Close Encounters of the Swamp Kind

If the customs and legends of Loop Road seem strange, you probably don't live there

To help maintain law and order, Cole, the Marshal, and their neighbor Pat Moran (whom they call the Sheriff) organize patrols on Wednesday nights. Cole explains the rigorous routine: "We go down to what we call the corner. We park and we watch the sun go down. Then we usually build a little fire on the side of the road and just sit there and talk and tell stories and have a few drinks. And when the mood hits us, we pack up and drive back."

After another round of beverages and cigars, Greg and I have had our fill. Before we leave, Judge Cole informs us of the schedule of local law enforcement: Trials are on Friday, hangings on Saturday, and then, of course, church services on Sunday. On the first Saturday of every month he holds a town meeting. It just so happens that one is scheduled for tomorrow. He invites us to attend.

Cole has one more suggestion: If we really want to learn the history of Loop Road, we "should really talk to Ben."

But it is too late and too dark to go pounding unannounced on trailer-home doors in the swamp. We head back to Miami. I will have to find Ben tomorrow before the all-important town meeting.

Ben is 85-year-old Ben Wolfe, the only remaining full-time resident who experienced the rise and fall of Pinecrest. Walk down Wolfe's dirt driveway a few miles west of Cole's place, and you'll find him seated at a picnic table in front of his 75-foot-long trailer home. Ask whether he has time to relate some Loop Road history and the surly, white-haired, bass fishing aficionado will gruffly say: "Well I don't have anything else to do but sit right here."

Wolfe grew up on a farm in Inverness, in central Florida. He moved to Miami in 1932 at age eighteen. Shortly thereafter he worked as a bartender at the Pig and Sax restaurant on MacArthur Causeway and as a bookie for the S and G Syndicate, which ran nightclubs and a gambling racket in Miami and Miami Beach. Several years later he tended bar at the Happy Hour, a watering hole once located at Douglas Road and Coral Way that was frequented by celebrities such as the stars of Bonanza -- Lorne Greene, Michael Landon, and Dan Blocker. "I used to serve Hos [Blocker], Little Joe [Landon], and Lorne Green there." And he had a second job: frogging in the Everglades. "I'd take people out frogging for three hours for 25 bucks."

Wolfe retired long ago, but still has business cards that are imprinted thus: "Yee Haw Says: May the Great Spirit Watch Over You As Long As The Grass Grows And The Water Flows."

A female mannequin dressed in Indian garb sits in the passenger seat of his truck. "I bought that in Naples for $300," he notes. He also owns a life-size, stuffed alligator that he takes to picnics. Inside his trailer home, a Miccosukee medicine man's rainstick leans against a living room wall behind a white leather easy chair. The stick is actually a shaft of wood with antlers at one end, a swath of colored beads wrapped around the middle, and a cluster of leather thongs attached to empty bullet casings. When shaken, it makes a jangling noise. "See these beads?" he asks, crouching over the stick. "Red is for the red man, white for the white man, black for the black man, and yellow for the yellow man." Wolfe is pretty colorful himself: orange hunting cap, scarlet polo shirt, blue jeans, and white rubber boots. He's got a little pewter-hued mermaid pendant hanging from a silver chain around his neck; he wears a silver ring in the shape of a belt-buckle on one finger.

Before launching into an hourlong historical monologue, Wolfe offers this insight: "All you hear on Loop Road is rumors."

Since the Thirties Wolfe has seen a lot of swamp pioneers come and go, from loggers and cattle ranchers to bootleggers and gamblers. Wolfe never met the most notorious of all, Al Capone, who went to prison for tax evasion in 1931. "That was way before my time," Wolfe notes. In the Twenties Capone ran a lodge that was the scene of moonshine sales and gambling, according to Wolfe and other current inhabitants. Residents quoted in a 1971 St. Petersburg Times article had a slightly different version: They said the lodge was owned by a cousin of Capone and burned down in 1927. Most everyone agrees that a set of stairs and the foundation are all that are left. "Everything has growed up around it," Wolfe adds. On occasion, while hunting frogs from an airboat at night with the aid of a headlamp, Wolfe would find the trappings of the bootleggers' trade. "Back in the old days, I'd come up on liquor stills. When I saw them in my frog lights, you better know I made a fast U-turn and headed the other way. I just stayed out of that area."

Wolfe has also encountered other castoffs of Everglades' history, such as wild cattle. Dozens of them eluded capture when open-range ranching fell from favor during the Forties. Wolfe shot one. "It was a beautiful calf, healthy and everything.... We thought we was going to have a big feast.... And we put that big roast up on the table and it was golden brown and juicy with the au jus gravy. We had coleslaw and everything to go with it. And I swear to God, you would have needed a saw to cut it. It was tough and it tasted like saw grass. It had no flavor at all. I took one piece home and give it to a friend of mine who had a restaurant, and he boiled it and boiled it for two or three days. He was going to make roast beef sandwiches out of it. He finally threw it in the canal so the alligators could eat it. It was just a lost cause."

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