Declarations of Independents

Forget strip malls, condos, and highways. Loxahatchee Groves is a place of dirt roads, wild pets, and eccentric residents.

Drive west!

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.

Say cheese: Jim Berke is the only purveyor of goat cheese in the state of Florida
Say cheese: Jim Berke is the only purveyor of goat cheese in the state of Florida
Say Cheese: Jim Berke is the only purveyor of goat cheese in the state of Florida
Say Cheese: Jim Berke is the only purveyor of goat cheese in the state of Florida
The bard of Loxahatchee Groves: On weekends County Judge Nelson Bailey dons palm-frond hat and cow whip to tell stories about Florida's past
The bard of Loxahatchee Groves: On weekends County Judge Nelson Bailey dons palm-frond hat and cow whip to tell stories about Florida's past
Hugo Forester has run the Sunsport Gardens nudist colony for 35 years
Hugo Forester has run the Sunsport Gardens nudist colony for 35 years
Ellie Hope is the opinionated matriarch of Loxahatchee Groves
Ellie Hope is the opinionated matriarch of Loxahatchee Groves
Lord of the jungle: Onetime B-movie Tarzan Steve Hawkes shares his home with lions, tigers, cougars, and a black leopard
Lord of the jungle: Onetime B-movie Tarzan Steve Hawkes shares his home with lions, tigers, cougars, and a black leopard
Happy trails: Y'all come back now
Happy trails: Y'all come back now

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.

So drive on, to this tiny stretch of unpaved South Florida -- while you still can.

Once you've turned onto F Road, take your time. You'll see people on horseback and black racer snakes slithering across the road. (Not to worry, though. As Greg "Snakeman" Longhurst, who lives on Gruber Lane along with half a dozen snakes, will tell you, "They're not venomous.") The first stop is about four miles north of Southern Boulevard. Drive between two stone pillars at the end of the road, and you'll see the sign for Turtle Creek Dairy, the only commercial producer of goat cheese in the state of Florida.

At 7 a.m. every morning, Jim Berke can be found inside a drab building milking goats. After the animals, 60 in all, are herded into the building through a small door, they stumble up a set of metal steps and take their places around a circular, mechanized milking device. Plastic cups are attached to the goats' teats, and milk is sucked from their bodies through a rubber hose and into a cooling tank. The only reason the goats put up with this process is because Berke bribes them. "They know that after they milk, they eat," he explains.

Berke is a large man with a shaved head and a kind face. He wears dirt-caked shorts, a white T-shirt, and rubber boots that come up to his calves. His assistant is Victoria, an exchange student from Russia who's taking part in a program run by the Future Farmers of America. Berke keeps a steady supply of exchange students busy at the dairy, sometimes two at a time, mostly from Scandinavian countries and Eastern Europe.

In 1973 Berke moved to Loxahatchee Groves from a New York City high-rise apartment building. At the age of 26, he had a bachelor's degree in biology from New York University, he'd traveled through Europe, and, as he recalls, he was "tired of the concrete, the plastic, the hustle and the bustle." So he literally moved into a thatched-roof hut. There was no running water or electricity. Berke wielded a machete and cooked on an open fire. People called him "Jungle Jimmy."

At the time he could drive along the dirt roads of Loxahatchee Groves in his 1962 Volkswagen and not see another soul. He recalls coming home late one night after closing up the natural foods restaurant that he owned in North Palm Beach for a couple of years in the late '70s. Just as he turned off Northlake Boulevard onto a dirt road, the car conked out. As Berke resolved to spend the night sleeping in the back seat, a pickup truck pulled up behind him. It was filled with beer-drinking locals who were out coon hunting, but they were more than happy to take $20 in exchange for a tow home. As Berke sat in the car behind the pickup, a drunk stood up in the bed of the truck and pissed all over the Volkswagen's windshield. Despite the unwanted car wash, Berke was relieved to find a way home.

About ten years later, in 1989, Berke founded Turtle Creek Dairy with his now ex-wife. He'd seen a newspaper story about a Virginia farmer who ran a successful business producing goat cheese for the well-heeled denizens of Washington, D.C., and the northern Virginia suburbs and figured there was a similar marketing opportunity in Palm Beach County. There was just one problem: Goats don't like hot, humid weather. They prefer wet, cold, dreary places like, say, Katmandu. "If I had these same goats in a West Virginia alfalfa field, I'd get probably 20 to 25 percent more production," says Berke. To compensate for the heat, he gives the goats a high-protein diet of New Mexico hay and feed made especially for Turtle Creek Dairy by a mill in Okeechobee.

