The background of this page is the bark of a young kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) photographed at Everglades Wonder Gardens.
NOTICE: This web page is not in any way affiliated with the Everglades Wonder Gardens, nor does the editor/webmaster receive any compensation from the attraction. Those of us who have contributed our memories to this site, and whose interviews formed Everglades Wildlife Barons, are supportive of the non-profit group who recently purchased Everglades Wonder Gardens. We wish them well as they develop an unbiased interpretation of the site where we spent part of our lives. If you want the genuine Piper brothers story, buy a copy of Everglades Wildlife Barons. It is available online here, through independant booksellers, and in the Everglades Wonder Gardens gift shop.
Have some time?
This link leads to an interesting oral history of Everglades Wonder Gardens.
THE PIPER BROTHERS TRUE BIOGRAPHY, EVERGLADES WILDLIFE BARONS, is available both as a paper edition and as an eBook for the Kindle, Nook, iPad, and other tablets.
The eBook Includes additional photographs and more detail on the making of the movie, The Yearling, for only $4.99.
A sampling of chapters:
Life on the River
The Crocodile Kings
When Panthers Ruled
Guitars and Gators Don't Mix
Bill Piper's Deja Vu
Snake Hunting With Lester Piper
From the book's back cover:
“Bill and Lester Piper were no strangers to living on the edge in dangerous times, doing dangerous things, and risking their lives on a daily basis. They were financially successful bootleggers during the Great Depression and after Prohibition was repealed they put the Detroit River behind them and settled in Bonita Springs, Florida. The brothers had visited this hamlet as younger men and had long been students of the wildlife of the Everglades and the regional wilderness. In the late 1930s they opened the Bonita Springs Reptile Gardens that evolved into Everglades Wonder Gardens, and which by the 1950s became Florida’s premier wildlife attraction. The Piper brothers owned and exhibited the world’s largest collection of now-threatened American crocodiles, and also pioneered captive propagation of the endangered Florida panther. They, and their animals, like “Old Slewfoot” of The Yearling, were featured in major motion pictures. Their Wonder Gardens educated tens of thousands of Americans in the early days of environmental education and eco-tourism. Their mission was clearly stated in their own words, 'We have only a sincere desire to give the visitor a clear picture of the thrilling life, dangers, intrigue and constant struggle for existence that goes on in the depths of the impenetrable and fascinating Everglades.' The Piper brothers were undeniably the Wildlife Barons of the Everglades.”
This website relates to the Gardens' heyday: the decade of the 1950s and was created and designed by Charles LeBuff. Until 1992, Everglades Wonder Gardens was the premier wildlife and botanical showplace of Florida. It was a major attraction that introduced visitors to the amazing wildlife of the Everglades. This web page presents some interesting aspects of the Garden's early history and information on the attraction's founders, Bill and Lester Piper. Their biography, Everglades Wildlife Barons, is a fascinating and enjoyable read about their exciting lives as bootleggers and later as wildlife entrepreneurs. Dozens of Bill and Lester Piper's relatives, former employees, acquaintances, including a few of their surviving contemporaries—people who knew them well—were interviewed and helped create this biography.
Everglades Wonder Gardens as we once knew it has closed. Its remaining animals were sold to the highest bidder. The land was put on the real estate market and fortunately a non-profit group was able to purchase it. Everglades Wonder Gardens lives on and all of us who have contributed to this web page rejoice in knowing the meaningful story of the Piper brothers shall continue. We wish the new owners well. I will continue to "keep the faith" and upgrade this page's content periodically.
(Above) In the beginning . . . circa, 1938.
Bonita Springs Reptile Gardens, the precursor to what later became Everglades Wonder Gardens, originated in 1936. Actually, Bill Piper, the founding brother, went into business with Ross Allen in Silver Springs first. Bill and Allen had a falling out and Bill purchased land and started assembling the Bonita Springs wildlife collection and informally opened the Gardens to the public in 1936. He invited his younger brother, Lester, to partner with him and Bonita Springs Reptile Gardens was issued their first Lee County Occupational License in 1938.
Advertising brochures from the early days.
Above—One of the earliest brochures from the Everglades Reptile Gardens, circa 1945.
Below—An Everglades Wonder Gardens brochure from 1956. Many of the specimens housed in the Gardens’ collection were given a new lease on life because of the caring Piper brothers.
On the left of the image, Lucille Piper (Lester's wife) is holding a river otter she hand-raised. The adjoining photo is of the two Florida panther siblings which later became breeding studs. The two right panels show Lester and Lucille with their Florida white-tailed deer (not Key deer as implied in the text) as well as photos of the flamingos, otters, and alligators.
Employees from the 50s featured in EVERGLADES WILDLIFE BARONS
Don Carroll, 1954 & 1956
Left photo by Warren Boutchia, Right photo from Taylor County Historical Society
(L) Don Carroll at the Wonder Gardens. (R) Don is humorously arm-wrestling a Taylor County Judge in Perry, Florida, just minutes before he went on stage to start his presentation and meet his tragic snakebite accident.
Donald Francis Carroll (1928-1956) was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He left home and after completing an enlistment in the U.S. Army he was drawn south and migrated to Florida. During his stint in the military, and because of his impressive knowledge about American snakes, particularly the venomous species, Don became an instructor at the Army's Fort Benning, Georgia, survival school. Don soon found work with the famous rattlesnake specialist Ross Allen at his Silver Springs Reptile Institute. It was here that Don had an occasion to meet Bill Piper, a former business partner of Ross Allen. Bill and Ross had parted company years before but occasionally visited each other on guarded but somewhat friendly terms.
By 1952 Don became manager of Everglades Wonder Gardens. In 1953, on-location scenes for the United Artists movie Shark River, starring Steve Cochran and Carol Matthews, were filmed in the Hole-In-The-Wall, a beautiful cypress strand northeast of Naples. Don Carroll, Bill and Lester Piper, and Ray Barnes (1895-1976) appeared in the movie. Both Bill and Don had speaking parts but only Bill’s name appears in the film’s credits. Barnes would come close to killing Bill a couple of years later in a gunfight.
Don Carroll—A frame from the movie, Shark River. Image courtesy of Warren Boutchia.
The major motion picture, The Yearling, was filmed by MGM on a Hollywood sound stage and on location near Florida's Silver Springs, in 1946. The Technicolor film starred Gregory Peck, Jane Wyman, and Claude Jarman, Jr. The Piper's furnished a Florida black bear named "Tom," one of several to play the part of "Ol' Slewfoot." Bill Piper had hand-reared Tom and handled the bear during the filming. After the movie was released, Tom became one of the earliest famous animal movie stars. For a time, he was better known and more popular in America than the collie dog, "Lassie." Tom's popularity in the 40s and 50s drew thousands of customers to the Everglades Wonder Gardens who came just to see Ol' Slewfoot.
The Pipers and their animals were featured in the 1953 movie, Shark River. In one of the initial scenes, Don Carroll plays a Deputy Sheriff. When he enters the scene there is gunplay. Don is next seen on the ground with his upper torso raised (above).
Ralph Curtis, in 1952
Photos provided by Ralph Curtis
(L) Guide Ralph Curtis in his Seminole Indian jacket at the Wonder Gardens while taking a break from guiding. (R) Ralph's image taken at his father-in-law's photo studio in Tampa.
Ralph Curtis was born in Farmer City, Illinois, in 1932. In his early years he became interested in reptiles and other wildlife in Illinois and his family often visited his grandparents in Florida. On one of these trips his grandfather bought him a baby alligator at an Indian village in the Everglades. In 1947, Ralph came to Florida and went to high school in the Tampa Bay area. In his senior year he often hunted snakes around Tampa. He kept both harmless and venomous snakes at times.
In August 1952, Ralph became the primary guide at Everglades Wonder Gardens. He remained there until September 1953, when he decided to enter the University of Tampa. During the time at the university he started dealing in reptiles, selling them to several of the larger U.S. zoos. At the end of the school year he accepted an offer from the owners of the Tarpon Zoo in Tarpon Springs, to relocate to Hollywood, Florida, and operate their animal compound called Wild Cargo. He continued his zoo-selling business from there, and later in association with another wild animal importer, The Pet Farm, in Miami. During this period, Ralph often supplied animals and birds to Everglades Wonder Gardens.
Guide Ralph Curtis, August 1952, holding a black racer while inside a snake pit during a tour. The jar on the rail contains preserved American crocodile eggs.
