Requiem for a Swamp Rat

Everglades veteran Jesse Kennon loves to spend his days amid the saw grass and gators. But thanks to the government, he now qualifies as an endangered species.

“I started working in a warehouse, like in St. Louis. I worked there for a couple weeks. Then I got a job working for a large tree-transplanting company. Three weeks after I went to work for them, we did some landscaping for Raymond Burr, the actor who played Perry Mason at that time. He liked the way I worked and hired me as the caretaker at his house. I ran all these errands for him. I still worked as a tree transplanter, but I was also working private parties at his hotels and driving his limousines. A couple of hours a day was mine; the rest of the time I was working.

“Raymond Burr wanted to send me to college for two years to learn about the plants and things because a lot of the plants were from the Bahamas and were hard to grow out in Malibu, where he had his home. Instead I decided to enroll in the navy, 'cause I figured they were going to draft me anyway, for Vietnam. I served four years.

“All this time I'm still a young man. The Seagram's distillery hired me three months before I was 21 years old, and I worked for them for eight and a half years in advertising and sales promotion. When I first started, I was doing advertising in stores and bars and stuff like that all over the Los Angeles area. I transferred to Chicago, but they didn't honor the promotion they promised me, so I quit and went into construction. My cousin John down here kept bugging me. He said, “Why don't you just buy me out 'cause I'm too old; I'm tired and I want to retire.' So after talking to him for about a year, a year and a half, I came down and took over Coopertown permanently. That was in 1982.

Kennon presides over metropolitan Coopertown, everything from the airboat tours to the small restaurant
Kennon presides over metropolitan Coopertown, everything from the airboat tours to the small restaurant

“It's comfortable here for me. I've always been an outdoors person. The only thing different about the Everglades is it's wet.”

The airboat glides slowly down the canal, drifting on a barely perceptible current. Herons and egrets peer down from perches atop the trees. A soft-shell turtle floats over for a look. In the brush a boat-tailed grackle flaps his radiant dark-blue wings, which are molting this time of year.

“This used to be extremely beautiful before Hurricane Andrew,” Kennon says. “We used to have tall trees in here, real tall coconut palms and everything. When we went through here, our boats had to lower our flags because the canopy was just solid. Now it's nothing like it was, though we still get a lot of air plants growing off the trees in here. We've got some banana trees growing in here. Coco plums. Elderberries. Wild grapes. We've done a lot of photo and fashion shoots in this particular area. They like this jungly type background, the big tall leather ferns and that.

“We also have the spider lily down there, if you can see it. The spider lily has a film in the center and the petals go upward. This one here next to it is a fragrant swamp lily. Can you see the brown stuff floating around? That is called periphyton. Periphyton is basically about 30 different types of algae. It really works a couple different ways out here. When it's floating like it is now, the animals all feed off it -- crawdads, tadpoles, minnows, whatever else. But also when we get into our drought years, when we get very little water or no water, they'll sit on the top of the soil where it works like a sponge and absorbs the night air moisture and actually keeps the soil from blowing away. I'm sure there probably are more technical terms for the use and benefit of it, but that's kind of the simplest form that I can explain it in.”

In 1989 Congress passed the Everglades Protection and Expansion Act, which called for the government to purchase and fold into the national park 107,000 acres of the eastern half of the Shark River Slough. This land includes all the airboat concessions on the Tamiami Trail, Coopertown among them.

Kennon says at the time the act was signed, the superintendent of Everglades National Park promised him his concession would be grandfathered in with the purchase. Coopertown airboat tours could continue up to the day Kennon retired. Then the property would revert to the government. In 1994, though, under the administration of a different park superintendent, Kennon claims he was informed that no grandfather clause existed.

The government is offering compensation for his property but not for his business, Kennon says. He won't divulge the details of the settlement he's been offered, except to say it will only be enough to cover his relocation expenses. Several of his neighbors already have been bought out. The proprietor of one airboat concession moved up north. The owner of a nearby bait and tackle shop sold out and took a job at Home Depot. Kennon estimates that 80 percent of the park extension has already been acquired.

“I've taken most of the appraisers out to each of the different areas,” Kennon says. “The tax people don't know where these places are at, so it's easier for me to take them 'cause they can give me an idea of location and I can take them right to it. It's kind of a shame. It's kind of like taking the enemy out. The people are just doing a job; that's the way you have to look at it. I'd rather take 'em out so they know exactly what they're doing rather than making Mickey Mouse guesses.”

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