Sights and Souvenirs from the California Alligator Farm

As mentioned before I’ve been watching a lot of TV since I’m not going anywhere thanks to COVID, and I recently binged the entire first season of HBO’s new interpretation of Perry Mason. Early in the show Mason handles a taxidermy turtle and small alligator, both which feature a paper label reading “Los Angeles Alligator Farm.”

Screenshot from Perry Mason, Mason holds a taxidermy turtle, on the stomach of the turtle is a paper label with an alligator image and script reading "Los Angeles Alligator Farm"

Screenshot from Perry Mason, Mason holds a small taxidermy gator, the stomach of the gator is cut open, and the paper label with an alligator image and script reading "Los Angeles Alligator Farm" is sliced open, letters are hidden inside of the gator.

Much of Perry Mason is pulled from real people and real events, including the Los Angeles Alligator Farm. Yes, once upon a time LA had its very own alligator farm, and it was quite the bizarre spectacle.

Before the turn of the twentieth century two men, Francis Earnest and Joe Campbell, began collecting and exhibiting alligators in Hot Springs, Arkansas, but then decided to move out west. With their scaly friends aboard their own special rail car, Earnest and Campbell headed to sunny Los Angeles. Among the palm trees of the Lincoln Heights area, they opened the California Alligator Farm at 3627 Mission Road, across the street from Lincoln Park in 1907. An interesting detail in Perry Mason is that the label reads “3627 Selig Rd.” and there is a Selig Place off of Mission Road, and runs along the side of Lincoln Park.

 Exterior view of the Alligator Farm building. Sign in foreground advertises "Over 1000 alligators."

Separated by size, due to their “cannibalistic tendencies” the Farm offered 20 pools for the variously sized gators to swim and roam. Eggs were placed in a special incubator, and baby humans frolicked among baby gators.

Postcard featuring a photo of a wood box with trays of eggs and baby alligators. White painted text on the box reads "Made Especially for hatching Alligator Eggs" Text at the bottom reads "Incubator at the Alligator Farm, Los Angeles, Cal."

Photograph of a baby playing with young alligators at an alligator farm (possibly the California Alligator Farm, Los Angeles), ca.1900. The baby sits next to a small manmade pool inside a chicken wire holding pen, grasping a young alligator in his hand. Surrounding the baby, several dozen young alligators can be seen of roughly one foot in length. Beside the manmade pool, two small plants are visible. Two large trees border the sides of the fence, and additional trees can be seen in the background.

As the gators increased in size some were trained to “shoot the chutes” on a steep slide, splashing into a pool below. Larger gators were even available to be hitched like horses for a ride aboard a wagon, or for those more daring, you could climb atop one, making them prime photo opportunities.

A group of guests look over a pool that has a steep slide, which an alligator slides down. Text across a roof in the background reads "Alligator Farm." Red text in the upper right of the postcard reads "Entertaining guests at the California Alligator Farm, Los Angeles."

Two children each sit atop their own gator, holding reins. Caption reads "Alligator race."

Two little boys sit atop a gator in a pool. Caption reads "Joy riding."

Four siblings sit astride an alligator at the California Alligator Farm. Left to right: Tom Rhodes, Earl Rhodes, Sadie Rhodes Henry, Mamie Rhodes Jackson.

The Farm even claimed they had the largest alligator in captivity, Okeechobee, who they also hailed as being 500 years old. By the 1950s they changed their tune, stating that gators’ “lifespan is probably in excess of 100 years. However, there are no records to prove this. The age of an Alligator can be determined only by knowing the date he hatched.” Today experts say the average lifespan of a gator living in the wild is 35-50 years, with some in captivity living longer.

A large gator sits on a rock near a pool. Caption reads "'Okeechobee' 500 years old."

As noted in a souvenir postcard fold out from the Farm’s early years states that it was “established for the purpose of raising alligators for their hides, and to supply live specimens to shows, parks and zoological gardens.” A flyer from the Farm, probably from around the late 1930s or early 1940s, even illustrates “alligator goods” available to buy, including an incredible gator lamp. The flyer also boasts that the Farm has “1000 alligators on exhibition” and that many are “movie stars” and used in movies such as Trader Horn (1931), East of Borneo (1931), and the Charlie McCarthy film, You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939), in which Charlie is swallowed by an alligator.

