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Vintage St. Pete: The alligator farm

Bill DeYoung

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Andrew Hardee "A.H." Baker was St. Petersburg's first great "showman" - he had this photo made into a postcard.

History did not record exactly why 61-year-old shoe manufacturer Andrew Hardee Baker relocated to St. Petersburg, from Brockton, Massachusetts – a big shoe-making town at the time – to farm and display live alligators.

Perhaps Baker wanted to see firsthand where the material for his alligator shoes was coming from.

Whatever his reasons, Baker and his wife Anna – whose health was reportedly fragile – took the train down in 1917 and never left. St. Petersburg was still very much a “winter town” then, and Baker knew that bored northern visitors liked nothing better than to ogle the giant, toothsome reptiles so common in humid Florida.

And there was money to be made, during the lengthy off season, in alligator meat and hides.

Largo had an alligator farm. Clearwater had an alligator farm. There was a farm in Sarasota, and a large and well-known farm in the Sulphur Springs area of Tampa.

Baker purchased close to an acre of land on 6th Street South, in what’s still known today as the Big Bayou (accessible in the ‘20s by automobile and trolley car). His property was a stone’s throw from brackish Salt Lake, which then – as now – was swamp-to-shore with alligators. After it was dammed off from Tampa Bay to keep salinity levels down, in 1941, Salt Lake was re-named Lake Maggiore.

A two-story wooden building was erected at the intersection of 6th Street and 36th Avenue. Presumably, the Bakers inhabited the upper floor, while the ground level was used as the public entrance for the St. Petersburg Alligator Farm. Photos show a collection of large, fenced pens in the space behind the house:

Photo: St. Petersburg Museum of History.

The earliest advertisements in the St. Petersburg Times – from 1918 – announced a menagerie that included Alligators, Turtles, Snakes, Birds, Animals. Live and Mounted Alligators and Crocodiles on sale for Christmas Presents.

Admission was 22 cents for adults (plus three cents “war tax”), 10 cents for children.

The St. Petersburg Alligator Farm was the city’s first tourist attraction, opening just a few years before plant fancier George Turner started charging admission to his Sunken Gardens.

A.H. Baker, therefore, was the first St. Petersburg P.T. Barnum character, a Great Showman before “Doc” Webb had even arrived from Tennessee to build his “World’s Most Unusual Drug Store.”

The largest gator on the property, “Old Mose,” was 15 feet from snout to tail. Baker told people the animal was “at least” 400 years old. (In truth, captive alligators can live as long as 70 years.)

In the 1930s, Baker purchased a trio of ostriches from a farmer in California. The farm also displayed an albino raccoon, a black raccoon, a coyote, squirrels, skunks and opossums.

Photo: St. Petersburg Museum of History.

People mostly came to see the swamp monsters.

Improbably, Baker’s alligators mated, and nested, and hatched their young inside their wood and chain-link pens. In 1936, the newspaper repeated Baker’s claim that there were 1,500 alligators (“and one crocodile”) on the property, the majority of them babies.

BABY ALLIGATORS – Mailed away. Safe, novel, instructive for boy or girl any age. $1.50 each. Live delivery guaranteed. ST. PETE ALLIGATOR FARM, 36th Avenue & 6th Street So. (St. Petersburg Times classified ad, Dec. 12, 1937).

He went on an extended gator-buying trip to the Everglades in 1925, because, the Times breathlessly reported, “Intense interest shown in the exhibit at the farm have convinced the management that the stock of reptiles and queer animals must be increased for the coming tourist season. Purchase of alligators by the city’s visitors has also made inroads into the ranks of the oldest inhabitants of Florida.”

 A colored man came in with an alligator in a bag. He said it was three feet long. We bought the alligator. He went out of the yard on the run. When we opened the sack, we found the alligator was five feet long, but had three feet. (From St. Petersburg Alligator Farm brochure.)

Many of the larger animals were missing limbs – the result, Baker told visitors, of vicious fights between his “brutes.” One four-footer had no front legs, and Baker attached an axel with a wheel on each side to the underside of its body in the front, enabling the reptile to push itself along once out of the water. “Fighting Effie” climbed a fence, killed her neighbor and maimed several others. She was sentenced to solitary confinement. “Oliver” had just a stub of a tail, the rest bitten off by “Fighting Bob.”

