After nearly 77-years, Everglades Wonder Gardens has closed. There is only one definitive Piper brothers biography and factual source about the attraction's history, and Everglades Wildlife Barons is it!
This website features several videos, including a rare interview with the founding Piper brothers.
NOTICE: This web page was never in any way affiliated with the now shuttered Everglades Wonder Gardens, nor did the editor/webmaster receive any compensation from the attraction.
With 272 pages, 33 halftones, 28 chapters, plus Notes and Index.
Retail, in book shops, $19.95*
We sell only autographed copies, and they will be personalized if you request.
This special mail order price of $23.95 is a bargain, because it includes all costs.
Don't delay. Visit Amber Publishing for more details on how to order your personal copy of this Piper brothers biography.
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 They were financially successful bootleggers during the Great Depression and after Prohibition was repealed they put the Detroit River behind them and settled in Bonita Springs, Florida.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 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.”
What Readers Have Had to Say . . .
April 19, 2010 — Once I’d began reading Everglades Wildlife Barons I couldn’t put it down. Not only was the book a compendium of personal experiences and personal experiences of others contemporaneous with the Piper Brothers, but all of the events and situations peripheral to the Piper’s story were thoroughly researched and factually presented. Though I only knew the Piper Brothers on sight from trips to the Wonder Gardens Charles’ gift for telling a story resurrected a lot of memories and reading it was a trip down the lane of nostalgia. Charles LeBuff, a writer of considerable skill, presents his subject matter with a flair and high degree of professionalism.
May 16, 2010 — I recently read conservationist and author Charles LeBuff's latest book EVERGLADES WILDLIFE BARONS about the extraordinary PIPER BROTHERS (Bill & Lester) of Bonita Springs, Florida and their life helping to educate Florida visitors and conserve the local glades flora and fauna. After starting to read the book, I could not put it down and finished it that same evening. The book is well written, very interesting and above all entertaining. It brought tears of joy and happiness to my eyes about many good times when relating to the Piper's hard, fruitful work developing, owning and operating the Everglades Wonder Gardens. The cliché a must read comes to mind and I personally recommend it to my family and friends. Now that I've discovered this author's stimulating prose, I look forward to reading more of his published books.
June 11, 2010 — "Charles LeBuff’s recent publication tracing the history of two of Bonita Springs’ most colorful and interesting original pioneers – Bill and Lester Piper - is more than an excellent read. Well researched and documented, the Everglades Wildlife Barons not only tells the story of the creation of the Everglades Wonder Gardens, but reveals a time when the narrow two-lane road, US 41 connecting Tampa and Miami became a snake-hunter’s paradise after sundown. Anyone interested in the history of Florida after WWII and prior to the creation of big-name theme and adventure parks, will treasure this title. Growing up in Bonita in the 50’s, I found myself laughing out loud at Charles’ accurate and colorful descriptions of Bonita's local residents and happenings."
South Dartmouth, MA
November 15, 2010 — "This account (Everglades Wildlife Barons) of two tough men is long overdue. Charles LeBuff sets the record straight, dispels the rumors and recounts the truth about the brothers that few knew well. Bill and Lester Piper were complicated, intelligent, rugged and independent yet totally dedicated to educating and protecting the wildlife of their adopted home in South Florida. I was honored to have spent five years working for and learning from them both and am thankful that now—through LeBuff's great story—others may also get to learn about these fascinating men that were true pioneers."
North Naples, FL
A souvenir pennant from the Everglades Reptile Gardens, circa 1946.
A souvenir pennant from the Everglades Wonder Gardens, circa 1952.
A souvenir water transfer decal, circa 1950.
A souvenir pennant from the Everglades Wonder Gardens, circa 1954. All four of the above items were sold in the Gardens' Gift Shop.
A souvenir water transfer decal, circa 1958.
This Website Relates to The Gardens' Heyday: the Decade of the Fifties
Created, Designed, and Edited by Charles LeBuff
FOR SEVENTY-SEVEN YEARS, the Everglades Wonder Gardens, once the premier wildlife and botanical showplace of Southwest Florida, was a popular attraction for Florida visitors and regional residents. 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 with wild animals. Dozens of Bill and Lester Piper's relatives, former employees, aquaintences, including a few of their surviving contemporaries — people who knew them well — were interviewed and helped create this book.
You will find four unique video clips on this page. It's suggested you read the text adjacent to each player first. This will give the videos time to load and become operable, and you'll better understand the content of the clip before viewing it. For best results you need a broadband connection. Be sure your volume is turned up.
Although Everglades Wonder Gardens has closed, its animals sold to the highest bidder, and the land on the real estate market, all who have contributed to this webpage to help keep the Piper brothers meaningful story alive are saddened. I will continue to "keep the faith" and upgrade this page's content periodically. Therefore, I recommend that readers do not save the page as a favorite, but come in fresh from time to time.
— Charles LeBuff
In the beginning . . . circa, 1938.
Advertising brochures from the early days.
Click these thumbnail images to enlarge and compare them.
Below — The first brochure with the attraction's new name — Everglades Wonder Gardens, circa 1949.
Left — One side of an Everglades Wonder Gardens brochure from 1952. The bald eagle was a life-long resident of the Wonder Gardens. It’s left wing was amputated after the bird was found and brought to Lester Piper for help. It had been shot by some stupid "hunter." Many of the specimens housed in the Gardens’ collection were given a new lease on life because of the caring Piper brothers.
Left — One side of the 1955 version of Everglades Wonder Gardens brochure. On the left of the image, Lucille Piper 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) as well as photos of the flamingos, otters, and alligators.
