Tracing an arterial route through the heart of Florida, US 27 begins in Miami’s Little Havana and ends in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The highway was a main drag of Florida tourism from the ‘40s to the ‘60s, but as the interstate system grew to connect the Gulf to the Atlantic and the Mouse to Miami, the distended polygon encompassing Lake Okeechobee and the northern Everglades increasingly became a locals-only landmass. Big Sugar thrived regardless, but the mom and pop tourist stands of old were not so fortunate.
On US 27, just south of the tiny town of South Bay, sit the crumbling ruins of Everglades Gatorland. J.C. Bowen—the former proprietor and ex-mayor of South Bay—started the joint as a gas station with his wife, Mary Lou. They moved into the live reptile sideline because snowbirds stopping to top off their tanks would often ask where they could catch a glimpse of a real Florida alligator. The menagerie eventually expanded beyond alligators to include deer, ocelots and a vulture, among other animals. Bowen also acquired a few rattlesnakes, despite the fact that they were not native to the swampy land of the ‘glades. In Bowen’s words: “The rattlesnake is a very nervous animal, and the muck soil vibrates for miles around if a tractor drives over a field. The vibrations are too much for him.”
With the tourist trade already on the wane, Everglades Gatorland lost a few of its alligators in 1965. The animals were shot with a .22 and carried off while the night watchman was off duty, likely by poachers eager to cash in on increasingly high prices for increasingly rare alligator leather. The American Alligator was declared an endangered species just two years later in 1967.
That same year, Florida enacted regulations mandating pen size, sanitation and animal care that put many of the state’s roadside zoos out of business. The Bowens’ establishment managed to hang on into the early ‘90s, but by then all the gators were gone. The only inhabitants left were a few peacocks and the Bowens–then in their 70s–still selling souvenirs to the rare tourist who wandered astray from the beaten paths of coastal asphalt.
Ten years later, the building sinks into a glorious ruin. The faded and peeling promise of “Live Alligators” may, in fact, still ring true if you wander far enough back on the property. Your Guide encourages you to visit, but takes no responsibility for your safety.
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Erin Chapman is the co-founder/editor of The American Guide.