Reports of the death of Coopertown Airboats have been greatly exaggerated. As the U.S. government has acquired large swaths of the Everglades, more than once it's looked like "Captain Jesse" Kennon's iconic swamp-tour business would have to close up shop.
"Kennon and his wife Sally... are on the verge of being bought out," New Times wrote in 1995.
"Thanks to the government, he now qualifies as an endangered species," we quipped in 2000.
"Kennon is still waiting to hear what fate holds for him," we mentioned in 2005.
Kennon's cousin John opened Coopertown Airboats in 1945. As a kid, Jesse explored the swamp and learned to drive airboats. After school and a few years in an office job at a liquor company, he returned to the swamp to run the show.
Kennon is now 70 years old, but he still wears an open-collared shirt and a sun-baked smile while presiding over the little metropolis of Coopertown, population him. He talks in a quick but gentle Southern voice, crackled a bit by age. "My [kids] are pretty much all grown now, so I'm here by myself," he says. Staff comes in during the day to operate the restaurant (gator tails and frogs' legs) and pilot the fleet of airboats.
That's his boat in the opening sequence of CSI: Miami. He has hosted shoots for GQ, Vogue, and a Dutch reality show in which a group of attractive young ladies piled onto one of his boats. He has also seen growing competition.
In recent years, businesses have sprouted up and down the Tamiami Trail, offering new diversions such as caged animals, gator rasslin', and live shows. Now, such things are "basically a necessity" to keep up with the neighbors, Kennon says.
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When he has some free time, he heads back out on the boat alone to just float or watch the sun set. He's seen invasive species take over the swamps and water levels dwindle in drought years, but he also catches some sublime moments. He had a front-row seat to this summer's meteor shower. "It's beautiful out there," he says.
Recently, his 41-year-old son, Doyle, has been staying with him while preparing to take over the business one day. The park service still might buy out the concession, keeping him or his son on as an employee.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen," Kennon says. For now, though, Captain Jesse is still the mayor of Coopertown.
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