As you exit the turnpike at Indiantown Road, the night is blissfully black, with not a single garish strip mall in sight. The thought dawns that it probably won't be like this five years from now, because a big real-estate company just bought thousands of pristine acres around here and plans to develop the land.
Still, it's best to enjoy the moment. An orange full moon hangs low over the horizon. Christmas lights twinkle on the side of a large trailer, in the shape of horses pulling an Old West stagecoach. Just past the stagecoach are cars, pickups, and SUVs crammed into a rutted field, which means you've arrived at multimillionaire rancher Billy Bowman's cow pasture.
Hidden from the road, in a field covered with mangrove mulch, hundreds of people are eating, laughing, and dancing. You know you're not on Clematis Street anymore. Many of the folks here are wearing cowboy hats and boots, and they look like they belong in them. A giant bonfire takes the chill out of the night air and casts a glow over the revelers. Giddy children, blissfully unsupervised, are heaving blocks of wood into the fire and getting sprayed with sparks.
A lean, hawk-nosed man in baggy shorts, with long silver hair tucked under a baseball cap, is greeting people and swigging a bottle of Bud. "Welcome to Turtle River Ranch," says Billy Bowman, who has put on this soiree with his wife, Dari, for the past three years. In a rich Tennessee drawl that comes from his mother, the Dade County-born Bowman explains that what draws so many people to his parties is the chance to rub shoulders with a wide swath of Palm Beach County society. "That one dancing there, that's trailer trash," he says with a grin. "And that one there, that's a classy lady from Boca. And see that older woman there? Wait a little bit, and she'll take off all her clothes. She does it every year."
Attending Bowman's ranch bash is like traveling back in time to the days when good old boys in cowboy hats ran things, before the northerners swarmed down like locusts. Everybody knows everybody else, and everyone seems to love Bowman. "I've been buddies with Billy forever, and I think the world of him," says Harry MacArthur, who owns Harry and the Natives, a 56-year-old restaurant in Hobe Sound. "He likes to party."
The invitation read, "Bring your own steak or bird," and several long barbecue pits are hissing with blackened meats. Large pans of corn on the cob, black-eyed peas, potatoes, and coleslaw -- prepared personally by Dari Bowman -- line wooden tables in front of the barbecues. "You've got something there to grill?" asks a man wielding a pair of tongs and wearing an orange T-shirt that reads, "We cheat tourists, drunks, and attorneys." He promises to sear a visitor's steak to a perfect medium-rare.
A two-man country group, the Doublewide Band, is standing on the back of a 1953 flatbed Ford, twanging away on guitars. The sign below their feet reads, "Smiling Jack's Fish Camp: beer, soda, groceries, bait." The singer, who's named Hot Curl, is belting out an X-rated version of the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," and people are getting up on the cable-spool tables and boogeying.
Just as Bowman promised, the crowd is an eclectic mix. One enthusiastic dancer jumps on stage and gyrates next to the musicians. Someone identifies her as state representative Sharon Merchant (R-North Palm Beach). She's not the only VIP here, though. Palm Beach County Commissioner Karen Marcus and county public defender Richard Jorandby are spotted not far from the stage, conversing sedately.
The 61-year-old Bowman is legendary for his hospitality, having hosted numerous fundraising barbecues for political candidates and charitable causes. In 1995 he catered an inaugural street party in Tallahassee for newly reelected Gov. Lawton Chiles. As a humorous protest against the city's strict food-safety rules, he served Chiles a plate of ribs sheathed in condoms -- for "maximum safety." Throughout the '70s and '80s, he held an annual giant Super Bowl party with outdoor big-screen TVs at his dairy farm in west Delray Beach. He and Dari finally ended that tradition in 1987, when the guest count hit an unmanageable 4000.
Bowman shut down his dairy operation -- the last one in Palm Beach County -- several years ago. Since then, he and his brother, Jimmy, and his son, Dick, have been grazing 1500 head of beef cattle on several spreads they lease around the county. "Now I only have union cows," he quips, an allusion to the much shorter workweek involved in raising cows for meat compared with milking them. "You see Miss USA yet? You gotta go over and see her," he urges.
In a pen on the other side of the bonfire stands a gorgeous 1200-pound black-and-white cow, half Angus, half Holstein. On her right flank is a large white marking that looks remarkably like the United States. A young man wearing faux antlers on his head and puffing on a big stogy is staring at the mooing map in drunken wonder. "Jesus Christ," he marvels. "It's even got Maine. Hell, I can see some Mexicans crossing the border."
Bowman worries that the unspoiled charm of north Palm Beach County, along with its rural way of life, is threatened by encroaching development. In the 1920s his family started a dairy farm in Dade County, on the site of what is now Pro Player Stadium. In the mid-'50s, with Dade rapidly developing, the family sold that farm and moved its operation to Delray Beach. When that area started suburbanizing, Bowman leased the Turtle River Ranch from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. "It's some of the best pasture land in the county," he boasts. "And it's such a pretty property, with all these cypress trees."
Last December, however, a Bonita Springs-based company called Watermark Communities Inc. bought the land on which the ranch sits. WCI also purchased an unspoiled 1200-acre site just west of the ranch, known as the Cypress Creek tract, which the county wanted to buy and preserve as wetlands. But the company, which is headed by Al Hoffman, Jr., chief political fundraiser in Florida for both Gov. Jeb Bush and his brother George W., instead sold the land to another developer. While the fate of the Cypress Creek parcel remains uncertain, the future of the ranch is pretty clear. Bowman says he'll continue to lease it from WCI for another three years or so, at which time the company plans to develop the land.
Meanwhile Bowman has angered environmentalists by signing a deal to sell his 960-acre farm in Delray Beach, which is located in an area the county wants to preserve as farmland, to a developer who plans a gated golf course community on the site. "It's a two-sided sword," he says wistfully. "Your lifestyle gets better when you sell your land to the developers. But on the other hand, you hate to see things change. I like the way it is now."
While the host waxes nostalgic, the party is revving up. Hot Curl introduces Bowman's favorite bartender, a 300-pounder named Eo, who works at a tough Jupiter roadhouse called Ralph's Standup Bar. Eo gets up and dances on stage, shaking his belly like a bag of Jello. "Show us your stomach, Eo," Hot Curl yells. The barkeep lasciviously hikes up his T-shirt and bares his gargantuan gut, to the wild cheers of the crowd.
Soon after that comes the evening's highlight -- a marshmallow-throwing melee. It starts with a few unruly children, who are soon followed by a larger number of unruly adults. From opposite sides of the bonfire, two squealing mobs fire fluffy globs of sucrose at each other. The air turns white, like Christmas in July. "This sure is fun," says Joanne Davis, a usually serious person who heads the citizens' committee in charge of acquiring environmentally sensitive lands for the county.
The party goes on until 3 a.m. The next day Bowman reports that 50 of the 614 guests were too inebriated to drive home, so they camped out in sleeping bags. He left at midnight because he had to get up early for work. But brother Jimmy stayed with the campers to make sure no one opened the gate and let Miss Americow out.
Bowman has one other important update. Around midnight, as she does every year, the older lady got naked and danced. It's a tradition that will continue until the fat-cat developers sing.
Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address: