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L.A. Scene / The City Then and Now

Reptile Farm Gave L.A. a Wild Time

August 03, 1997|Cecilia Rasmussen

Today, Lincoln Heights is a closely knit, mostly Latino community, filling the gently sloping plain that stretches northeast from the Los Angeles River to the base of Montecito Heights. But though it now is known mainly for its picturesque streets and early 20th century architecture, it once was home to some of the city's most exotic residents.

Ninety years ago, Lincoln Heights was a popular weekend getaway destination for city-weary Angelenos ready for a walk on the wild side. They crossed wooden bridges over the Los Angeles River to visit Southern California's first and largest zoological attraction: the California Alligator Farm.

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In 1907, when most Southern Californians thought alligator was a kind of handbag or boot, Francis Earnest, a one-time mining camp cook, and partner "Alligator" Joe Campbell amassed a small fortune by putting hundreds of the snappy reptiles on display.

Their alligator farm was located near Mission Road and Main Street, next door to the Ostrich Farm, which Earnest had opened the year before. Visitors entered through a white stucco building with a narrow, two-story columned portico, where they paid 25 cents admission, and had the opportunity to buy all sorts of reptilian trinkets, including--naturally--rubber alligators.

The real slash-jawed animals were kept out back--segregated according to size because the larger ones would eat the smaller ones--in a series of 20 ponds. They ranged in size from a few inches to 13 feet and in age from the newly born to several hundred-year-old elders, assuming one believed the farm's promotional literature.

Two years later, Earnest bought out his partner and soon began to add iguanas from South America and 2-foot-long chuckwalla lizards, which expand their lungs until they are twice their normal size. They were particularly prone to such blowups when the gators threatened to swallow them.

The whole farm was surrounded by a fence, designed to keep animals in and gator-snatchers out. But there was a lot of two-way traffic through the barrier.

The alligator sanctuary was a popular site for fraternity pranks. Pledges often were caught during local universities' hell week attempting to steal a snapping gator. But only a few alligators bit the hand that stole them. Other times, flood waters from heavy rains or the nearby reservoir made escape easy for the gators, many of whom ended up taking a dip at nearby Lincoln Park Lake.

By 1915, another attraction moved to the area, when movie producer William Selig transformed 32 acres adjoining the park into a private zoo. Several Tarzan movies starring Johnny Weismuller were filmed around Lincoln Park Lake, but it was Billy, reputed to be the oldest alligator in captivity, who captured most of the attention. Visitors held their breath when veteran alligator wrestler George Link wrestled Billy and other 200-300 pound gators underwater in the 1920s.

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Billy became a kind of star in his own right--nearly all the large alligator jaws seen on movie screens around the world between the teens and 1940s were his. Directors were fond of the reliable reptile because his jaws automatically opened when a chunk of meat dangled above his head just above the camera's field of vision.

Billy enjoyed showing off by taking tour guides and other types of animals for a ride on his broad back and performing tricks for gawkers by sliding down the chutes. But not everyone was impressed.

Mary Fidone of Glendora, who grew up in the area, recalls that her exotic neighbors "scared the heck out of me, and I never wanted to go back there again."

For almost half a century, more than 1,000 belligerently restless gators annoyed their human neighbors with their frequent nocturnal bellowing--reportedly in B-flat--and by their repeated forays into neighborhood canals, backyards and occasionally swimming pools.

But Lincoln Heights' reptile problem ended in 1953, when Earnest's grandson, Ken Earnest, moved his legacy of four-legged handbags-in-waiting to bucolic Buena Park. Not long after the park closed, the rock group Bill Haley and the Comets recorded the top 10 hit "See You Later, Alligator."

Now Los Angeles' memories of what constituted the city's wildlife are kept alive only in a few dusty books, in collections of antique postcards and by a single pictorial tile set into a Pershing Square bench at 5th and Hill streets.

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