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To a place where roads are made of dirt and plots of land stretch for ten acres. To a place where animals outnumber people and turtles swim in murky canals. To a place where palm trees are native and unruly and a hand-painted sign reading "Lost 3 Cows" is an appropriate roadside pronouncement. To a place where it's easy to recall that, not long ago, South Florida was a malarial swamp filled with hell-raisers, land speculators, and mosquitoes the size of dragonflies.
Drive west! To Loxahatchee Groves.
On the way there, you'll pass the Palm Beach International Airport, the Mermaid Bar advertising "Girls Girls Girls," and the Florida State Fairgrounds. You'll also pass a parade of Eckerds and Shell stations and cookie-cutter developments and uniform rows of palm trees, not to mention the cities of Royal Palm Beach, Greenacres, and Wellington.
Then, at the first traffic light beyond the intersection of Forest Hill Boulevard and Folsom Road, about ten miles west of I-95, hang a right onto F Road. After about 100 feet, the pavement disappears. You're driving on dirt.
If anything distinguishes Loxahatchee Groves from the cities that surround it, it's the lack of pavement. As resident Bill Louda puts it: "The dirt road is what we are." Several times a day, city folks unwittingly make the turn onto F Road. When they realize they're entering pavementless country, many swing Uturns and head back to the comfortable bosom of civilization.
But if you're willing to get some mud lodged in your wheel wells and your shocks tested by the washboard-rutted roads, drive on. Beneath the canopy of slash pines and saw palmettos is a place that is a throwback to the pioneer days of South Florida.
Loxahatchee Groves is not a city or a town but an unincorporated, 7867-square-acre stretch of Palm Beach County. Its boundaries are delineated by the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District. At its broadest points, the area stretches four miles from north to south, three and a half miles from east to west. The north-south arteries, generically labeled A Road through F Road, correspond to the eponymous canals that run parallel to them.
The 2751 residents of Loxahatchee Groves are an eclectic, independent bunch. They are nursery owners, horse people, county bureaucrats, and gun-toting bird breeders, among others. Those others include a judge, a goat farmer, a beekeeper, a former B-movie Tarzan, and a woman known as Loxahatchee Mary or Dirty Mary, who wanders the roads hitching rides.
"If you dig deep enough around this whole western area, it's not exactly a typical American town," says Ellie Hope, a resident of Loxahatchee Groves for almost four decades. "A lot of people who live around here are slightly off the center line."
Nelson Bailey, a county judge, has lived in Loxahatchee Groves for 18 years, along with his wife, two horses, two goats, a steer, a cattle-herding dog named Cooter, and a bunch of roosters and chickens. On weekdays he dons black robes and deals with criminals in a courtroom at the county jail. On weekends, sporting a palm-frond hat and a cow whip, he travels to festivals with his horse Domino Negro and tells stories about Florida's history. "Some people move out here for the rural family values, some people move out here to grow a little marijuana in the back yard, some people move out here for the horses," Bailey says of Loxahatchee Groves. "It's an interesting place."
It's also a rural oasis surrounded by urban sprawl. When Hugo Forester was hunting for a place to set up a nudist colony in the mid-'60s, Loxahatchee Groves was so remote that the real-estate agent had to take him around by helicopter. Although the agent dismissed the area as "junky jungle," Forester bought a 40-acre plot of land and founded Sunsport Gardens. Each year hundreds of vacationing nudists lounge clothes-free at the swimming pool or "canude" down neighboring rivers.
But as housing developments and strip malls push ever farther west, turning what was once swampland and forests into bedroom communities, the residents of Loxahatchee are feeling threatened. Last year Royal Palm Beach annexed the southeast corner of unincorporated Loxahatchee Groves. The almost 100-acre piece of land will soon feature an Albertsons, a Walgreens, and a Wendy's. Due east, just across the border of Loxahatchee Groves, quarter-acre-plot housing developments are multiplying like melaleuca trees. To the north and west, the owners of 13,000 acres of neighboring citrus groves are being courted by developers.
Loxahatchee Groves is also changing drastically from within. In the last decade, nurseries have bought up land in droves, clear-cutting the forest in order to plant rows of palm trees and other plants. The pine canopy is now punched through with holes, and nursery trucks barrel down the dirt roads, kicking up dust.
"Unfortunately," says Forester, who at the age of 75 still roams the grounds of Sunsport Gardens, sans clothes, on a golf cart, "the city life is creeping up on us."
The one-room Loxahatchee Groves schoolhouse, which opened in 1918 with eight students, now sits at the Florida State Fairgrounds, a testament to the way folks once lived. If westward growth continues unabated in Palm Beach County, just a few decades from now all of Loxahatchee Groves could be consigned to the scrapheap of history, a relic of the past.