Warren Boutchia, in 1954
Photo by Charles LeBuff, provided by Warren Boutchia
Warren Boutchia with a large nuisance alligator that he had helped capture the night before in the Imperial River which passes through Bonita Springs. After snapping this picture, Charles LeBuff assumed the same pose but before Warren could snap the shutter Charles was suddenly and violently knocked off his feet by the 'gator's powerful tail.
Warren Boutchia (1935-2018) was born in East Boston, Massachusetts, and grew up in Medford, a suburb. As a youngster he was nicknamed "Butcher" by his cohorts and during his tenure at Everglades Wonder Gardens he was known by that moniker. Just before his sixteenth birthday Warren left Medford High School to launch a life of adventure. Although underage, with the help of his father he joined the U.S. Merchant Marine and celebrated his birthday aboard a freighter bound for India. This part of his Merchant Marine career was short-lived and late in 1952 he stepped off an Atlantic Coast Line passenger train in Bonita Springs, Florida. After a few days he was an employee at Everglades Wonder Gardens.
When asked what was his most memorable experience at the Wonder Gardens, Warren replied, “It was the time I saved the eagle from the tar pit. Somebody had dumped some roofing tar on the side of Highway 41 outside of town. A variety of wildlife, including, insects, mice, and birds had become stuck in the tar. This included a bald eagle. I managed to rescue it—I was able to pull it loose from the tar without breaking any of its bones and took it to the Gardens. We plucked its tar-covered feathers and Lester turned it loose about a year later."
Lester Piper and the bald eagle that Warren Boutchia rescued from certain death, in 1953. Photo courtesy of Bob Garrison.
Charles LeBuff, in 1955
Photos provided by Charles LeBuff
(L) Guide Charles LeBuff demonstrating a Florida kingsnake to a visiting group of school children. (R) Charles posing on the Garden's grounds with an eastern indigo snake around his neck. The new Stetson hat was a recent gift from Lester Piper.
Charles LeBuff was born during 1936 in Medford, Massachusetts. He grew up in this suburb of Boston with an intense interest in amphibians and reptiles. In his early teens he interned at the Boston Museum of Science and the Harvard University Museum of Comparative Zoology. By fifteen he had published his first piece in Herpetologica, a scientific journal. A year later, his family relocated to Bonita Springs, Florida. They were urged to do so by Don Carroll. As a youngster Don had worked with Charles LeBuff, Sr. in the woodworking field.
When asked to comment on his times at Everglades Wonder Gardens, Charles began, "My experiences at the Wonder Gardens were outstanding. I had the opportunity to work with and learn from these remarkable men and have relied on much of what I learned from them through my life. I wouldn’t have traded those times for anything. Bill and Lester Piper were tough men’s men who lived long, charmed lives. There is none of their breed left and very few men of their character walked the earth before them, or have since."
In 1955, the Naples Drive-In Theater re-showed The Yearling. David Piper and Charles LeBuff (center, in Stetson hat) hauled "Ol Slewfoot" to the drive-in each night for movie-goers to get up close and personal with Tom the huge Florida black bear.
Photo from the Everglades Wonder Gardens Museum.
Laban LeBuff, in 1953
Photos provided by Laban LeBuff
Laban LeBuff during the period he worked at the Wonder Gardens. His marksmanship paid off later in the Army. He became the top pistol shooter in his battalion's pistol team.
Laban LeBuff was born in Medford, Massachusetts, in 1938. He arrived in Bonita Springs with his family in November 1952. He started to work part-time on weekends at the Wonder Gardens in 1955. After graduation from Naples High School in 1956, he started working at the Gardens full time.
When asked to reminisce about his time at the Wonder Gardens, Laban replied, "That’s a long time ago, but one of my most vivid memories at Everglades Wonder Gardens happened right after someone had given Lester some nasty spider monkeys. Lester couldn't say no when it was a question of giving an animal shelter. We had just finished building a tall cage for the monkeys across the walkway from the private pen of Old Man Mose. Mose was a huge, specimen of a bull American alligator. He was well advertised on the Wonder Gardens highway slat signs of the era. Bill Piper wrote most of the copy for those advertising signs. I remember a few of the lines, well, like, 'Old man Mose, sure was a buster, he ate five dogs and a feather duster.' He also ate a spider monkey. Well, one of the monkey's managed to escape the new cage and leaped over to the railing of Mose's pen. When Lester approached with a net, the monkey tried to jump across the pen and Mose came to life. He caught the poor animal in mid-air. It was over quickly!"