Flyer for the California Alligator Farm, reads "California Alligator Farm 3627 Mission Road (Opposite Lincoln Park) Los Angeles, Calif. CApital 123-11 THE LARGEST RETAIL STORE IN THE WORLD HANDLING GENUINE ALLIGATOR GOODS, EXCLUSIVELY. Stuffed alligators made into lamps for den or top of radio, and fine skins for table ornaments." illustration of a stuffed gator with a lightbulb in its mouth. Bags of all kinds, with or without head and feet, all sizes (6 to 12 inch); all prices ($3.00 to $30.00)" Illustration of a purse featuring an alligator head and feet. "Underarm bags, with or without claws, made of backs or belly leather; all sizes (7 to 13 inch) zipper pockets, etc." Illustration of a clutch style purse of alligator skin. "Billfolds for men, 2 and 3 fold, as desired, ade of fine skins. Belts and coin purses for both ladies and gentlemen." Illustration of a gator skin wallet. Souvenirs of all kinds - all practical and useful. 1000 ALLIGATORS ON EXHIBITION The Farm is open to visitors every day of the year; alligators of all sizes from babies hardly the size of a lizard to huge monsters - the nests, eggs, etc. - may be seen in a beautiful park. Competent guides are furnished visitors to give information and explain the life and habits of these strange creatures, making a visit interesting and amusing as well as instructive. Our Farm is the home of alligator movie stars used in the pictures 'Trader Horn', 'Easter of Borneo', 'Jungle Love', 'Furies of the Jungle', 'Tarzan', 'You Can't Cheat an Honest Man,' and many others.

Screencap from You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, a group of men look over a pen of alligators. A man in a leopard print leotard wrestles with one.

from You Can't Cheat an Honest Man, A group of men hold an alligator on a table, a man in a leopard print leotard opens the gator's mouth.

The biggest star was Billy, which I assume is probably the gator here on the table in You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. Billy was used because would gladly open his mouth wide when a chicken was dangled above him. When not hamming it up for the silver screen he did so at the Farm, as visitors could watch Billy wrestling underwater with George Link.

A film titled “A Trip to the California Alligator Farm” showcases the gators in action, including tiny babies scrambling about, the wagon style ride, a child sitting atop a massive gator as it crawls along the ground, as well as some of the goods available to purchase.

In 1953 the Alligator Farm moved to Buena Park, right across the street from Knott’s Berry Farm. Billy, the movie star gator, also made the move to Buena Park, and guests were encouraged to have their picture taken with him.

Brochure from the California Alligator Farm, featuring black and white photos of gators going down a slide, sitting near pools, and a woman in a dress sitting atop one. Text reads "One of the World’s Largest Reptile Farms. WHAT is the difference between the Alligator and the Crocodile? THIS is one of the many questions answered by Competent Guides who conduct INTERESTING and INFORMATIVE Tours at the Farm. BROUGHT to California in 1907, the Farm has been an attraction for many years. 1400 pound African Crocodile. HOME to many movie Reptiles, you can, with your own camera, have a picture sitting on BILLY who is a real ‘movie star.’ PART of the Farm, but separated from the rest of the grounds, is one of the Largest Reptile Houses on the west coast."

By the 1960s, the Alligator Farm no longer raised their gators for their hides. In a brochure they shared their most frequently asked questions, including “Are they raised for their leather?” to which the Farm responded with “No! They cost more to raise than their hide is worth. Most of the hides on the market today are from the caiman. The Alligator is protected by law. [In 1967 the alligator was officially declared endangered in the United States.] Even the live baby alligators you purchase in pet shops or have shipped to you from Florida are not alligators, but Caiman.”

In moving to Buena Park the Farm also expanded the animals they had on display, and now included crocodiles, alligator snapping turtles, snakes, lizards, flamingos, a Galapagos tortoise, and African ostriches.

