Before Mickey and his Magic Kingdom, there was Billie the Alligator and his reptilian pals at the California Alligator Farm. Opened in 1907 and conveniently located opposite Lincoln Park, the farm brought joy to visitors of all ages, showcasing over a thousand live alligators on exhibit and a well-stocked showroom of alligator leather goods and trinkets at wholesale prices. The “most stupendous aggregation of alligators ever exhibited” featured educational tours of the farm in addition to alligators performing tricks, sliding down chutes, wrestling trainers, spinning on their bellies to tearing up raw meat and most shocking of all, providing rides on their backs.
Billie the Alligator was a great fan favorite, not only because he was the oldest alligator in captivity, rumored to be a spry 110-year-old, but for his celebrity on the silver screen. According to the Los Angeles Times, nearly every shot of an alligator’s jaws seen on-screen between 1910 and 1940 was Billie’s. In 1923, he was hailed as one of the highest-paid alligator actors in the world, earning as much as $100 a day, more than many a human extra. Billie was prized in the film world for his toothsome trick of holding open his jaws as meat was dangled just outside of the camera’s field of vision.
Why owners, Francis “Frank” Earnest and “Alligator Joe” Campbell, would operate such a risky business (in both the legal and physical sense) seems ridiculously outlandish today, but at the turn of the 20th century, real demand for alligator leather products existed. The California Alligator Farm turned a huge profit in their wholesale showroom, selling fashionable wallets, handbags, shoes, and luggage. Alongside souvenir trinkets like postcards and rubber alligators, families could happily purchase live baby alligators as pets. Children who took home a snapping reptile could keep their new companion for five to ten years before their beloved pet would grow too large and needed to be exchanged for “a newer, smaller model” at the Farm. A foolish and unsafe plan—in case you were getting any ideas! Not surprisingly, many unhappy children quickly discovered that baby alligators bite a lot.
Beyond the “operations” side of the California Alligator Farm, visitors came pouring in, excited by the rare treat of viewing and learning about such “exotic” reptiles. In addition to alligators, Frank Earnest secured other curious reptiles for viewing, including iguanas from South America and two-feet long Chuckwalla lizards. For a mere 25 cents admission, visitors were given a tour of the farm by competent trainers, learning all about the life and habits of the reptiles on display. In 1910, 19-year-old Alonzo Hartzel, known best as “Tex” the Trainer, was leading a tour of the farm when a lady in his party requested to hear the red rattlesnake’s signature rattle. Tex the Trainer, who had a special liking for snakes, indulged the lady’s request by proceeding to open the glass case and poke the snake with his finger, which according to the Los Angeles Times report, “the reptile resented.” Tex received a nasty bite on the right hand and was taken to a local hospital as his arm swelled to four times its normal size. Yet, full of vigor and youth, Tex “seemed to mind the bite but little.” He joked with doctors and finished his evening with a trip into town to attend the theater. All in a day’s work for an experienced alligator trainer!
For anyone left with any doubts on the joy of mixing family fun and alligators, behold these photographs from the park’s glory days evidencing young children gleefully in close proximity to the massive reptiles. The California Alligator Farm’s brochure, shown below, proudly depicts a small girl riding an alligator. In a photograph from the Los Angeles Public Library’s Security Pacific National Bank Collection, also shown below, a toddler stands within snapping distance of a bank of numerous lounging alligators.
Moreover, consider the daring misadventure of Frank Earnest’s own son, Frank Earnest Jr., who according to a Los Angeles Times article from 1925, had climbed an enclosure to watch his uncle feed a large pen of alligators when one of the reptilian beasts sprang up and clamped its jaws on the child’s hand. His uncle leapt into the enclosure and gouged the alligator’s eyes, forcing the reptile to open its jaws and release the boy. Young Frank Jr. was taken to the hospital where his hand was found to be badly injured by the alligator’s teeth, resulting in scars he would bear for life. One would think that such a terrifying experience would have ruined the child’s enjoyment of alligators forever, but perhaps children of the past were made of sturdier stuff. As the Los Angeles Times reported, Frank Jr. “exhibited no terror of the alligators later, going out to the point where he had his narrow escape and cooly surveying the squirming creatures.” See? Pure fun for all ages, be sure to bring the kids!
The popularity of the California Alligator Farm continued strong up to 1953, when Frank Earnest’s grandson, Ken Earnest, decided to move the farm to Buena Park, not far from another famous California attraction, Knott’s Berry Farm. There, as the novelty and demand for alligator leather products decreased, it eventually closed in 1984, due to dwindling attendance. Those snapping reptiles had lost their public appeal. Yet their descendants live on, having acquired a taste for the California entertainment industry, they perform for visitors to this day at St. Augustine Alligator Farm in Florida and Reptile Gardens in South Dakota.
“Trip to the California Alligator Farm” video clip, courtesy of WM Horsley Film Labs and the Internet Archive