Dennis Morgan, in 1957
Photo provided by Dennis Morgan
The above photo, to the right, was taken with a Brownie Hawkeye camera, before the days of good viewfinders. Dennis has a yellow rat snake around his neck.
Dennis Morgan was born in Dayton, Ohio, in 1941. His family moved to Bonita Springs in the summer of 1952. He was hired as a full-time employee by Lester Piper early in the summer of 1957, and worked at the Wonder Gardens until his induction into the U.S. Army in September 1958.
The above painting was done in 1957 by the late David Lee Morgan, Dennis Morgan's talented grandfather. It depicts the two male Florida panthers that are featured on the Garden's 1956 brochure. For years it was displayed in the store/entrance of Everglades Wonder Gardens.
Dennis remembers his time at the Gardens fondly and with good humor. "In September, 1958, I was trying to get up the nerve to tell Les Piper that I was going to quit the Gardens and enlist in the Army. When I finally told him, he didn’t say anything at first. I think I hurt his feelings. After a while, he said ‘If the Army won’t take you, don’t bother to come back here. If you’re too sorry for the goddammed Army, I guess you’re too sorry for me!’ I still love the old guy!"
"One afternoon, Lester sent me to the slaughterhouse for his rye whiskey and 7-Up. When I returned to the place he and I was working, he wasn’t there, but I could hear him calling frantically for me. I kept looking for him until I spotted him inside the alligator pen. He had fallen in! When I got there he was standing pretty far in from the wall surrounded by big alligators. I passed him a long pole to push the gators away while I opened the gate to let him out. After he got out, he glared at me for awhile before chewing me out for not finding him fast enough. We all had to deal with Lester’s hot temper. Just about everyone who was ever lucky enough to work at the Gardens was intimidated by him, but this time he made me mad. I said, ‘How would you like it if the next time you call for me, I go to the alligator pen to look for you.’ I expected him to throw me in with the gators, but he left without doing anything. Man, was I relieved."
Richard Beatty, in 1959 & 1963
Photos provided by Laban LeBuff
(L) Richard Beatty atop the National Life Insurance building in Nashville, Tennessee, when he and Laban LeBuff visited the Grand Ole Opry. (R) U. S. Army Pfc. Richard taking time out of the trenches during the great Hawaiian War.
Richard Beatty is a native of Hazard, Kentucky. He was born there in 1939. Richard was also a distant cousin of early Gardens employee and town character, "Speedy" Cornett. Richard’s family relocated to Naples, Florida in 1956. Although he was never on the payroll at the Everglades Wonder Gardens, Richard volunteered to work there every spare moment of his time in the late fifties. When asked to share his memories about those days, Richard smiled, and said, "I never got any money for my work at the Everglades Wonder Gardens, I got something better; knowledge and friendship. Plus, I never had to ask Lester for a raise and could come and go as I pleased."
George Weymouth, in 1961
Photos provided by George Weymouth
(L) Guide George Weymouth (L) guiding a group at the large alligator pen. (R) George with another group of Everglades Wonder Gardens patrons. He's feeding an albino raccoon.
George Weymouth was born in Bloomington, Indiana, in 1934. He relocated to Southwest Florida from Spencer, a town near his birthplace, in 1958. George became the primary Everglades Wonder Gardens guide at the end of 1958.
When asked to share some of his Everglades Wonder Gardens stories, George said, "Lester and Bill Piper were ‘Mountain Men of the Everglades.’ They were a breed of toughened men that are now only written about! I witnessed many things during my time there—and I’ve heard many more stories. The story of their lives has made an unbelievable book.”
Other people who worked at Everglades Wonder Gardens in the fifties but are deceased, including: Eddie "Jeff" McCoy (1900-1979) and Ned, black men who worked mostly with Bill improving pasture, but Jeff also worked at the Gardens when needed. Also gone are: Ralph Floyd (1934-2007) of Shepherd, Texas, Don McKeown (1937-2003) of Estero, Harry Metts (1920-1978) and Russ Penno (1904-1987) of Bonita Springs, Glen Priddy (1912-1974) of Naples, and Bill Widden of Tarpon Springs. The whereabouts of other coworkers like Frank Bryant, Ed Caperton, Ed Taylor, and Larry Wilson are unknown.