Twice a week Berke pasteurizes the goat milk, which is pumped from the cooling chamber into a pasteurization tank, where it is heated to 145 degrees Fahrenheit. Later he adds a culture to the milk, then an enzyme that causes it to coagulate. Within a week about 70 pounds of goat cheese is ready for delivery to such high-end establishments as the Breakers and La Vieille Maison. The market for goat cheese is strongest between November and April. (Even goat farming is dictated by the seasonal migration of snowbirds in Palm Beach County.)

Aside from the one-pound packages Berke sells to restaurants, Turtle Creek Dairy also produces half-pound portions of cheese, cheese spreads (with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, or mixed herbs) and goat-milk fudge to sell at farmers' markets and gourmet shops.

As Berke has progressed over the years from hut dweller to restaurateur to dairy farmer, he's seen Loxahatchee Groves also change considerably but not always to his liking. More than a decade ago, one of his neighbors planned to install a radio tower that would have obscured Berke's view of the sunset. "To me that's a form of pollution," Berke says. "I've always appreciated the fact that, at the end of the day, I can hear birds chirp, see a nice sunset." Luckily other Loxahatchee Groves residents complained about the radio tower, and the idea was scrapped.

Berke believes change is inevitable, though. And he admits that the success of his goat-cheese operation is due to the excessive infusion of people and wealth that has shaped Palm Beach County over the last 30 years. Berke may have once fled civilization, but he's now its beneficiary.

"If worse comes to worst, when D Road gets paved and 145th Street becomes a four-lane," he jokes, "I'll put up a 7Eleven over here and have my kids sell lotto tickets."

Anybody who's lived in Loxahatchee Groves for more than ten years can tell stories about encroachment. But not everybody considers it inevitable. Alongside F Road sits a sign for Le Petite Cheval horse farm. At one point Palm Beach County planned to build a road that would have crossed the property, but owner Joan Krogman and some of her neighbors successfully battled the proposal. And last year residents pressured Lion Country Safari, located a few miles west of Loxahatchee Groves, to scale back plans for a theme park and hotel that would have significantly increased noise and traffic in the area.

But for all the victories chalked up by die-hard preservationists, whose motto is "Love it and leave it alone," development continues to march on. To understand the transformation of the area over the years, you'll have to pay a visit to Ellie Hope.

At the age of 79, Hope is considered the matriarch of Loxahatchee Groves. A dedicated rabble-rouser, she has lived on the same eight-and-a-half-acre plot since 1962. Her house is not hard to find. Just east of C Road, it sits alongside busy Okeechobee Boulevard, the only paved road in the area. When she moved here with her late husband, Bob, in order to "beat hell out of the city," as she puts it, Okeechobee Boulevard did not exist. Middle Road, as it was known back then, was just a dirt path running from A Road to D Road.

Seated in a bamboo chair in her sparsely furnished living room on a weekday morning, Hope can hear the steady stream of cars and trucks roaring down Okeechobee. She's planted oak trees over the years, and slash pines and other trees crowd her property, but nothing can keep the noise out.

Hope is not "house proud." A threadbare lime-green carpet covers the floor, and the pieces of tape on the sliding-glass doors are remnants of a long-forgotten hurricane. A raccoon often shows up at the doors and puts his paws against the glass, hoping that Hope will feed him, as she regularly does. "I'm not sure they get the most rounded diet," she says. "They rely on me instead of foraging."

Time has taken its toll on Hope. She suffers from cerebral palsy and arthritis and usually walks with a cane. But she's feisty and sharp. She continues to write a column for the weekly newspaper The Forum, and her response to questions about whether she likes what's happened to Loxahatchee Groves is simple: "Hell no!"

In 1976 Hope was leader of the "Loxahatchee 11," a group of residents who blocked the construction of a culvert bridge across a canal in the northern section of Loxahatchee Groves. The bridge was to provide access to a planned golf course and housing development. In her book Loxahatchee Groves' Yesteryears, Hope writes that, after word went out that the property owner was building the bridge without approval from the Loxahatchee Groves Water Control District, residents gathered at the site. A call was then made to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, which sent an officer to the site. The project was halted.

The next day residents removed the culvert from the canal. Hope and the others were later sued by the landowner for destruction of property, and after a marathon legal battle, they each had to pony up money to the landowner, in Hope's case $15,000. But the Loxahatchee 11 had accomplished their goal: The golfing community never materialized, and the land is now protected from development as part of the Royal Palm Beach Pines Natural Area.

Not every battle has been won. Take the annexation of the southeast corner of Loxahatchee Groves by Royal Palm Beach last year. Loxahatchee Groves is not an incorporated city, so its fate has often been determined by the whims of property owners and neighboring towns. If a landowner decides he wants his property to become part of Royal Palm Beach or Wellington and the city accedes, Loxahatchee Groves can't do much to stop it from happening.

Last year's annexation involved two parcels of land. Within a year or so, a 58,000-square-foot Albertsons supermarket and an adjoining liquor store will pop up on one property, as will a 7200-square-foot building for which a tenant has yet to be determined. On the other piece of land, which abuts Southern Boulevard, a Walgreens and Wendy's will grace the landscape.

