, according the Florida Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.

Beef cattle sales and sales of breeding stock generate more than $900 million annually in Florida.

Doyle Carlton III is not only the patriarch of the Carlton family, and Roman III Ranches, he’s also the chairman of the board at the Florida State Fair Authority.

Carlton, typically humble and soft spoken, is tight-lipped on financials of his  family business but according to a story by The Herald-Advocate newspaper in Wauchula from 1987, his father had amassed 60,000 acres at that time, and the family still has cattle grazing on some of the property that was obtained more than 100 years ago.

This year marks the 60th year that the Carlton family has had stewardship over their Horse Creek Ranch in DeSoto County.

Turn of the Century

Carlton was born to Doyle Carlton Jr. and Mildred Carlton in 1947 in Tampa, but his family lived in Wauchula. A quick Google search brings up a number of stories, Wikipedia pages and more on the family and their long history in Florida, which dates back to the 1800s.

In fact, Carlton’s grandfather was elected governor of Florida in 1928.

“I’m the seventh generation in my family. My ancestors migrated down from the Carolinas, through Georgia and ended up in what is now called Hardee County,” Carlton says. “They were looking for the promised land. It wasn’t a biblical promised land but they were looking for a place that they could move their family, establish a better lifestyle and to create opportunities for the family.”

Carlton graduated from Hardee High School and later, graduated from Texas Christian University’s ranch management program.

After coming home from Texas, he met Debbie Hansel. They’ve recently celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary.

Debbie was no stranger to the ranching lifestyle. She comes from an old Florida pioneer ranching family, Parker Brothers.

Their two children also work in the family business. Their daughter, Millie Bolin, is office manager for the ranch and grove operations, while their son, Dale, manages Horse Creek Ranch’s day-to-day activities and has involvement in all things ranching, Carlton says.

Three of Carlton’s grandsons work on the ranch, one is still in junior high school, and his granddaughter and her husband also work on the ranch.

Talk about a family affair.

One of the hidden gems of the Tampa Bay area that you’ve undoubtedly driven past, or walked past to get to a concert or the Florida State Fair, is Cracker Country.

Established by Carlton’s parents in 1978, Cracker Country was created to preserve the pioneer history of Florida. One of the buildings you can tour there is the 1885 home of his Carlton’s great grandfather, Albert Carlton.

Busloads of children visit Cracker Country during the year, and it’s open to the public during the Florida State Fair. If you haven’t experienced it, you should.

Carlton lights up when he talks about his parents creating this space. “The kids really love it,” he says, joyfully.

Doyle Carlton, III at Cracker Country

The Carlton Code

When speaking to Carlton, it’s clear that honor means a lot to him but he’s also a modest man, concerned with sounding righteous or pompous.

“There’s so much of my father and grandfather, beyond legacy, that I respect and appreciate,” he says. “One of the most-noted mobsters, Al Capone, once told my granddad that if he would sign a certain legislation, for gambling, that his signature would be worth $100,000. My grandfather’s response was, ‘If it’s worth that much to you, just think of how much it’s worth to me. I think I’ll keep it.’ ”

Stewardship is a pivotal part of the Carlton way of life—from the ranch business, to the family’s views on community and preservation of land.

At Roman III Ranches, the cattle’s national value is a priority and the ranchers use techniques to reduce stress in the cattle. They do this by working quietly, in small crews.

“They take care of us, so we take care of them,” Carlton says.

In addition, a part of the Carlton’s ranch property is distinguished as WRP Conservation easement, meaning the land is never to be commercially developed.


What’s also commonly overlooked is that the Florida State Fair, while it brings in rides to make your spin and food to give you heartburn, is actually a major fundraiser to help support and promote the state’s agricultural industry.

“There’s a tremendous amount of agriculture involved in the fair,” Carlton says. “We will have somewhere around 1,500 to 2,000 children exhibiting some type of livestock this year and there will be probably about 4,000 animals.”

In 2018, paid attendance to the fair was more than 300,000 unique visitors, generating more than $152 million in economic impact in Florida, according to an economic impact study done by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council in 2019. In 2019, the State Fair had about 500,000 unique visitors, according to Carlton.

When Carlton isn’t putting in time on the ranch, or involved with the business of the Florida State Fairgrounds, he’s spending time with his family and enjoying the great outdoors.

