A Story With Bite - Remembering the California Alligator Farm
by, 05-30-2012 at 08:51 PM
This week I am joined by historian Richard Harris as we explore another of Southern California’s long lost tourist attractions. We are about to visit state’s oldest zoological attraction - the California Alligator Farm.
The original Alligator Farm dates back to 1906 and was located in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The Farm was started by Joseph ‘Alligator Joe’ Campbell and Francis Victor, Sr. The two men amassed a small fortune by capturing and putting on display hundreds of reptiles.
The Ostrich Farm was located next to the AlligatorsIn 1907, Alligator Joe met Francis Earnest, a one-time mining camp cook, and they decided to move the exhibit to Southern California by railcar. They hung a banner over the side of the train advertising the Los Angeles Alligator Farm and unloaded the animals at the corner of Mission Road and Lincoln Park Avenue in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles. Earnest already owned the Ostrich Farm next door.
As Harris describes it, Lincoln Heights was a popular weekend getaway 100 years ago for local Angelinos. Visitors entered the Farm through a white stucco building with a narrow, two-story columned portico. They would stop and pay the 25 cent admission fee. Of course, they would also have the opportunity to buy all sorts of reptilian trinkets including rubber alligators.
The alligators were kept out back and segregated according to size in a series of 20 ponds. The alligators would range in size from just a few inches up to thirteen feet. The ideas was the larger ones would eat the smaller ones. They ranged in age from the newly born to several year old elders, if one believed the Farm’s promotional literature.
By 1909, the Farm began to supply the motion picture industry with reptilian stars. Some of the alligators can be found in movies such as ‘King Solomon’s Mines,’ ‘The Adventures of Kathleen,’ and countless Tarzan films. Some even found their way into Walt Disney films including ‘The Happiest Millionaire.’
Two years later, Earnest had bought out Alligator Joe and began to add iguanas from South America and 2-foot-long chuckwalla lizards. Chuckwalla lizards would expand their lungs until they are twice their normal size. They were particularly prone to such blowups when the alligators threatened to swallow them.
In 1915, movie producer William Selig transformed the adjacent 32 acres into Los Angeles Selig Zoo. Selig gained fame by discovering Tom Mix, Kathryn William, and Bill Farnum. He also made money by manufacturing and distribute movie equipment that he invented. Because of the connection, Lincoln Park would become the backdrop to several Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weissmuller. However, it would be Billy the alligator, reputedly the oldest alligator in captivity, who garnered most of the attention.
Billy the Alligator was captured in 1906 in a swamp near New Orleans. Visitors would hold their breath when veteran alligator wrestler George Link would wrestle Billy and other 200-300 pound gators underwater in the 1920s.
Billy in particular would become a kind of star in his own right. Nearly all the large alligator jaws seen on movie screens between the teens and the 1960s were his. Directors were fond of this reliable reptile because his jaws automatically opened when a chunk of meat had been dangled above his head just above the camera’s field of vision.
The Alligator enjoyed showing off by performing tricks such as sliding down the chutes. He was uncharacteristically docile. So docile that after five decades in the movie business, the handlers could put a saddle on him and give young visitors a ride.
A fence that surrounded the entire property was designed to keep the alligators inside and the gator-snatchers outside. Despite that protective measure, Harris reports that the alligator sanctuary was a popular site for many college fraternity pranks. During local universities’ hell week, Pledges were often caught attempting to steal a snapping alligator. Fortunately, only a few alligators bit the hand that stole them.
Most of the alligators that escaped did so when flood waters from heavy rains or the nearby reservoir made it easy. Alligators were frequently found taking a dip in the nearby Lincoln Park Lake or in the backyards and swimming pools of neighbors. Another neighborhood annoyance was the noise generated by the more than 1,000 alligators with their frequent bellowing B-flat growl.
In 1946, Francis Earnest Sr. passed away and the Farm was taken over by his son Francis Victor Earnest Jr. By May 1953, Ken Earnest, Francis’s grandson, moved the Farm to a new two-acre site at 7671 La Palma Avenue in Buena Park, right next door to Knott’s Berry Farm. He also changed the name to the California Alligator Farm.
Guests wandered inside the Farm’s four buildings that housed over one-hundred displays of snakes and lizards from throughout the world. The buildings were not a pretty sight. It was a concrete jungle with a shallow swimming hole for the alligators surrounded by a chain link fence and scraggly bushes and trees intended to recall something in the South.
One of the big attractions was an 18-year-old, 250-pound Galapagos tortoise named Humpy. Children of the owners would saddle up Billy the Alligator and Humpy and race them around a 75-foot circular path. Humpy strayed off the track once or twice and had got be pushed back while Billy slithered on course. However, the winner was Humpy every time. It took him 20 minutes to make it around the track.
Serious work also took place at the California Alligator Farm. They were the first to breed Mugger crocodiles, Cuban crocodiles, Ceylonese pythons, and the first to breed Nile crocodiles in the western hemisphere.
Other attractions included a giant alligator, snapping turtles, and giant tortoises. It was the most complete reptile collection in the world and was advertised as one of the world’s largest reptile farms.
A lot of Hollywood celebrities would visit the Farm, both in Lincoln Heights and Buena Park, including Albert Einstein, Lucille Ball, Michael Landen, Anthony Perkins, Chuck Conners, and many more. The collection would become a California landmark.
More than 130,000 visitors would pass through the Farm’s doors during the peak years. Earnest told Harris that attendance had dropped to less than 50,000 per year toward the end.
Toward the end, the Farm was sold to the private estate of Arthur Jones, the Florida inventor of the Nautilus sports equipment. The Farm lasted until 1984 when the lease on the property was not renewed. The animals were moved to a private preserve in Florida. Going out in style, the closing activities featured a five day rodeo catching all the alligators, crocodiles, and caiman. Today, the former site of the California Alligator Farm in Buena Park is still empty and the only monument is a single pictorial tile set into a Pershing Square bench at 5th and Hill Streets in downtown Los Angeles.
Do you remember the Alligator Farm? Or better yet, have family photos to share?
Sam Gennawey is an urban planner, historian, and author.
If you enjoy reading SAMLAND, you'll love his book. Walt and the Promise of Progress City is a detailed look into how Walt Disney envisioned the future of communities. Along the way, we explore many facets of a fascinating man.