A Visit to the Original Florida Tourist Trap at Jonathan Dickinson State Park

On the banks of the Loxahatchee River, in a remote corner of southeast Florida’s Jonathan Dickinson State Park, is the site of the one-time homestead and jungle zoo of a man known as Trapper Nelson — the “Wildman” or “Tarzan” of the Loxahatchee. What, you’ve never heard of him? Well, I doubt I would have either if a cold snap during our recent vacation in Singer Island hadn’t driven us off the beach in search of something to do.

Our visit to Trapper Nelson’s was the only stop on a guided boat cruise up and back six miles of the upper northwest fork of the Loxahatchee. One of just two nationally designated “wild and scenic” rivers in the state of Florida, this section of the Loxahatchee is a shining example of what the Florida Park Service calls “the real Florida.”

As the river snaked along through a dense tangle of palms and mangroves, we scanned its root beer-brown waters for gators. But they and the turtles after which the river is named – “Loxahatchee” means “river turtle” in Seminole – stayed hidden below the surface, keeping warm in the mud. We did catch a brief glimpse of a river otter, though, and spotted an osprey high atop a bald cypress tree.

Upon our arrival at the Trapper Nelson Interpretive Site, as it is officially called, the boat captain handed us over to a park ranger, who toured us around the various wood cabins, shelters and assorted artifacts of a place he said some consider to be “the original Florida tourist trap.”

The cabin where Trapper Nelson lived.

It was here, in the 1930’s, that Vincent Nostokovich, a brawny Polish-American trapper and hunter – hence his nickname, Trapper Nelson — retreated to live a solitary life in the jungle and eventually build a ramshackle zoo of sorts. Known as “Trapper Nelson’s Zoo and Jungle Gardens,” it exhibited a variety of animals that Trapper captured himself from the Florida wilderness, such as raccoons, opossums, snakes, bobcats and even alligators. For over two decades, up until it was shut down for health code violations in 1960, the zoo did a brisk business with tourists and locals alike, its visitors including famous movie stars, sports heroes, and politicians.

But the biggest draw, and what made this place the popular tourist attraction that it was, was the the 6’4″ 240 pound Trapper himself. People came by the boat-loads to see this ruggedly handsome “wildman” wrestle alligators, handle poisonous snakes and do other Tarzan-like things in his rustic jungle hideaway.

Trapper Nelson

The park ranger recounted story after colorful story of Trapper’s life with the nostalgia and warmth of an old friend: Trapper’s failed attempt to avoid the draft by getting married — he ended up briefly serving in World War II and later divorcing his wife; his unusually voracious appetite and taste for raccoon stew; the $1,800 in coins that he squirreled away in the walls of his cabin; his romantic exploits with Palm Beach heiresses; his final years as a paranoid recluse, convinced the government was after his land; and his mysterious death by shotgun at the age of 59, among others.

There was more than enough material here for a Hollywood blockbuster, I thought, as we motored back downriver at the end of our visit. Now I just need to find the time to write the screen play . . .