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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.