Close Encounters of the Swamp Kind
The last of 35 suburban-style houses flashed by as we cruised west through the Everglades. The two lanes of pavement plastered over swamp were still pretty smooth, though miles of gravel lay ahead. On my left I glimpsed a dozen very big, white birds perched in a stand of cypress trees. I slammed on the brakes and pulled over.
We were standing there, my wildlife-spotting friend Greg and I, looking at the strange fowl when Bear, a ponytailed Miccosukee man, appeared from nowhere. "Those are ironheads. I don't know what white people call them," he said. "Know why they call them that? The heads are so strong that if they glide and hit your car window, they break it and just keep on flying."
Bear offered us a Budweiser, but we declined owing to our pending inquiry into the affairs of Loop Road, a 23-mile drive in the southernmost portion of Big Cypress National Preserve at the western edge of Miami-Dade County. I asked Bear whether the road had special significance for the Miccosukees. He looked down the swath of pavement that faded into the haze: "It's like part of life. It's like a story unto itself."
Or maybe a truckload of tales, many difficult if not impossible to prove. Bear had a Rolling Stones concert to attend that night, so we said goodbye. (I never told him that biologists call ironheads wood storks.) Music blasting, he vanished in a pickup truck the color of the silvery light that flickers on Everglades pools in late afternoon.
Greg and I headed west, away from the swampside modern homes toward the vestiges of the long-defunct town of Pinecrest, a place fabled for moonshiners, gamblers, barroom brawlers, and other backcountry renegades. The written history of Loop Road and its metropolis is sketchy, only a few feature articles and brief references in several books. But this much is known: Between its creation in the Twenties and today, a town of at least 200 people had sprung up, thrived for a few decades, then dissolved into a seldom-used public campground and overgrown clusters of dilapidated buildings. Mobster Al Capone and the composer of the bluegrass classic "Orange Blossom Special," fiddler Irvin Rouse, were once among its denizens. In 1974, when the federal government established Big Cypress, most everybody left. Only a few dozen private property owners who refused to sell their land stayed put. Nearly 25 years later there are but two dozen souls with a predilection for fresh air, pure water, peace, fishing, hunting, and mannequins. We'll return to the mannequins later.
Since its beginning Loop Road (or Florida Highway 94) has been characterized by strange customs and mysterious occurrences. The L-shaped route was first supposed to be part of the U.S. Highway 41, according to Big Cypress management assistant Kevin Kacer. Its eastern terminus is located at the 40-mile bend, where the Tamiami Trail curves sharply northwest if you are heading from Miami toward Naples. Work to dig U.S. 41, the Tamiami Trail, began in 1915 when crews started breaking ground in both Miami and Fort Myers. The developers employed native Miccosukees to help guide them through the swamp. By 1923 the trailblazers still had 40 miles to go. According to newspaper and historical accounts, they had planned to trace the path of an Indian trail in Monroe County until advertising magnate Barron Collier offered free right-of-way to the north through a chunk of Florida named for him, Collier County.
But the Chevelier Corporation, which owned large parcels of land in the Everglades, continued work on Loop Road as part of a housing development scheme. The Trail was opened to the public in April 1928. Loop Road, also known as Chevelier Road, was finished shortly thereafter.
The housing development never really developed. "The whole Big Cypress area, and hell, all of Florida, is crisscrossed with land development schemes," Kacer observes. "A lot of the areas here [in Big Cypress] were platted out and the little town of Pinecrest on Loop Road was [planned] to have alleys and parks and all that. A lot of people had a lot of dreams."
Big Cypress authorities have gathered little information about the place's history, Kacer says. "We're a young park," he adds. "We're just coming up on 25 years. The first 20 years have been a matter of understaffed and underpaid, and no time to do those nice-to-do things."
And so we had to find out for ourselves.
It's difficult to distinguish fact from fiction on Loop Road. As we continue the drive westward, dense trees and saw grass whir by. Tires slam into potholes. We approach a driveway with a hangman's noose looming above a plank fence and I again slam on the brakes. Pointed planks of wood nailed to a post indicate the directions of Miami, Tampa, and Cuba. According to a clock hanging next to a hog's skull on the right side of the gravel driveway, it's five. A street sign says "Lucky's Place."
