Lights out on a landmark: Pipers bathe in nostalgia as Everglades Wonder Gardens close after 77 years

“ ... promise of long life and blessings to those who care for animals.” - Sign at entrance to Everglades Wonder Gardens

Everglades Wonder Gardens 
 1950's 
 Date unknown 
 Submitted

Everglades Wonder Gardens 1950's Date unknown Submitted

SHARE YOUR PHOTOS

What are your memories of the Everglades Wonder Gardens? Share your thoughts and photos on our Facebook page at facebook.com/naplesnews.

William DeShazer/Staff 
 David Piper Jr. holds down an American Crocodile to try and determine its sex at the Everglades Wonder Gardens on Tuesday April 16, 2013.

Photo by WILLIAM DESHAZER, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

William DeShazer/Staff David Piper Jr. holds down an American Crocodile to try and determine its sex at the Everglades Wonder Gardens on Tuesday April 16, 2013.

Bill and Lester Piper's Everglades Wonder Gardens 
 Old brochure - booklet cover

Bill and Lester Piper's Everglades Wonder Gardens Old brochure - booklet cover

The memories wash over David Piper Jr. quickly and unexpectedly, flashes in his brain that send a shock wave to his heart.

A buyer will be wheeling out a 1940s fortunetelling machine, spilling a trail of decades-old pennies. And suddenly, he’s a child again, running to his grandmother, asking for a coin to dispense in the noisy arcade game.

Somebody will buy one of the Everglades Wonder Gardens’ animals. And now, he’s transported back to days on the zoo grounds with Grandpa Lester, the man whose swashbuckling portrait is tattooed on his right forearm, who taught him the ABC’s of animal care.

“I live with pain every day of my life as far as physical pain,” said Piper, who has an inoperable tumor he refuses to dull with prescriptions. “But emotional pain kind of sideswipes you. You might think you’re fine, then all the sudden you sell a historic sign or something you’ve seen ever since you were a kid.”

Open since 1936, the Everglades Wonder Gardens closes today, giving visitors one last chance to ogle the crocodiles and other critters, to marvel at the tall trees or few-and-far-between flowers. Behind it all will be the Pipers, who have maintained the Bonita Springs zoo for 77 years, never letting it out of the family tree.

Because of his health, Piper and his wife, Dawn, have decided to end this chapter in Southwest Florida history, turning out the green lights that line the wooden crocodile sign above the Wonder Gardens’ entrance.

Piper, 50, says the time is right. He’s lived in Georgia for the past six months, resting in the solitude, away from the day-to-day rigors of running the 3.5-acre property. His tumor hasn’t substantially grown, but he knows he’s lucky. At this stage, most with his diagnosis are wheelchair-bound.

“It’s an extremely emotional decision, I can tell you that,” Piper said. “The best way to describe it is cutting an umbilical cord.”

‘So much history’

When the Pipers announced last weekend they would be closing the Wonder Gardens, they didn’t foresee the near-constant turnstile of people demanding their attention.

All week, a parade of visitors has taken a final swing through the Wonder Gardens. They’ve been joined by museum officials picking through artifacts and zoological experts pricing animals.

Some are from old friends, bent on reminiscing about the Wonder Gardens’ heydays. Some are buyers spread across the country, who learned through the zoological grapevine of the site’s sales. Often, the most affecting are strangers heartbroken by the closing.

In shutting down the Wonder Gardens, the Pipers are carefully selling off animals and pieces of history. The wildlife is going to a combination of zoos, small refuges and private owners. Offers are being taken for works of taxidermy, crocodile skulls, ancient Calusa artifacts and virtually anything else on the walls.

The interest speaks to the Everglades Wonder Gardens’ place both in the community and the zoological world. Few places allow visitors to get as close to animals in captivity quite like the Wonder Gardens. And few family-owned zoos have a more impressive roll call of wildlife and vegetation.

In between the whirlwind of thank-yous and transactions, a nostalgia pervades, fitting for one of the final outposts of Old Florida.

“There are nice zoos in Miami and in Tampa and Brevard, zoos all over the U.S.,” said Tom Crutchfield, a retired reptile breeder mentored by Lester Piper in the 1960s. “But there’s so much history in that zoo, it’s unbelievable.”

Thick-skinned legacy

Lester Piper at the Everglades Wonder Gardens

Lester Piper at the Everglades Wonder Gardens

While Piper acknowledges the pain of letting go of his family’s treasures, he chooses to focus on the family’s legacy: the children who received their first lessons in wildlife there, the countless animals rehabilitated there.

Inevitably, that legacy traces back to the Wonder Gardens’ founders: his grandfather Lester and great uncle Bill.

With Prohibition coming to a close, the brothers, who made a comfortable living running alcohol between Canada and Michigan, came to Bonita Springs in the 1930s. With nothing more than a verbal contract, they opened and ran the roadside zoo.

Thick-skinned and ornery, not unlike a crocodile, Bill and Lester had their disagreements. But they remained loyal to one another. Legend has it that one day, when Bill brawled with an out-of-town family, Lester sprinted from the Wonder Gardens to the bar. He grabbed a fighter’s rifle, bent the barrel by hand and wrapped it around a pole. Then the brothers beat the hell out of their challengers.

At the same time, Bill and Lester found peace in wildlife.

“(Lester) was so kind and so sweet,” Piper said. “I’ve seen him be so sweet to an injured animal, and then an employee would do something stupid and he’d jump all over him, say every cuss word in the book.”

Bill died in 1989. Lester in 1992. They would understand why the Wonder Gardens are closing, Dawn Piper said.

“I think they’d be extremely proud,” Dawn Piper said. “I think that if they were here today, they would say (to David), ‘You’ve done such a good job considering everything with your health. Now it’s time to go live your life.’”

Closing of a chapter

David Piper wanted to close the Everglades last week, without any fanfare. It’s what Lester would have wanted.

Dawn convinced him otherwise, but her powers of persuasion only go so far. She also wanted to have a barbecue today. David wouldn’t have it. Because Lester wouldn’t have wanted it.

So instead, it’ll be a regular day at the Wonder Gardens. Grandparents will bring their grandchildren. Longtime locals will make a final visit. Long-lost friends will inevitably appear.

“It’s just time for this chapter of our lives to close,” Dawn Piper said. “And I’m looking equally as forward to the future.”

That future will be lived in the mountains of northeast Georgia, in a two-lane town of 500 people. The neighbors are friendly, the life slow and quiet.

“We already have people up there calling us about injured wildlife, so no telling what will happen,” Piper said. “I don’t see us staying away from wildlife for long.”

In Georgia, the Pipers already treasure their large garden. People might not know this, David Piper said, but he loves flowers, too. His favorite is the tickseed wildflower.

It’s really a weed, Piper said, but it’s intricate and beautiful.

Editor Dave Osborn contributed to this report.

© 2013 gonaples.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.

Sessions