Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ostrich Races

Jacksonville Ostrich Farm 1910

Downtown, at perched on the edge of the St. Johns River, in the area now occupied by the Crowne Plaza Hotel and Treaty Oak Park, was Dixieland Amusement Park and Ostrich Farm, which opened in 1907. Billed as the “Coney Island of the South,” Dixieland featured amusements not seen anywhere else in the region and drew thousands of visitors daily. Favorite features were the 160-foot wooden roller coaster, hot air balloon rides, parachute jumps, a toboggan and the Flying Jenny, a large merry-go-round that boasted 56 brilliantly painted wooden animals.

Now Showing

Spectacular shows included lion wrestling, comedy acrobatic and high-wire performances, vaudeville acts, alligator, dog and pony shows and ostrich races. Famous bandleader John Phillips Sousa entertained crowds and silent filmmakers shot many of their movies at Dixieland, including jungle pictures which added elephants, tigers, camels and horses to the menagerie of animals. Thousands of sports fans turned out to watch Babe Ruth play an exhibition baseball game. And park goers sunned on Dixieland’s bathing beaches and cooled off in its swimming pools – all for a 10-cent admission fee, affordable even for the day.

Dixieland land closed in 1916. Much of its collection of exotic animals found a new home at the Jacksonville Zoo, which opened in the Springfield neighborhood in 1914. Today, nothing of Dixieland remains, save for one beautiful remnant – a massive 70-foot tall, 25-foot wide Live Oak tree dubbed “Treaty Oak.”

One Solidary Remnant

One of Jacksonville’s oldest living things, the tree stands in Jessie Ball DuPont Park, informally known as Treaty Oak Park, and is believed to be at least 250 years old, up to 400 years old by some estimates. The tree’s name comes compliments of popular Jacksonville journalist Pat Moran. Moran was intent on saving the tree from developers during the early 1930s. To that end, Moran penned an article claiming that the tree had been the site of a treaty signing by Native American tribes and early European Settlers centuries before. Turns out, the story was bogus. But readers loved it and the name stuck. To Moran’s credit, however, historians still speculate that the site was a favorite camp ground of Seminole Chief Osceola.

Also to Moran’s credit, the tree remains protected to this day. The Alfred I. du Pont Foundation purchased the land in 1934 at the behest of Alfred’s wife, Jessie Ball du Pont, an avid garden club member. She donated the land to the city of Jacksonville in 1964 with the strict stipulation that it be used only for a public park and that the ancient oak be preserved “for the benefit and enjoyment of the general public.”

Dixieland Park and Ostrich Farm in Jacksonville

Ostrich jockeys Bud Spradley and James Davis discuss hazards before a race in 1948, at the Jacksonville Ostrich Farm.

If Alligator Joe Campbell really had rounded up "worthless dogs and stray cats" to feed the big, bull gator he rode, few would care if Joe himself wound up in the gator's mouth.

However, although Joe had ridden with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, that roundup tale was false.

Joe's real name was Hubert and he was born in India in 1872, his father a decorated English officer. His passion was alligators and after his Wild West days and a stint of ostrich riding and training, he chose to live in Jacksonville, where, for all his showmanship, he was a well-respected naturalist.

Due to the drainage of the Everglades and other state development, 2.5 million alligators were reportedly killed in the 1880s. Commercial hunters and gun-happy tourists helped decrease the population. There seemed to be no better fun than killing gators while cruising on a steamboat.

Although Campbell also hunted alligators, because he feared their extinction he merged with Jacksonville's ostrich farm, the best in the country. By adding his gator collection to the lanky menagerie, he could study and breed both species.

Hubert "Alligator Joe" Campbell's cemetery marker, with alligator atop, at Evergreen Cemetery; his epitaph reads "Loved By All." Sadie, his wife, is buried beside him. LOUISE STANTON WARREN/Special

In 1912, when 200 ostriches strode into their new billet at Phoenix Park, Alligator Joe and his patient pod of gators were already awaiting the bubble-bottomed birds. This lively tourist destination, Florida's original theme park, percolated east of Jacksonville at Talleyrand Avenue, near Evergreen Cemetery and the river.

Ostrich racing was a great sport of the era as contemporary ads and postcards indicate. So, to prevent hurt feelings and jealousy, Campbell likewise trained his gators to race and to carry riders. The alligators' education extended to climbing and to waltzing. While the reptiles and ostriches were not competitive, they spent little time together, promoting ostrich longevity.

In 1907, the Dixieland Park exposition and resort opened at the ferry landing in South Jacksonville, where Alligator Joe, some ostriches and alligators, together with electric fountains, burros, bands and theater productions, were major attractions. The reptiles climbed ladders, slid down chutes and carted children on their broad, rough backs. Campbell was also becoming famous in the movies and newsreels for his alligator shenanigans and study of the creatures.

In 1916, the Ostrich Farm and Alligator Farm, in some queer arc, shifted across the river to South Jacksonville on the site of the Aetna Insurance building, originally Prudential Insurance. Campbell and his wife, Sadie, lived on a houseboat near the southern end of the future Main Street Bridge.

Alligator Joe and Sadie continued farming gators in what they called the swamp. As accomplished as Joe, Sadie could mimic the alligator's wild, guttural sound, sometimes a hunting ploy, which lured gators to the river's surface. Often, she accompanied him on tracking expeditions, during which she was also able to nab some floating snakes by looping their so-called necks.

While Campbell wrestled the reptiles and delivered lectures, Sadie managed the store at the Alligator Farm, displaying all possible contrivances from alligator parts, including ashtrays and purse latches (made from the smaller heads), etc. In addition to meat and hides, every part was utilized, creating products from alligator oil to claw purses, from embryos for study to egg shells for souvenirs. In addition, filling orders from across the country, together with instructions for care, the Campbells shipped thousands of baby gators in light, cypress boxes filled with Spanish moss.

They continued to keep some ostriches, and Sadie remembered a surrey race between an ostrich and a horse. She declared, in the short run, an ostrich could always beat a horse, but this ostrich, frightened by a balloon, sat down, giving the horse the advantage.

In later years, Campbell wrote a pamphlet about alligators, which included explanations of his life and work. His early gator farming was in Palm Beach, Arkansas and California. By the time he developed his Jacksonville enterprise, hoping to discourage their cannibalistic tendencies, he separated his alligators by size into pens of 200 head, numbering in the thousands.

When not hibernating, his reptiles ate a total of between five and six tons of fish a week. Old Oklawaha, which according to Joe's own pamphlet reached the thoroughly impossible age of more than 800 years, was his oldest alligator. His type ate a hundred pounds of fish each feeding.

Sadie recalled the only dangerous accident at the farm was when her pet otter escaped and bit her. Of course, she had been bitten by snakes and nipped by gators several times. Then, there was the terrible incident when a guide lost his arm while sticking his head in a gator's mouth and sightseers pulled him free.

Alligator Joe died in 1926 at age 53. He is buried at Evergreen Cemetery with guess what marking his grave?

Grange County Fair 1952

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