“Romeo” and “Juliet” were penned together for 10 years. For no apparent reason, the big male attacked and killed the smaller female as she was building a nest. “One night,” wrote the Times, “Romeo tore Juliet to pieces. He was alone for a while and they got him another mate. But he tore her to pieces in a very few days. He now lives alone.”

A girl from Boston put her Pekinese dog on the rail of Fighting Bob’s pen to see the alligator. The dog either fell or jumped in and the gator had him. Her father threatened to sue, claiming I had no right to keep alligators that would eat dogs. (From St. Petersburg Alligator Farm brochure.)

Baker immediately put a new ad in the paper: See “Fighting Bob,” the dog that ate the 700-dollar Pekinese dog, at the Alligator Farm.

Photo: St. Petersburg Museum of History.

In 1937, Baker purchased a 10-foot, 1,300-pound leopard shark from a St. Pete boat captain who’d caught the fish in the Bahamas. Baker had it stuffed and mounted and took out a new newspaper ad: See Man-Eating Shark!

A man came in with a black snake to sell. He opened the sack to show the snake. It jumped out of the sack into the alligator pen. An alligator grabbed the snake and down its throat it went. We had both alligator and snake. (From St. Petersburg Alligator Farm brochure.)

‘GATORS FOR JANE: Jane Withers, youthful Hollywood motion picture star, will within a few days receive 100 small Florida alligators. The shipment is now being prepared at the Alligator Farm at Big Bayou. It is not known here what she intends to do with them.

St. Petersburg Times/March 1, 1938

The arrival in 1938 of the seven-acre Florida Wild Animal Ranch, owned by ex-circus animal trainer Sterling “Tom” Thomson on 4th Street and 48th Avenue N., brought Baker his first taste of competition. Thomson and his wife Joan, a former professional aerialist, displayed numerous alligators alongside bears, monkeys and other creatures in their roomy menagerie, and operated a gator-and-snake leather business out of a back room.

RELATED READING: Vintage St. Pete: The Florida Wildlife Ranch

A.H. Baker died in October, 1940, at the age of 82. He and Anna had no children.

A GOING concern for sale. St. Petersburg Alligator Farm and Zoo covering 5 house lots. Facing waterfront. Owner must sell at once because of ill health. Call 3601 6th Ave. So. Phone 85-435. (St. Petersburg Times classified ad, June 22, 1943).

Anna Baker sold every last animal inhabitant of the St. Petersburg Alligator Farm, including 15-foot “Old Mose,” to Tom Thomson. And the business was shuttered, although Anna continued to live in the home.

She died the following January. Two months later, “Old Mose” breathed his last, up at Tom and Joan Thomson’s place.

Today, eighty years later, the Bakers’ wooden home – or what’s left of it – is still standing, ramshackle and uninhabited. There’s nothing but grass, weeds and a few solitary oak trees on the back half of the property, former location of the alligator and animal pens.

According to the Pinellas County Property Appraiser website, the house is currently owned by Tampa-based WC Assets LLC. Repeated calls for information about the property went unanswered.

Baker … has answered many queer questions in his time, but he was stumped recently by an order from Japan. The oriental customer from the land of the rising sun requested quotations on alligator livers. After giving the matter due consideration, Baker decided that he did not feel satisfied in slaying some of his saurians to accommodate a Shinto medicine man in the shadow of Mount Fujiama (sic). The Japanese, he avers, will have to struggle along without fresh alligator livers.

St. Petersburg Times, March 3, 1936

3601 6th Street today, uninhabited and owned by a Tampa investment company. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Beth Reynolds

    October 7, 2023at6:58 pm

    Just around the corner from my house. I’m sure there’s going to be condos in the near future there sadly.

  2. Avatar

    Mary Anna Murphy

    October 7, 2023at2:13 pm

    The former Alligator Farm has construction fencing around it now. Looks like it’s going to be torn down. Too bad. There goes a quirky bit of old St. Pete history.

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