Going, going, gone? Is this the end of Everglades Wonder Gardens

21wonder02 -- David and Dawn Piper pose on the bridge over the alligator pit at the Everglades Wonder Gardens off Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs.
photos by Chuck Curry/Banner

21wonder02 -- David and Dawn Piper pose on the bridge over the alligator pit at the Everglades Wonder Gardens off Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs. photos by Chuck Curry/Banner

Everglades Wonder Gardens

When: Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week (the last tour starts at 4:15 p.m.)

Where: 27180 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs

Admission: $15 adults; $8 ages 3 to 10; all active military personnel free

Information: (239) 992-2591

— Once just a carnival-esque slice of its surrounding swamp, Everglades Wonder Gardens now sits between urban sprawl and commercial ventures on Old 41 Road between Naples and Bonita Springs. It’s not unusual to hear the sounds of cars zooming on the busy roads beyond the green canopies of the gardens.

At one time, however, Everglades Wonder Gardens was a prime destination, an exotic experience for interstate travelers on their way to Miami on the Tamiami Trail. When Lester Piper opened it on Feb. 22, 1936, Old 41 was THE U.S. 41. There was no other way to traverse the west coast of Florida.

“It was the perfect spot,” David Piper said.

Health, economy factors

Piper, 47, is the current owner of the Everglades Wonder Gardens with his brother, Buck Piper. He officially took over shortly after Lester Piper, his grandfather, died in 1992 — Lucille Piper, Lester’s wife, bequeathed the property to her two grandsons. But after being owned and operated by the Piper family for 75 years, Everglades Wonder Gardens is up for sale. David Piper’s decision to let the gardens go was motivated by his own health — he’s said to have an inoperable tumor on his spine, causing him major pain, and circulatory and neurological problems. The ebbing economy also influenced his decision.

“Most of our competition are the giant malls,” he said. “People only have so much money.”

Although the future of Everglades Wonder Gardens is uncertain, the past it honors is legendary. Families still visit, and Piper said it’s been referred to as a Disney-inspired swamp wonderland, even though he reveals its founder, unlike Uncle Walt, “didn’t really like people.”

“There’s been a lot written about (grandpa) being friendly. That’s lies,” David Piper said.

Although he said his grandfather was “aggressive” and could be “mean,” David Piper believes Lester Piper’s undeniable passion for nature and animals were admirable virtues.

“He gave a mountain lion mouth-to-mouth,” David Piper said. “It takes a hell of a man to do that.”

Indeed, Piper has several similar stories about his grandfather’s tenacity and devotion to the outdoors. The corroborating evidence of his exploits and adventures and independent-minded philosophy can be found all over the 3.5-acre parcel.

Many of its trees are fruit-bearing because Lester, who lived through the Great Depression, wanted to have a readily accessible food supply. Some of the trees, such as Jamaican Ackee and its potentially poisonous fruit, are not grown commercially in Florida or have been discouraged from domestic use by state officials. Still, those outlawed plants thrive on the Piper property as organic homages to its rebellious founder.

Visitors can come in during business hours, pay a fee and immediately join a walking tour of Lester Piper’s legacy: exotic and native plants and animals they may not see anywhere else on their stay here, unless they visit the Naples Zoo or Wooten’s Airboat Tours in the Everglades east of Naples. On the Everglades Wonder Gardens tours, the curious learn facts about the place itself and Florida’s wildlife.

A trained guide leads visitors on pathways that meander through the animal enclosures and tanks, including a rope bridge suspended giddily over an alligator tank. Many of the animals have been rehabilitated and rescued by the Pipers, at their own expense.

“We have never asked anything from the public,” David Piper said. “Our food prep areas meet higher standards than the finest restaurant in Naples.”

Rescued residents

Two female mountain lions, who were forfeited by their original owner, are no longer malnourished; a barred owl that lost its ability to fly after suffering a broken wing tip has a second chance as part of the tour.

David Piper and his wife, Dawn, often get calls in the middle of the night from government agencies when animals need a savior.

“You never know what you are going to encounter,” Dawn Piper said. “They call at all hours.”

They’ve nursed everything from native birds to baby black bears back to health from their own home. David Piper said it’s “just like child-raising.”

“They depend on you, so we take them home,” he said, although Piper conceded his rehab patients “can tear up the house.”

The people who tend to the grounds and the animals also become a part of the Piper family. Jason Miller, who was born and raised in Bonita, started volunteering when he was 15.

“When I got old enough to work, I came in here and asked if they needed help,” Miller said.

When he turned 18, Miller left to go to college. When Miller returned, David Piper was in charge and offered him a job. Now 34, Miller is the wildlife manager for the property.

It’s the tours that make the difference, according to Miller.

“The tours are definitely educational. I hope people learn a lot,” he said.

And a museum

Aside from the many animals, Everglades Wonder Gardens has several distinct artifacts.

Inside the main building is the Florida Natural History Museum, which contains relics and oddities, in glass cases and on shelves and walls, that the Piper family has acquired over the decades. Even the wood floors below visitors’ feet seem to squeak and buckle with age and history.

“We have things in our little museum in Bonita that other museums wish they had,” David Piper said.

There are lots of different bones — particularly animal skulls — prominently displayed in the two rooms that make up the museum. The skeletal remains once belonged to animals that lived on the Piper property or were brought there postmortem by Lester Piper himself. One such massive skull on a wall belonged to what the Pipers say is a “sea monster.”

According to David Piper, when a large carcass washed on shore, locals called his grandfather to check it out. He said the carcass stumped Lester Piper, so he “took an ax or a knife to it.”

“Grandpa couldn’t identify it, so he took the head and processed it,” David Piper said. Now, the mystery has been solved, and the wide jaw has a neatly printed label: “Goosebeak Whale Skull.”

The museum also boasts a collection of Native American, specifically Calusa, artifacts, such as a buffalo skull that was once a workbench and an ancient rubbing stone.

And securely hanging from an overhead archway is Lester Piper’s bootlegging boat. The elder Piper, who was a bootlegger in the Midwest during Prohibition, had the boat custom-made with wooden skids so he could slide it on the ice as he smuggled Canadian whiskey in the winter, according to David Piper.

“My grandfather would tell me the stories,” he said. It’s at the long-standing roadside attraction that David Piper is able to remember all those stories and allow strangers, friends and family to do the same.

“We keep things so people can walk back in time,” David Piper said.

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