It's suggested you read the blue text above each of our other video players first. This will give the videos time to load for some Internet connections, and you'll better understand the content of the clip before starting it. By right clicking any of the videos on this site you have the option to enlarge the screen, but you will lose picture quality. Be sure and turn up your sound.
Bill Piper at Everglades Reptile Gardens — 1946
In 1946, the Wonder Gardens was nearly ten years old. This video clip was transferred from a short, 8 mm, silent, home movie film that consists of a combination of color and black and white footage. It was apparently made by a family during their visit to the Gardens, in 1946. It was edited because of download space constraints. The original print of this unique and rare film was generously given to the editor as a gift for use on this site by Southwest Florida historian Alvin Lederer. Alvin's consideration and kindness is most appreciated.
The film's scene sequences are: 1-Highway sign; 2-sign at the Gardens entrance, still bearing the attraction's original name; 3-Bill Piper catching and handling alligators and putting one to "sleep" by rubbing its belly for the photographer (unknown); 4-Bill with large eastern indigo snake; 5-Bill and his nephew, David Piper, Sr, force-feeding a rat to an eastern diamondback rattlesnake; 6-Tom, "Ol' Slewfoot," animal star of The Yearling being petted by Bill; and 7-a series of the bear "Susie" with Bill.
Although he wasn't born a "Florida Cracker" the music I've selected for this clip is appropriate for a Florida cowman who lived that old time traditional lifestyle of early cattlemen, and was a lover of the land, like Bill Piper. The song is "Florida Cowman." It was written and is sung by Frank Thomas, and was downloaded from the Internet. The song is a track from the wonderful CD of Florida environmental songs from various artists "These Diamonds," © 2005 Will McLean Foundation. To order this CD, click here.
Personalities 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 accident.
Donald Francis Carroll (1928-1956) was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts. He left home at an early age, and because of his love for wild animals he was drawn south and migrated to Florida. 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. Later, Don left the Reptile Institute and joined the Army.
During his stint in the Army, and because of his impressive knowledge about American snakes, particularly the venomous species, Don became an instructor at the Fort Benning, Georgia, survival school. After his discharge he married and settled in Bonita Springs, Florida, where by 1952 he became manager of the Everglades Wonder Gardens. Meeting Bill Piper earlier had paid off when Don applied for the job.
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.
Don Carroll — A frame from the movie, Shark River. Image courtesy of Warren Boutchia.
Video from The Yearling ©1946, MGM Studios
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. The video clip is an outstanding scene of raw animal conflict. 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 forties and fifties drew thousands of customers to the Everglades Wonder Gardens who came just to see Ol' Slewfoot.
Video from Shark River ©1953, United Artists
The Pipers and their animals were featured in the 1953 movie, Shark River. The film was shot in color but this video clip was produced from a poor quality VHS tape. 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. The scene shifts to the main actors and then back to Don, who speaks. These words represent the only known recording of Don's voice.
The clip changes to footage of a posse on horseback and then to frames with three individuals in the forefront. These men are, (L-R), Ray Barnes, Bill Piper as the Sheriff, and Lester Piper. Bill utters a few words, holsters his pistol, and all turn away as the clip fades.
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 Lester Piper.
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. 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 was born in East Boston, Massachusetts, in 1935, 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.
Around Halloween, 1953, Warren drew a series of pencil caricatures of certain well-known Bonita Springs residents. They were displayed in the Post Office on the bulletin board for a few days, then one by one they started to disappear. The editor of this web page salvaged this one for himself and posterity . He knew that he would have an important use for it one day. "Speedy" (Steve Cornett) was from Kentucky and a cousin of Richard Beatty (below). Speedy worked at the Gardens in the 40s and 50s.
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 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 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 there 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, perfect 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 byDennis 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.
This 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 byLaban 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 "Speedy" Cornett. His 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, in1961
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, 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.
See and hear Bill and Lester Piper at the 50th Anniversary party for Everglades Wonder Gardens, held on February 22, 1986. Also appearing in this clip are: Ralph Curtis (in brown shirt, holding can, and talking), Warren Boutchia (walks by, wearing slouch cap), and Jim Vanas (wiping 'gator's bottoms and talking). At start-up, 84-year old Lester is on the left of the screen and 86-year old Bill is on the right.
Video ©1986, Charles LeBuff
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. On December 13, 2012 several of us made a visit to Lester Piper's gravesite.
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.
Reader's Comments About This Website . . .
Just finished reading your fabulous site about the Everglades Wonder Garden. I lived in Bonita Springs off and on from 1964 to 1975 (off Terry Road on Sun Aqua Drive) and my Grandpa, Alvin Skelly, would always take us to the Everglades Wonder Gardens. I remember the way the guides would feed the alligators and crocodiles in that big cement pit and how they would literally jump up into the air to grab the food - it was like a feeding frenzy. I loved the otters and the flamingoes! One of my last visits there I got really close to the glass to look at a rattlesnake and the snake struck the glass and scared the heck out of me, the guide was a little annoyed with me and put down the wood barrier. The pictures on your site are just what I remember - what a trip down memory lane! My grandpa had told me many colorful stories about the Piper brothers. Thank you for sharing all those wonderful stories! I have lost contact with my friends in Bonita Springs but it was obvious that the old time Bonita residents were not your regular folks they were definitely adventurers - I remember what Bonita Springs was like in the 60s and I can only imagine how wild it was in the 30s-40s-50s before it became so developed!
Thank you again for your wonderful presentation!
Debbie (Skelly) Powless
Highland Park, IL
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Published July 4, 2004
A bumper sticker from the 1950s.
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