We look into the yard, which is packed with two trailers, several old cars, and a tool shed. A man waves. "That must be Lucky," Greg surmises. We exit the car, walk down the drive, and sure enough, it's Lucky Cole, a burly blue-eyed dude, whose heavy upper arms protrude from his sleeveless blue T-shirt; one of his biceps is plastered with an eagle tattoo. Lucky, whose birth name is Louis Cole, is wearing suspenders that look exactly like tape measures.
He invites us to a porch that he attached to his trailer home soon after purchasing three acres in 1991. A sign above the entrance reads, "What part of 'No Trespassing' don't you understand?" He promptly offers us beers and cigars. He's got a lighter about the size of a large pickle that is shaped like a bright-green fish. A female mannequin with her legs crossed sits on a metal sofa. A gumball machine is by a screen door that leads into another room.
"She loved beer," Cole reminisces about the freaked-out wild boar that scampered into his yard during hunting season two years ago. "She was a sweetheart. I couldn't kill her myself." So he built a pen for her. "She stayed there 'cuz she didn't want to get shot." Eventually he gave her to a group of Miccosukees who run a pig farm on the Tamiami Trail. He assumed she would be cooked, but they later told him they couldn't kill the pig because she was a gift.
In the late Seventies and Eighties, Cole owned a trailer on property a few miles to the west that belonged to another scion of Loop Road, Ben Wolfe. A Miami Springs native, Cole works as a building inspector for the Miami-Dade County School Board. His business, Cheyenne Construction, is named after his daughter.
He gives us a tour of his yard, which is part dump, part sculpture garden. Behind the main trailer are two smaller ones. Behind the trailers is an outdoor shower made from cypress planks scavenged from the ruins of Sullivan's Barbecue, a now- defunct restaurant. Beyond that is his outdoor bathroom, still under construction; next to the entrance is an old rusted safe with a few sticks of dynamite inside. We stroll over to the eastern perimeter of the yard and come upon a greenhouse shaped like a Quonset hut. A wire runs around the base. "That's a hot wire to keep the animals out. It won't kill you, but it will make you angry with me," Cole declares. Inside are a wood stove and two chairs. A cage with a pair of small birds hangs from the ceiling. A head of cabbage and some ferns are the only things growing. "If I don't get around to getting vegetables planted, I just turn the soil real good, fertilize it, and throw in flower seeds. I just let it fill up with flowers," Cole says.
He leads us down his driveway toward Loop Road. "You want to see some wind chimes?" He stops next to two iron pipes as wide as telephone poles that are suspended vertically from a wooden beam. After he shoves them, an old hydraulic pump hung inside bounces back and forth, causing a deep, sour sound.
Then we follow him out to Loop Road. The clock on the wooden fence still reads five o'clock. "I never start drinking until it's five," Cole says. "I get my ice chest, come down, sit across the street, and look up at the clock. It's five."
We hole up on the porch again for a while. Then down the gravel driveway, on a four-wheel minibike, comes the Marshal. He's wearing a shirt and light blue jeans; a mustache lines his ready smile and a thin gold chain hangs around his neck. The Marshal, who is 50 years old and runs an air conditioning service, has come from his cypress shack at the end of Jim Dill Road. "Hey, Marshal," Cole yells.
"Hey, Judge. How ya doin'?" the Marshal responds.
"I'm doin' great," Cole says.
Cole indeed carries some legal authority. He's a notary public and performs wedding ceremonies. When acting in that capacity, he dresses in black, wears a black cowboy hat, and carries a .38 caliber revolver on his hip. He sometimes brings along a shotgun for effect. He recently presided over one marriage inside the state's wildlife check station, a screened-in, wood-frame cube at the eastern entrance of Loop Road where hunters report their take.
A car pulls into the driveway. It is Maureen, Cole's wife. She hails from Toronto, Canada, and works in Miami at Prudential insurance company in the risk-management division. She settles into a chair on the porch. Before the couple relocated to Loop Road, the swamp was "all very abstract to me," she recalls. "I wouldn't move back to town for all the money in the world," she declares.
