Memories of Square Dances, Country Music, and The Senator

By  Mike Miller July 2, 2023

Memories of one of my favorite hangouts, the Rainbow Ranch, came flooding back the other day as I drove by Big Tree Park on General Hutchinson Parkway.

The park and Longwood are north of Orlando and south of Sanford.

Former Rainbow Ranch as Rattan & Wicker WorldFormer Rainbow Ranch as Rattan & Wicker World

The Big Tree was known as The Senator.  It was a giant cypress tree with a diameter of 17.5 feet and a height of 125 feet. The tree was estimated to be 3,500 years old.

Locals and tourists loved The Senator, but it burned down in 2012 thanks to a careless drug addicted woman setting it on fire.

There are forlorn reminders of the Rainbow Ranch nearby.

Just west of the park on the same side of the road is a faded old red building shaped like barn.  The building has a huge asphalt parking lot overgrown with weeds.

The old barn ended its life as a rattan and wicker store, but for many years before that it was the Rainbow Ranch.

The Senator in 2012, By Jonclift - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18166965

The Rainbow Ranch opened in 1960 and was a country and western club. It had a large dance floor for couples dancing and square dancing.

Rainbow Ranch Ad 19601960 Ad From the Sanford Herald

It also had a small serving bar in each corner where you could buy a drink, and a kitchen where you could get BBQ and snacks. The Rainbow Ranch also hosted private parties, beauty shows, weddings and other events. 

It was the night time and weekend activities opened to the public that I remember the most.

Rainbow Ranch AdvertisementRainbow Ranch Advertisement

The giant parking lot had spaces for 500 cars, pickup trucks, motorcycles and whatever else a person rode in to get there.  I think most of the parking lot was unpaved and got pretty muddy at times.

The Rainbow Ranch was started by a country music performer, Lee Purvis.  He had a musical group called "Shorty Shedd and his Whoot Owls."

They were the house band at the ranch.  The name came from radio station WHOO in Orlando that had a country format in the early days.

The Whoot Owls broadcast a two hour live radio program each day, and became well known in Orlando and Central Florida.  I've also heard them referred to as the Five Owls.

The members of the Whoot Owls were Lee Purvis, Shorty Sheed, Jake Sheed, Bill Faulk, and Ray Kelly. Sometimes they were joined by a WHOO disc jokey named Jim Wilson.

Rainbow Ranch PosterRainbow Ranch Poster

Soon after the Rainbow Ranch opened, the group often played there in person for a live radio broadcast. 

Good old country square dances were called each night and it was fun to grab a partner and whirl around the dance floor and get to see everybody.

The Rainbow Ranch was very popular with Central Florida country music and dance fans.

A feature that everybody loved was "Lady's Choice", if I am remembering correctly.  This happened every third dance when the women were encouraged to invite a man to dance, usually a stranger. 

Many short and long term relationships began at the Rainbow Ranch.

Former Rainbow Ranch in 2020Former Rainbow Ranch in 2020

Sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s the ownership changed and it was briefly called "The Joint in the Woods."  The Joint changed the music format to rock and roll and a different crowd came there.

The Joint didn't make it, and the big red barn soon became a store known as "Rattan and Wicker World."

So the next time you ride by and see that old building maybe you'll remember the Rainbow Ranch. 

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