"I'm furious," Hope says, referring to plans for both properties. "Right to the bloody end, I was against it." Rita Miller, president of the Loxahatchee Groves Landowners Association and a protégé of Hope's, adds: "It's the most horrible mishmash of commercial garbage I've ever seen."

The state legislature passed a law last year designed to protect Loxahatchee Groves from further annexation. Appropriation of property by neighboring towns now requires the approval of a majority of landowners in Loxahatchee Groves. In addition any annexation will have to be an all-or-nothing deal. In other words: Swallow up all of Loxahatchee Groves, or as the slogan goes, "leave it alone."

But some county officials and Loxahatchee Groves residents question whether the law will stand up to legal challenges under Florida's stringent property-rights laws. With land prices spiraling upward, it is inevitable that the bill will eventually face challenges, whether through the courts or the legislature.

Hope herself is skeptical. If wealthy, absentee property owners want their land annexed, they'll find a way to do it, she says. "A lot of people who are intelligent and have been around seem to be totally naive when it comes to the political process and who can do what to whom," she adds.

The loss of land is not the only pressure facing Loxahatchee Groves. Development is rampant in nearby regions, some just across the border. The result is increased traffic, greater need for commercial services, and consequently, pressure to build more roads (and not of the dirt variety). Abutting Loxahatchee Groves to the east, for example, is the Madison Green housing development. When completed the project will feature 1150 houses on lots smaller than a half acre.

North and west of Loxahatchee Groves, the biggest question is what will happen to 13,000 acres of citrus groves. Last year Callery-Judge Groves, which owns about 4000 acres, requested a change in zoning that would allow the construction of a 100-acre-plus office park. Many residents fear that if one development sprouts up amid the citrus groves, others will soon follow.

"There's really no way I can see that they can stop these things from being developed," says Hope.

Changes in zoning, however, have been put on hold as the county government considers how to proceed. The county recently began developing a "sector plan" for what is known as the central western communities: Loxahatchee Groves, the citrus fields, and the Acreage, a hodgepodge of mostly one-and-one-quarter-acre lots that covers much of the area. Over the next 15 years, the region's population is expected to balloon from 32,538 to almost 52,000, most of whom will be Acreage residents. The county commission recently selected a consulting firm to lead the planning effort, which will cover everything from road building to commercial development to water supply.

County commissioner Tony Masilotti, whose campaign slogan in the central western communities was "Keep it country," believes it will be difficult to forge a consensus among the various interest groups. "If it was sliced bread, some people will want it sliced thinner, some people will want it sliced thicker," he says of the planning process. Masilotti adds that he's committed to preserving Loxahatchee Groves as a rural area. "They choose not to have a bunch of 7Elevens out there," he says of the residents. "They don't want to look at 7Elevens. They want to look at trees."

Rita Miller favors the sector-planning effort because it ensures that attempts to dramatically alter the area will have to grind through the gears of government bureaucracy. "Everything will have to be chewed over until it's mush," she says.

In Hope's estimation, though, it may be too late to save Loxahatchee Groves. She says the slogan "Love it and leave it alone" is no longer an apt rallying cry for the area. "I would like it to be," she laments, "but I'm afraid to say it's probably not appropriate."

Also endangered is a sense of community, which is rare in South Florida, where many neighborhoods are either brand-new or inhabited by a transient population. Six years ago, when Hope broke her hip and was hospitalized, a county nurse visited her disheveled house and determined that Hope could no longer care for herself. "They wanted to say I was incompetent," she recalls, spitting out the word with distaste.

When word spread through Loxahatchee Groves that the state was planning to institutionalize Hope, her neighbors mobilized. In one weekend -- and without Hope's knowledge -- they basically rebuilt her house, installing a new stove and toilet, refinishing the countertops, and painting the walls. Before the work was done, "the kitchen was a real crime," Hope concedes.

She now has no plan to leave -- ever. "Not on my feet, I'm not," she says. "My preference would be, literally, to die here."

In the early '80s, Hope wrote a newspaper article about fellow Loxahatchee Groves resident Steve Sipek, a onetime B-movie Tarzan who has lived in the area for 30 years. In 1969 and 1970, Sipek (or Hawkes, as he prefers, his stage name) played Tarzan in two films.

Ride around Loxahatchee Groves long enough and undoubtedly you'll pinpoint the piece of property that belongs to Hawkes: It's the only one marked by four-foot-high lion busts and a sign on the metal gate that reads, "No Trespassing. Violators Will Be Eaten!"