As dusk turns to dark, the conversation drifts from weddings to snakes to Y2K to park rangers, who are the favorite whipping boys of many a Loop Road inhabitant. Cole remembers that the Marshal (who asked that his real name not be printed because he likes his privacy) wrote a song about a ranger. Then Marshal, who was born in Texas 50 years ago and has lived on Loop Road for the past 25 years, begins singing like a bluegrass legend:
"Way out in the Everglades on the old Loop Road/There's an old game warden that everybody knows/Some folks say he's sneaky, some folks say he's mean/Everybody knows him by his name Ray Green/He's mean, he's mean, he's mean, Ray Green/Now if you're sneakin' through the Glades don't let the sun go down/'Cause Ray he's got an infrared and he's always hangin' round/And if you've got a gator in that gunny sack/Ol' Ray can smell and he can tell you ain't never comin' back/He's mean, he's mean, he's mean, Ray Green."
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."
Mingling with wildlife is, of course, a big part of Loop Road's allure. Wolfe remembers stepping into a shed one day and discovering an alligator. He retrieved his shotgun. "I blew that gator away," he recalls. "But that shed blew away, too."
Wolfe doesn't remember whether that was before or after the federal government declared alligators an endangered species in 1970. Since 1988 the hunting season for the reptiles has been limited. Wolfe, like some of his neighbors, tends to think such regulation is unnecessary. "As far as I'm concerned there never was any shortage of gators. Now they're getting to be so many gators, if they don't open up some law and let 'em take some more, the gators are going to start eating the people. I wouldn't dare step out of my place at night if I didn't have a gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other. And I'd still be scared because there's some twelve- or fourteen-footers around."
Wolfe also recalls the days when parts of the swamp south of the road were as dry as a prairie. That was before the government established Big Cypress and state water managers started to maintain higher water levels. "So many people are used to this high water and so many people don't realize we'd been through so many years when we had no water. You could drive all over those Everglades in an automobile," Wolfe remembers. "You could drive 40 miles an hour."
Of course there were some muddy spots. Wolfe says one of his former neighbors was out on a swamp buggy with tank-like treads one day decades ago when he discovered an abandoned yellow Buick sunk deep into the mud. "There was nobody there, but there were about ten fishin' poles stickin' out," Wolfe relates. "[My neighbor] was going to be the good guy and pull it out. He got out and put the ropes to it.... This buggy was huge.... He said to his girlfriend, 'Back up.'... She pulled at the gear and gave it the gas and instead of backin' it up, she just run that big four-track right up over that car and squashed it right into the mud. And they was all so scared they just took their rope and took off. It took him about four or five years before he ever told me that he was the one who did it."
After a brief spell as a logging town in the Thirties, Pinecrest came to depend on hunting, frogging, and fishing for its livelihood. It was prosperous enough to sustain a service station, the rusty remnants of which still stand. Outdoorsmen relied on the establishment for ice, beer, and groceries. Wolfe remembers that people often took ice from an outdoor freezer without paying for it. Owner Eddie Hawkins, a Missouri native who moved to Loop Road in the late Fifties, decided to get even. "So he killed a six-and-a-half, seven-foot rattlesnake, coiled it up after he killed it, and froze it stiff. He just had it settin' inside the cooler," Wolfe relates with a laugh. "So he kind of scared off whoever was stealin' his ice. Those were the good ol' days."
According to Wolfe, Hawkins employed an elderly man named Benny. "I never saw the man eat anything in my whole life, but he always had a Budweiser in his hand. He weighed about 125 pounds. We just called him the mayor of Pinecrest. Then he died."
Near the center of Pinecrest, where the old gas pumps stand, Jim Dill Road splits off from the main drag. The chuckhole-gouged dead end, one of the bumpiest routes in the Everglades, was named after a mysterious resident who died long ago. One newspaper account describes him as a real estate developer. "There were all kind of rumors why [Dill] lived out there," Wolfe says. "He was a nice old guy. I pulled him out of the ditch a few times. He'd drink too much beer ... but he never bothered anybody. He was well [liked] on the Loop Road. So he passed and that's history."
The road's drinking and eating establishments inspire the fondest memories. One was Sullivan's, owned by Don Sullivan, a local sportsman from Homestead. "He bought a piece of property and built this beautiful barbecue," Wolfe says. "He had it all decorated with antiques and old telephones. He had an old barber's chair in there. All the kids would get their sandwich and then fight to sit in that chair. There was an upstairs. You could look out over the Everglades and see deer."
