Ross Allen's Snake
Milking Pen circa 1940s
E. Ross Allen was a genuine
Florida character. Born in 1908 in Pittsburgh, Pa., Ross
gravitated toward the wilds of nature, and where could you find
nature in greater abundance than Florida's Silver Springs?
As a boy he made Eagle Scout,
and would later help the Boy Scouts set the standards for
several wildlife merit badges. He was stand-in for Johnny
Weismuller in the Tarzan movies shot at the springs, then went
on to star in a few short films of his own that depicted him as
a sort of latter day Tarzan -- an image he was careful to
Marjorie Kinnian Rawlings, in
her account of a snake hunt with Ross in Cross Creek, paints him
as an easy going, patient man, with a great love for the wilds
and understanding of its creatures, especially snakes.
Characteristically, he had invited her on the hunt in hopes that
she would write about him.
He founded Ross Allen's
Reptile Institute at Silver Springs in 1929, displaying native
snakes, alligators, and an "Indian Village" with Seminoles he
recruited from the Everglades. After watching Ross handle the
snakes and Indians wrestle gators, tourists could purchase their
own souvenir live reptiles to take back home with them.
Milking Rattlesnake at Retile Institute
As time went on the emphasis
at the Reptile Institute shifted a bit, from wild and woolly
demonstration to scientific observation. Allen's studies of the
American Alligator were among the first of this important
reptile. Snakes were milked for their venom to be sent around
the world for research and the production of antivenin.
(Antivenin Ross would himself need on occasion, having been
bitten more than a dozen times in the process). Reptiles raised
here were sold to zoos and other tourist attractions across the
Silver Springs saw a sharp
drop in visitors in the 1970's after the opening of Walt Disney
World and the gas crisis, and as the main Silver Springs
attraction began to consolidate itself the peripheral
attractions, like Tommy Barlett's Deer Ranch, the Prince of
Peace memorial, and the Reptile Institute closed or were
absorbed into the single Silver Springs park.
For a time, Ross continued to
give reptile demonstrations at the Alligator Farm in Saint
Augustine, and he lent his name to a small wildlife park
adjacent to the Shell Factory in North Fort Myers. Then, he
developed bigger plans.
Ross Allen's Alligator Town
was to be a tourist attraction and alligator farm in Lake City
near the intersection of I-75 and U.S.90. Rather than fight
Disney, Ross hoped to siphon off some of its southbound traffic
on the way. The 50 acre, $800,000 park was to feature a reptile
museum, alligator farm with underwater alligator wrestling, a
rattlesnake show, turtle garden, and wild lizard jungle.
Waterslides, rides, and other theme park trappings were to be
added eventually, with an amphitheater for concerts and other
shows. Allen, along with partner Dennis Magee, a former
president of the Florida Herpetological Society, planned a June
But it was an opening Ross
Allen would never see. The month before the park was to open he
became ill, then died in Gainesville's Shands Hospital on
Sunday, May 17, 1981. He was 73.
Alligator Town did eventually
open, but it wasn't the success predicted by Allen. One of the
building contractors ended up owning and running the alligator
farm as pretty much a one man operation. In 2002, when the
Florida Sports Hall of Fame down the street closed Alligator
Town was still open, but just barely, only a shell of what it
once was and could have become. Shortly thereafter it closed
forever and the reptiles were removed. The main entrance
building has since been a construction office and even a fight
club, and, as of October, 2010, was listed for sale.
As for The Florida Sports
Hall of Fame, it was eventually able to reopen in 2010 in a new
facility in Auburndale. The old building on Hall of Fame Drive
in Lake City now houses a branch of the Columbia County Library
Article by Robert
Ross Allen and
Ross milking an eastern diamondback rattlesnake.
The entrance to Ross
Allenís Reptile Institute at Silver Springs Attraction