Hawkes isn't joking. On the five-acre property, he keeps nine large cats -- lions, tigers, panthers, and a black leopard. If you want to see exotic cats, you could visit "Tiger Falls," the Palm Beach Zoo at Dreher Park's brand-new, 20,000-square-foot exhibit, complete with 20 types of bamboo and a swimming pool. Or you could visit Hawkes and, as you wait for him to open the electronic gate, look around nervously each time the wind blows, hoping it isn't an 800-pound tiger planning to choose you as its next toy.

The property is as welcoming as a junkyard. It could exist only in the laissez-faire world of Loxahatchee Groves, where neighbors generally adhere to a live-and-let-live philosophy. Iron fences, about 12 feet tall, zigzag across the property, so as to keep the animals at bay. Several pieces of heavy machinery, including a forklift, sit in the yard. Hawkes is in the process of building a garage for his 1959 convertible Cadillac and 1969 Corvette (complete with lion's head hood ornament). Near the swimming pool is a massive statue of a musclebound man holding a globe atop his head.

You'll have to make do with a cage-side view of the animals, because the house (and most of the yard) is off limits. The cats have the run of the granite floors, from the swimming pool to the master bedroom, and they don't take kindly to strangers. Only Hawkes and his girlfriend, LeeAnn Lewis, can enter. At night Bobo, a tiger, cuddles up in bed with the couple.

The 58-year-old, Croatian-born Hawkes is a few inches over six feet tall, with a barrel chest and a shaggy head of salt-and-pepper hair. His eyes are bright blue but bloodshot, and his vine-swinging arms are still ripped with muscles. Lou Ferrigno comes to mind, but with a middle-aged gut.

"I was seven years old when I saw Johnny Weissmuller swinging through the trees, and that was it," says Hawkes, explaining the root of his Tarzan obsession. By Hawkes' fabled account, he escaped communist Croatia at age 17 by hiking through mountains. He fled first to Austria, then Paris, then Canada, finally settling in Miami in 1959. The opportunity to play the lord of the jungle, his boyhood dream, came, according to Hawkes, after he sent pictures of himself to a producer, who then arranged an audition.

"How many people can walk among lions and tigers and survive?" Hawkes asks rhetorically. "Only Tarzan can do that."

The films in which Hawkes appeared usually are not mentioned in the same breath as the Weissmuller classics (or even the later Jock Mahoney films). One Website dedicated to all things Tarzan gives each Hawkes movie a single star, describing one as "an odd, inept movie." It does add, however, that "Hawkes' yell is wonderful!"

Not so wonderful was the filming of Tarzan y el Arco Iris (Tarzan and the Rainbow), during which a stunt went terribly awry. For one scene, in which Tarzan is tortured for information, Hawkes was tied to metal stakes planted in the ground. A fire was also lit for dramatic effect. But, as Hawkes recalls, too much kerosene must have been used, because the set went up in flames. The crew, he claims, fled the fire, but a lion dragged him from the flames, which burned 90 percent of his body.

"People have never mattered anymore ever since," says Hawkes, rolling up a sleeve to show patches of discolored skin. "I became a slave to the animals."

Hawkes did some acting after recovering from the burns (he played a murderous monster in a horror flick called Blood Freaks), but soon moved to Loxahatchee Groves in order to create a sanctuary for exotic cats. It's evidently a full-time job. Hawkes says he can't travel farther than Miami because the animals have to be looked after constantly. Housing nine several-hundred-pound cats is also expensive: Every two weeks or so, 1500 pounds of turkey legs are delivered to the Loxahatchee Groves compound for consumption.

Hawkes does granite and fencing work to pay the bills, and Lewis silk-screens Tshirts (featuring, naturally, images of lions and tigers) to sell at flea markets. The couple is also trying to get a Web-based business going. Billing the Loxahatchee Groves compound as "Jungleworld," the Website features a picture of a loincloth-clad, spear-carrying Hawkes, along with Tony the Tiger. Web browsers are implored to visit Jungleworld in the flesh, where they can have their pictures taken with the animals. Hawkes also wants to set up an exotic-animal Web cam, for which people would pay $1 a month to watch the cats online.

Despite the cyberspace plans, money is a constant pressure. Like Loxahatchee Groves itself, with its dirt roads and eccentric personalities, Hawkes is uncertain how long his sanctuary can survive. One of the few assets he has is the land itself, valued at $75,386 by the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser's Office. But if Hawkes sells the property, it is highly unlikely that he could find another place to live where the animals would have enough room to roam -- and where the presence of an 850-pound tiger would not incite a revolt by local homeowners.

The only alternative, in Hawkes' mind, is a dark one -- and perhaps an apt metaphor with which to close this trip to Loxahatchee Groves. If the money runs out, Hawkes says, he may kill the cats and himself, rather than ship them off to someone else's care.

"I can't afford food next week," Hawkes says. "It scares me that someday I would have to put us all to sleep. They're free here."

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:

paul.demko@newtimesbpb.com

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