Editor’s Note: There are a lot of ways to tell you’ve lived in Palm Beach County for a long time. One of them is if you remember when cows used to graze where Renaissance Commons in Boynton Beach now stands. Former Palm Beach Post staff writer Michael Browning wrote this marvelous tale of the last cows of south county in 2004.
It’s the last roundup, for the last herd.
Across from a LongHorn Steakhouse along busy Congress Avenue, just north of Old Boynton Road, a small scattering of beef cattle graze placidly, on borrowed time, in a large fenced meadow on Bill Winchester’s property.
They will be moved soon. Winchester has sold the 106-acre pasture out from underneath their hooves, the last big undeveloped parcel of land within the city limits, to Compson Associates. The developers plan to build shops and upscale condominiums on it and two adjacent parcels they have acquired, including the former Motorola property. The new development is tentatively titled Renaissance Commons, and may add as much as $1 billion to the Boynton property tax rolls - and as many as 4,000 souls to replace the departed cows.
After these beasts shamble off into the sunset, Boynton Beach - indeed all of southeastern Palm Beach County, a region where the earth fairly mooed there were so many cows living on it - will be cowless.
Winchester himself was hurrying to Jacksonville on business and couldn’t comment on the deal. “You should talk to Stanley Weaver,” he said affably. “He’s the one that knows all the cow history down here.”
“I think it really is the last herd, at least in this part of the county,” said Weaver, 82, who grew up on a dairy farm here. “There used to be 16 dairies west of Boynton, from Smith’s Farm up in the north to south of 23rd and Golf Road.
“You’d drive along Congress, which wasn’t paved in those days, and see nothing but pastures and cows and piney woods.”
Today, the easiest way for most people to see a real live cow here - aside from driving past Winchester’s soon-to-vanish pasture - is to visit the annual South Florida Fair.
“I had the last dairy farm in the county,” said former dairyman Billy Bowman, who sold his operation in 1995. “You can still see the remains of our old milking barn - we used to call it the ‘milking parlor’ - at the north end of Smith Sundy Road off West Atlantic Avenue, near Delray. The land is being used by a nursery now. But we used to have 1,600 milk cows there.
Bowman says you can date an old dairy barn by the number of bathrooms in it.
“If there are three of them, it’s from the 1950s at least: one for the white men, one for the white women and one for the colored. That’s the way things were back then.”
The names of the old dairymen and cattlemen linger on in street names around Boynton and Delray: Knuth Road, Weaver Way, Winchester Park Boulevard, Boutwell Road, Melear Street.
Stanley Weaver remembers when Briny Breezes was a beach-side cow pasture.
“That’s true. They kept the cows near the ocean at night, to keep the mosquitoes off of them. The sea breezes would blow the bugs away. Ward Miller had cows there, where Briny Breezes is today. He hired my dad to run his dairy for him. That’s how we got into the dairy business.
“The mosquitoes were so bad in those days, you would look up at the white boards of your bedroom ceiling at night, and it would be black with mosquitoes. They’d be singing and humming, waiting to come eat you up. Your window screen would be black with mosquitoes. They used to torture the poor cows.”
Weaver said he was “kind of sad” to see the sprawlification of southeastern Palm Beach County and the disappearance of the cow pastures. “But I don’t miss the confinement. Dairy work is very confining. You are working seven days and seven nights, 365 days a year. If you go away, you’ve got to make sure there’s someone to take care of your cows.”
How smart are cows?
“Cows are very regular creatures,” Weaver answered. “They almost watch the clock. They graze eight hours a day, rest eight hours a day and sleep eight hours a day, every day.
“When you open the barn at a certain hour, they know what time it is, and they are always there waiting for you. There’s two or three that are leaders, and they will lead the whole herd in. And there’s always two or three that are stubborn and won’t come in, and you’ve got to chase them in.
“Still, it wasn’t a bad life. You know the expression, ‘to work like a horse?’ Actually a horse does very little work, compared to a cow or a hen. A cow will produce several times its body weight in milk every year. They lead a hard life. You breed them once a year and then collect the milk. A hen lays 200 eggs a year, many times what she weighs.”
Blaine White, 48, of Boynton Beach grew up on a dairy and saw the land change hands, including his own family’s pastures, as development started to crowd in.
“We were among the last holdouts, so we got screwed,” White said with a rueful grin. “We let go of the cows in ‘73, but we held onto our property until about 10 years ago, and we saw it all disappear into the so-called Ag Reserve at bargain-basement prices.”
But in return for losing millions, Blaine White experienced a time no one who lives here now will ever see again. The dairymen saw this place much as it had been for centuries: pure, plain Florida, innocent of Del Mars and Del Vistas and other sugary make-believe subdivision names.