Yesterday, a friend and I spent the day out looking for things to photograph. It had been some time since we had been to South Florida, especially on the east side of Lake Okeechobee, so that was the direction we headed. Our idea was to head down Highway 441 around the great lake and then catch Highway 27, over to somewhere north of Miami where we would then return north on Highway 1. I have written before about the trips that my father and I made to the western side of the Everglades to fish, but when we first came to Florida in the late 1950s we often took day trips to various parts of the state, including the east side of Lake Okeechobee. There was one trip to this part of the state that we made when I was maybe six or seven, where we stopped at a gator farm. There were many of these gator farms, especially near the Everglades, where male Seminole Indians would be on hand to wrestle alligators and the women would sell Seminole handicrafts.
Unknown to me at the time, the gators were kept very well fed and were most lethargic and in truth the man wrestling them was in little danger. But that was not how it seemed to a six year old. My brother, who at the age of twelve, I am sure was worldlier. The man would get on the gator’s back and pull it’s head up from behind. The gator’s mouth was wide open and one, if positioned in the right spot, could see deep down the gator’s throat. To me I was looking down the abyss, to what would be my final resting place if the gator decided to break through the seemingly flimsy chicken wire fence that separated the tourist from the predator. While all this was happening my mother and grandmother were off to the gift shop where they bought dresses for my mother’s nieces. My Grandmother, who owned a fabric store bought Seminole made fabric and was interested in how the dresses were made. My mother bought handmade crafts for my father’s brother who was a collector of Native American artifacts. Now, more than 50 years later, I remember those trips clearly, almost as if they had happened yesterday.
Yesterday while driving down Highway 27 from Belle Glade we past an old building almost hidden among the weeds. We stopped, as we tend to do when looking for “rusty gold.” While I have no idea if it was the one that we went to all those years ago, it had a very familiar look to it. A heavy growth of weeds and trees kept us from exploring deep into the property, but the front was fairly typical of what I remember as a kid. In some ways it was like looking at a ghost. The front building was all that was left for the most part. The words painted on the front of the building told of its glory days as a pre-Disney Florida roadside attraction, the “Finest Collection of Everglades Animals.” The animals are now gone, as are the wrestlers and the women who made the crafts. Gone too are the tourists. The building, at least for now, still stands as a reminder of a not too distance past in Florida’s history. I am glad that we stopped to make a few photographs and when days like this happens I am glad to be a photographer and time traveler.