Eddie "Jeff" McCoy (1900-1979), circa 1970, at his home in the Piper brothers pasture south of Bonita Springs near the Collier/Lee County line. Jeff was a good friend of Bill and Lester and they took care of him in his later years. Earlier in his life, Jeff had labored on the construction of the Tamiami Trail and he loved his connection to the Everglades Wonder Gardens. Photo courtesy of Jim Vanas.
On March 26, 2011, former employees of Bill and Lester Piper (between 1940 and 1990) attended a party to celebrate Bill and Lester Piper's lives and the positive influences these two men had on their lives. Each December 13 several of us continue to make a visit to Lester Piper's gravesite to celebrate his birthday.
Pictured, left to right, front (kneeling); Don Trew, Laban LeBuff, Dennis Morgan, Jim Vanas, and George Weymouth. Rear (standing); Ken Morrison, Richard Beatty, Frank Liles, Charles LeBuff, Eric Miller, and Joe James.
Pictured above, left to right on December 13, 2014, Richard Beatty, Charles LeBuff, and Ken Morrison. Visiting a plaque commemorating the Piper brothers at The Quarry, an upscale subdivision in North Naples. It was once part of the Piper's Mule Pens pasture.
Pictured above, left to right, on December 13, 2016--Former employees of Lester Piper--Ralph Curtis, Charles LeBuff, Greg Hodson (Lester Piper's grand nephew), Laban LeBuff, Frank Liles, Richard Beatty, Ken Morrison (holding the empty bottle of Old Overholt, of which, per tradition, all present partook), and Eric Miller at Lester Piper's gravesite. The composition below, written by compadre Jim Vanas, was read aloud before the toast to the man we all respect and consider a mentor.
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A bumper sticker from the 1950s.
Sometimes you can learn a lot about a man by studying his hands; watching how he uses them. This can be especially true if he’s been working them for sixty-five or seventy years, everyday, all day. While the face may fall, arm and leg muscles may shrivel and sag, strong hands somehow prevail.
Lester’s hands . . . massive, broad and powerful with mountainous veins crisscrossing from wrists to knuckles that gave way to deep wrinkled valleys displaying a pallet of colors; dark browns, reds, liver and what little was left of the natural hue . . . flesh.
Fingers long though often swollen from tedious repetitive motions reached nails that were surprisingly clear, except for the few permanently blackened by underlying blood clots from strike force blows.
Somehow, miraculously, his hands had retained all the digits that endured a thousand bites from snakes, alligators, bobcats, panthers and otters; cuts from butcher knives and chainsaws and excruciating hits from hammers and sledges, self-inflicted or delivered by well meaning, careless employees.
Hands that tied knots without thinking, skinned hides without puncture, filleted fish with ease and artistic flare and occasionally lovingly scratched the ears and snout of a favorite watchdog when he thought no one was looking.
Hands with a delicate touch that cradled forceps to feed a hatchling crane. Hands that steadily held a syringe to inject meds into a friend’s behind when he could no longer inject himself. Big hands still capable of performing precision procedures.
Hands splattered with blood collected from the jugular vein of a slaughtered horse, splattered with lead paint while “freshening-up” an animals cage and hands that skillfully fried a slab of horse or cow meat over an ancient gas burner in a butcher house where cleanliness wasn’t necessarily close to Godliness.
Expressive hands! An index finger pointed in your face accompanied with a few choice words, “I’m lookin’ atcha” let you know that you had screwed up.
Quick hands—the fearless squeeze and crush of a live hornets nest while calmly walking past. The lightning fast twist of a catch net or the patient, expert placement of rope around an alligator’s gaping jaws.
The Handshake—accepting not offering, firm but never attempting to exhibit superiority or dominance. A shy hand when extended to him by a women, almost apologetically reaching out, head cocked and cast downward, uncomfortably acknowledging a practice that in his day was not the norm.
A calibrated hand—one that knew just the right amount of Old Overholt to sneak into a clouded plastic cup before adding the mix and covering the lip with a soiled rag or paper towel.
The body may wither and fail but hands, strong and agile, weathered and worn, can tell a lot about a man.
Lester’s hands spoke volumes.
Written by Jim Vanas