Remembering Bud Adams: A Legendary Floridian

St. Lucie County lost one of its most beloved native sons last weekend. Bud Adams died early Saturday in the home he had built for his wife in 1949 on his family’s expansive ranch. Although he owned one of the largest ranches in the country, Adams led a low key, unpretentious life. He was not one to brag about his accomplishments. Instead he just wanted a legacy that meant that the ranchland he loved be preserved forever. He got that wish three years ago when the state of Florida approved a conservation easement that will protect a portion of one of his ranches from development in perpetuity. 

Adams’s father, Alto Adams Sr. purchased the 40,000 acres in western St. Lucie County in 1937 for $1.50 an acre. But Adams Sr., a lawyer, had political aspirations and after campaigning for a successful gubernatorial candidate in 1936 he was rewarded with a circuit court judge appointment and then, in 1940, was named a justice to the Florida Supreme Court and moved to Tallahassee.

His son, however, always wanted to be a cowboy and Bud was perfectly content to oversee the cattle ranch. But Bud Adams didn’t just run the ranch, he excelled at it. He developed a new breed of cattle, called the Braford, which could better withstand Florida’s heat and mosquitoes. He shied away from pesticides and other chemicals hoping to keep his land as pristine as possible. His efforts earned him all sorts of awards, Landowner of the Year by the Florida fish and Wildlife Commission, a member of the Agriculture Hall of Fame, Florida Cattlemen’s Association’s Environmental award, were among the dozens of accolades he received during his long career.

Adams was also a man who wanted to give back to his community. He was a quiet philanthropist who supported several hometown organizations. Adams was not as politically motivated as his father, but was interested in both local and national campaigns.  Unlike his father, Adams took a more bipartisan approach.  He backed Patrick Murphy, a young Democrat who challenged incumbent Allen West, the Tea Party stalwart for the 18th district congressional in 2012.  Murphy won and he and Adams became fast friends. Adams was even featured in a Murphy commercial when Murphy ran for his second successful term.

Some of his agriculture buddies were surprised to see Adams take such an active role in a campaign for a young upstart Democrat no less. But Adams, then in his mid 80s, was always his own man and seemed to enjoy his involvement in the race.

Over the years, Adams photographed all sorts of wildlife on his ranch. His photos became well known. One of my favorites, which graced the wall of my husband’s office at Sunrise Ford, was a picture of a red tail hawk entangled by a rat snake. ”He who exercises no forethought but makes light of his opponents is sure to be captured by them,” was the inscription Adams put on that photo.

When Adams came to the dealership, he usually did not spend a lot of time looking at trucks. He just wanted something reliable, nothing fancy. Used was just fine. His down-to-earth lifestyle was adopted by his three sons, who worked the ranch alongside their father for decades. His granddaughter, Lee Ann, negotiated the easement deal with the Florida Cabinet.

Adams’s younger sister, Elaine, shared her brother’s love for the outdoors, with early morning horse rides and until her declining health, entertaining a myriad of friends from all over the globe at her comfortable ranch house. Elaine was the more adventurous of the two, traveling to exotic places, often piloting her own plane, galloping her horse across polo fields, and playing a mean game of tennis.

Bud would just as soon spend his free time with his family, gathering the brood for a Sunday supper. He also loved taking friends for ranch tours, pointing out the deer, alligators, turkeys, and exotic animals that he has collected.

Adams had slowed down in recent years. His wife, Dot, whom he once told a reporter was the prettiest girl at Florida State University when he met her, suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. Adams was an attentive husband and would often take her out on Saturday mornings to the Captain’s Galley for breakfast. She has stayed in the home they shared for 68 years, with Adams depending on caretakers, many from different countries, to help out. “It’s like the U.N. out there,” he told me a while back.

I last heard from Adams right before the November election. He wrote me a letter, saying he didn’t get out much anymore, but still was rooting for Murphy to defeat Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate race. He also enclosed a picture of himself proudly holding his new great grandbaby.

Murphy lost, but Adams still kept his hand in politics. He was to host a fundraiser at the ranch last Thursday for U.S. Senator Bill Nelson, who is up for re-election next year. By then Adams, 91, was gravely ill, but the fundraiser was held anyway. Dozens of Adams’s friends, many of them fellow ranchers and citrus growers, were there to show they supported their well respected colleague. Word spread that Adams had taken a turn for the worse and the event took a more somber tone. As a breeze swept through the ranch arena, Nelson chatted with everyone and gave a short talk, no blustery rhetoric or even a mention of his expected opponent, Governor Rick Scott.

Then everyone helped themselves to the barbecue, complete with Adams beef and iced tea. Many were wearing Adams’s preferred attire, blue jeans and cowboy boots. The event was down home and cordial, just like the man who was supposed to host it.