He loves to quail hunt at Horse Creek Ranch, which doubles as the Carlton family’s gathering spot for Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. He and Dale host large groups of 25-30 people to spend the first weekend of hunting season at the ranch.

Carlton has taught Sunday school for 34 years. “Some of the children I’ve taught are grown up and bring their children now,” Carlton says. He also has coached football in Hardee County for 26 years. 

Remembering the Past

With technology in our faces at all times and the world seemingly moving faster around us as the years pass by, ranching is a deep-rooted foundation of Florida and a symbolic of a way of life, perhaps forgotten by some.

Whether it’s watching the sun rise while herding cattle out in the Florida pastures or taking a walk through Cracker Country to remember where our ancestors started, the Carlton family hasn’t lost touch with those deep-rooted foundations.

“I am tremendously blessed by the grace of God, good planning by my ancestors and a continuing appreciation and love for the business we are in and the lifestyle that accompanies it,” Carlton says. “The fact that the generations after me love, and have the same passion for our business as my generation and the ones that proceeded me is a tremendous blessing. Prayerfully, that will be sustained.” ♦

  • Charles W Ward
    Posted at 00:18h, 09 January Reply

    My uncle David Elmer Ward was married to Martha Carlton. He practiced law in Tampa

  • Been johns
    Posted at 01:03h, 09 January Reply

    I remember the Carlton family always helping family’s in time of need all around wachula and ona that is where my mother was raised . She was an albritton and her dad was dink albritton we all have a lot of memories from the old times in the 60- 70 wonderful people will never forget the Carlton family and albritton and Walker family’s that lived there

  • Nelson Adams
    Posted at 01:42h, 09 January Reply

    The Carltons are truly a Great Family all of them they truly care for all they come in contact with Doyle lll Dad help me change my life by caring for me when I thought no one else cared but my mother

  • Roy Cox Jr
    Posted at 05:06h, 09 January Reply

    Hardee County are so blessed to have you and the whole Carlton Family! I loved your Mom and Dad and am sure they are so missed by you all! They were always beyond a blessing to me and offered me so much encouragement! My family actually had more connections than you might know! My grandfather Dr WH Cox jr lived in Brooksville at the time your Grandfather became Governor! He was Surgeon General over Florida Prisons and involved in politics at the time! My father told me how he and your dad enjoyed playing together when Your grandfather would visit my dad’s home in Brooksville. Hie named his youngest son. Doyle Carlton Cox after the Governor! I was blessed and privileged enough to live in Wauchula and come to know many members of your wonderful family and watch your children grow up! But most importantly,, I saw the most generous and loving people I had ever known in your family! I was blessed by being exposed to your kindness and also your humility as seen in the entire family. Thank you for that! I am very proud to have known you and for you this tribute to Carlton’s Cattle and Ranching legacy for all these years and there overall contribution to our wonderful State!! May God continue to bless you and all the family for years to come! Please share this with Debbie, your wonderful wife and sisters as well as your children! Sincerely, Roy (Bud) Cox Jr.

  • Dawn B Stout Sandum
    Posted at 12:07h, 09 January Reply

    What a unique story

  • Joan B. Grynbaum
    Posted at 22:41h, 12 January Reply

    What a splendid story about a wonderful family. 👏

  • Sue
    Posted at 04:18h, 20 February Reply

    Great article. I graduated with Doyle. He’s always been one of the good guys.

  • Emilie Carlton Melonas
    Posted at 02:50h, 22 March Reply

    So interesting to read about my Florida ancestors and about Doyle Carlton. My Dad was Hendry Carlton, born in LaBelle in 1901. He was a descendant of the two ranching families, the Hendrys and the Carltons. My Mom was Bessie Mae,(she hated that name, HA) McMath from Thomasville, GA where I think many ancestors resided for a while before moving to FL. Doyle and I are contemporaries, cousins somewhere along the line! I don’t know why my family left the area, but we visited most summers. Thanks for the history lesson and the continuing story. They sound like great folks!

    Posted at 22:32h, 14 June Reply

    Dear Carlton Family,
    My name is Doyle McNeil, and my father Willie McNeil, was a chauffeur for Doyle Jr. in the late 50s and early 60s. I remember at Christmas time my mother who also served as a part time maid would have me sing carols at your home on Bayshore in Tampa. I do not have a photo of my dad and was wondering if you might have one. Thank you for reviewing this message. By the way I was named Doyle in commemoration to your family.

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