Viva Florida 500 GreaterJax™ is a series of occasional pieces about Florida history and this year’s celebrations of 500 years of same in and around northeast Florida.
Alligators fit Florida tourism like a well-made glove.
In fact, the fit has been so right for so long that most folks in GreaterJax™ have forgotten who one of Florida’s first alligator economists is.
Warren Frazee, Florida Cracker and Jacksonville native born in 1873, re-invented himself at age 25 as “Alligator Joe,” alligator wrestler and proprietor of one of Florida’s first theme parks in Palm Beach.
As early as 1895, Frazee began damming up sloughs and inlets to make alligator pens.
Frazee is billed as the world’s first professional alligator wrestler.
One way or another he intended to turn a buck on gators.
By all accounts, Frazee looked like you’d expect an alligator wrestler to look. At 340 pounds, he cut an imposing figure – long, full mustache, wide-brimmed hat – and he went armed, always, with a pistol or a rifle.
It’s rumored that Frazee was a college graduate with an encyclopedic memory.
When he was finished with the alligators for the week, he went into town to relax and talk. No matter what the subject, no one could stump him.
By 1911, his alligator wrasslin’ shows drew more winter tourists than any other Florida attraction.
“Alligator Joe” & the Indians
One suspects that the Seminole Indians may have trapped and maybe even wrestled alligators and other critters for reasons other than tourism well before they met Warren Frazee.
However, Frazee is credited with developing a “crocodile-catching outfit” that used several eight-foot boards (each a foot wide), three to four two-by-fours, a spade, a crowbar and a block and tackle.
The boards block the entrance to an alligator den, then the crowbar tests the roof of the den to so see if there’s anybody home.
If there is, you attach your block and tackle to the nearest tree, use the spade to dig a hold just big enough to let the alligator out and hope its head ends up in your noose.
You’ve seen it done on television, and much more recently.
The Indians must have been amazed when “Alligator Joe” brought his rig south.
Yep, he’d developed his technique in Jacksonville.
This was a partnership meant to last – Frazee had the techonology, and the Indians had the local knowledge.
On whole, you’d have to say that Frazee was an honest trader, especially in light of the influx of tourist dollars the Seminoles participated in.
Proprietor & showman
Believe or not, Warren Frazee, a rank showman, was known throughout the United States.
Here’s why: In the summer time, Frazee exhibited alligators and other Florida animals around the country: the Atlantic City Boardwalk, White City in Denver, Wonderland Park and Paragon Park in Boston, Forest Park (near Chicago), Electric Park in Kansas City, Miss. and Dreamland Park in New York City.
It’s probable that Frazee used crocodilians’ innate tonic immobility to more safely manipulate the animals and that his intimate knowledge of them created the effect of “wonder” in his shows reported in the Miami Herald and other newspapers.
Frazee established himself in Palm Beach in 1895, well before it became became the high-priced resort it is today.
He did not, however, beat the Yankee tourists, who patronized his tourist trap after they were finished golfing, swimming and skiing at the Royal Poinciana, which could accommodate something like 1,600 guests, about a mile up the road.
According to a 1903 Palm Beach newspaper account, guests could walk or take “wheelchair” (chauffeured, pedal-powered wicker chair with wheels) rides on the cycle path and stop at Alligator Joe’s for fifty-cents a pop.
Later when architect Addison Mizener was deciding where to build the Everglades Club, he met Frazee and his alligator farm at the west end of Worth Avenue. Eventually Mizener bought Frazee’s property and began work on the club, a convalescent center for WWI veterans that became a resort for the international jet set.
Frazee took the show on the road to Ft. Lauderdale in 1897, then headed for Miami.
Around 1910, Frazee dammed up part of Wagner Creek near downtown Miami and displayed even more alligators.
By all reports, Wagner Creek was an instant success and bona fide tourist atrraction by 1911 as part of the Biscayne Navigation Company’s sight-seeing tours.
A man of science
In his own way, Frazee was a man of science.
Not much was known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries about many Florida species, alligators only one among them.
As a sideline, Frazee trapped manatees for sale to zoos and aquariums around the country, including his own farms and exhibitions in Chicago, Kansas City and Denver, where he hired native Floridians as managers.
In 1903, he shipped a pair of manatees to the New York for display in the Zoological Society’s aquarium.
Although trapping manatees was outlawed in 1915, Frazee was granted special permission to catch a manatee for display at the Panama Exposition in San Francisco, where he also exhibited 2,000 “live alligators and game fish of the sea.”
It may be this same manatee that he donated to the Museum of the California Academy of Sciences. Its skin and skeleton are part of the museum’s permanent collection.
Alligator Joe finishes up
Alligator wrestling and all the travel takes a toll on a man.
Warren Frazee finished up at age 42 on May 30, 1915, in San Francisco during the Panama Exposition.
Causes? Double pleural pneumonia complicated by tonsilitis, fatty degeneration of the heart and diabetes.
Part of you should wish that he’d had a bigger send off, but no.
Cremated three days later, and no one knows what happened to the animals on display.
That’s showbiz, kids.
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OFFICIAL BIO: K Truitt is a second-generation, native Floridian born in Jacksonville. Truitt worked in public higher education for 25 years and knows newspaper publishing, printing and graphic design. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org