Flyer featuring illustrations of a cobra and alligator reading "California Alligator Farm One of the Worlds Largest Reptile Farms Drop In Across the Street from Knott's Berry Farm on La Palma" Black and white photos feature various gators huddled together, a man bating a snake and a close up of a gator. Text reads "Interest in living things?" Don't miss one of the largest and most complete reptile collections in the world. Here can be seen Alligators, Crocodiles, Snakes, Lizards, Turtles, and Tortoises. All branches of the reptile family are represented in this unique and exotic collection. Alligator and Snake shows daily during summer. Weekends only during winter months. Open daily 10:30 A.M. - 6:00 P.M. daylight time. 10:30 A.M. - 5:00 P.M. standard time from September - June. 10:00 A.M. - 9:00 P.M. July and August. Admission: Adults $2.50 Children (5-14) $1.00 Parking: Ample, free. Location: 7671 La Palma Avenue Buena Park, CA (714) 522-2615 (Across the street from Knott's Berry Farm)

Like any tourist attraction, the California Alligator Farm had its fair share of souvenirs, beyond the alligator hide items of its early years. A lover of kitschy amusement park tourist souvenirs, I’ve collected over the years, including the smallest souvenir plate I’ve ever encountered!

My California Alligator Farm souvenir collection, including a flyer, pink pennant reading "Cali. Alligator Farm" and an illustration of a gator and a cobra, a ceramic dish with an alligator by a pond, the inside of the pond reading "California Alligator Farm", a small plate with a gator whose mouth is open wide, a silver dish shaped like twi hearts, one heart has a flamingo in it, the other a gator, a salt and pepper set of gators, and a small fold out picture booklet designed to be mailed.

Look close, as you might miss the plate! It’s that darn tiny! And while not rightly visibly, the salt and pepper shakers are stamped “California Alligator Farm” in small type on their backs.

Despite seeming immensely dangerous, especially in its early years, the Alligator Farm existed for decades without any cases of harm to visitors, with one exception, and the victim was Francis Earnest Jr., the son of one of the owners. In 1925, at age eight, Junior was playing with a large gator, when it bit his hand, his uncle jumped atop the gator, and gouged its eyes. The son was taken to the hospital with minimal damage, and lived the rest of his life with only a scar on his hand.

As the decades continued attendance began to drop, and the Alligator Farm shuttered in 1984, the remaining animals were sent to a private reserve in Florida, aboard a 707.

Today the scaly creatures no longer roam the faux jungles created for them, and all trace of them at both locations is gone. The original plot of land across from Lincoln Park is now a rehab facility, and the Buena Park location now serves as one of Knott’s Berry Farm’s parking lots.

While the California Alligator Farm may be a thing of the past, the United States still has a handful of alligator parks, most of which are in Florida, including the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park and Gatorland, the later of which is high on my list of places to visit in Florida.

With regards to Perry Mason, I highly recommend it! I plowed through the eight episode first season in two days. It is available to stream for subscribers of HBO.

Sources
Blackmore, Eric. “When Kids Played With Alligators in Los Angeles.” Smithsonian Magazine, November 5, 2015. Accessed February 26, 2021.
Harris, Richard. Early Amusement Parks of Orange County. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Print.
Los Angeles Had an Alligator Farm?SoCal Connected. KCET. Accessed February 26, 2021.
Phoenix, Charles. Southern California in the ’50s. Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 2001. Print.
Rasmussen, Cecilia. “Reptile Farm Gave L.A. a Wild Time.” Los Angeles Times, August 3, 1997. Accessed February 26, 2021.

Image Sources
1 & 2: Perry Mason screencaps from HBO
3: Los Angeles Public Library
4: Personal collection
5: USC and California Historical Society
6-8: Personal collection
9: Shades of L.A. via the Los Angeles Public Library 
10 & 11: Personal collection
12 & 13: You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man screencaps from YouTube
14: Courtesy of J. Eric Lynxwilder
15: Personal Collection
16: Taken by me

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