In the Sixties Wolfe leased the establishment from Sullivan, opened it on weekends, and even offered swamp-buggy rides.
One of Pinecrest's most beloved watering holes was called Gator Hook. It was originally owned and operated by retired Sweetwater policeman Jack Knight. "They always had a band," Wolfe reminisces. "There'd be a lot of Indians, a lot of people from Miami, and the locals. It was a jumpin' place, I guess you could say."
Gator Hook continued to be a popular stop for weekend gatherings throughout the Sixties. Ed, a Miramar resident who occasionally visits Wolfe (and declined to give his last name), remembers a typical outing to the bar in 1969, when he was twenty years old: "There was a wood plank over a ditch to get to the door. You had to walk the plank to get into the place. One time we couldn't get through the door because there were two guys fighting ... so we had to step over them. They had a string band in there with a fiddler and two acoustic guitars. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You talk about pure country. They were in there clogging on a plank floor and drinking on a Saturday night. Hunters and wild country life."
In 1974 the U.S. Congress approved the purchase of land from thousands of private property owners to create the Big Cypress National Preserve. The law also protected those who did not want to leave. During the Eighties and Nineties, some landowners sold their lots to the federal government or to other individuals. "As long as [the landowners] maintain themselves in a safe, sanitary, and decent manner there's no problem," says Kevin Kacer, the Big Cypress management assistant.
Lately preserve managers have been more concerned about a different sort of untidiness. A company called Quest Communications, which recently laid miles of cable along the Tamiami Trail and Loop Road, didn't clean up properly, Kacer explains. Dirt has washed into the Everglades, interfering with the natural habitat. "They made kind of a mess out there," Kacer says. Cleanup has already started.
Such important issues would be addressed that night at the town meeting.
Dusk has fallen on Judge Cole's porch and it is just about time for the gathering to commence. Cole and his wife Maureen are lounging on their deck again and the mannequin is still frozen in her timeless position on the metal couch. Soon the Marshal arrives and takes a seat near the stove. The Sheriff is expected, but is late as usual. The Judge starts the meeting without him. "How 'bout a beer?" he asks the Marshal. After a few minutes of small talk, the Judge reiterates Loop Road law: "Trials are on Fridays, hangings are on Saturday, and church is on Sunday. But don't be late to the service, or you'll be on trial Friday."
A young man sporting a black cowboy hat arrives and joins the meeting. The Marshal introduces him as Lizard Wayne. "Everglades Wayne," Wayne corrects. He holds a video camera in his hands and explains that he has been taping plants and animals. Then he shares his new cure for hiccups: salt. The Judge suggests another remedy: "I find that a good kick in the gut works really well." With a laugh he adds that his toes don't bend anymore because he has kicked so many midsections.
"I wonder where the Sheriff is," the Marshal says. "I thought he was going to come."
Instead Kevin Taylor arrives with a hunting buddy named Steve. They've been out stalking turkeys without success. Taylor is the son of local legend Francis Taylor, a hunter and conservationist for whom a wildlife preservation area north of the Tamiami Trail is named.
"How 'bout a beer?" the Judge asks them. They are much obliged. Taylor and the Judge were classmates at Miami Springs High School in the Sixties. Taylor reminisces about an incident many years ago at a Miami Springs bar in which the Judge punched out someone. Everyone chuckles. "Sure am glad we stopped in to see you," Taylor says. The Judge tosses a chunk of wood into the stove.
The next order of business is a wild hog, one the Judge and Maureen have cooked in a smoker. "How 'bout some ribs?" the Judge asks. Taylor repeatedly refuses, but finally consents.
After the ribs are gone, the Judge takes Taylor and his friend on a quick tour of the grounds. Everglades Wayne begins talking about his six encounters with Florida panthers. The Marshal insists Wayne is an expert on Everglades wildlife.
Just then a strange sound like a turkey's gobble emanates from somewhere out in the darkness. Everglades Wayne cocks his head and listens. But it is only Taylor's wooden turkey call drifting in from the driveway. Taylor and his buddy soon depart. "Too bad the Sheriff didn't show up," the Judge laments. He cracks open another can of beer.
And that's just how it happened out on old Loop Road.
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