In 1907, Joseph “Alligator Joe” Campbell and Francis Victor Earnest Sr. relocated an alligator farm in Hot Springs, Arkansas, to a Los Angeles location adjacent to the Selig Zoo and Motion Picture Studio in Los Angeles. The Alligator farm rented reptiles to the motion picture industry.
The farm moved to Buena Park in Orange County in May 1953 and continued to operate as California Alligator Farm until 1984, when its lease was not renewed.
Four buildings on the farm contained more than 100 displays of snakes and lizards from throughout the world. The farm contained snapping turtles, giant tortoises, and more than 1,000 specimens in what was called the largest reptile collection in the world.
The original admission was just 25 cents, visitors could peruse alligator handbags in the gift shop, watch a trained gator slide down a 16-foot chute, or take pictures of their children riding atop the animals. At one point, the alligator park was one of Los Angeles’s most popular tourist attractions.
A promotional brochure for the Farm claimed: “Here are to be seen hundreds of alligators of all sizes, from little babies, hardly the size of a lizard, up to huge monsters, 500 years old or more.” This is inaccurate, as an American alligator will expire at around 50 years of age.
The alligators were segregated according to size in a series of twenty ponds. They would range in size from just a few inches up to thirteen feet.
A 1910 article by Arthur Inkersley in Overland Monthly describes how the alligators were captured, how the eggs were incubated, and even how the animals exercised.
“With a strong line and a big steel nook baited with pork, it is as easy to catch an alligator as to catch a trout with a minnow,” Inkersley wrote, “but you must know what to do with your alligator when you have caught him.”
Despite signs admonishing visitors not to “throw stones at the alligators, spit on, punch or molest them in any way,” adults and children regularly handled alligators at the farm. Some were even stolen by college pranksters.
These pictures taken on the Los Angeles Alligator Farm show people interacting with the alligators in all sorts of ways. Young children can be seen playing with baby gators or watching them at a very close distance.
Visitors could even enjoy alligator rides, where children could sit in a specially made saddle and ride the gators around in the ponds. One of the highlights of the park was watching the keepers lure the alligators up a set of stairs before they cruised down a 16-foot slide into a pool of water.
The gators became a bit of a neighborhood nuisance with their loud nocturnal calls. Moreover, when rain flooded the nearby reservoir, the water overflowed into the farm giving the alligators the chance to make repeated forays into neighborhood canals, backyards, and occasionally swimming pools.
By the 1950s, the zoo moved to Buena Park, but the novelty had worn off. The attraction was shut down in 1984 after attendance dropped below 50,000 persons annually (and the lease was not renewed). The alligators were sold to a private estate in Florida.
(Photo credit: Los Angeles Public Library / Smithsonian Museum).