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Misguided Guide

Thrown to the gators at Babcock Ranch

(Circa. Early 1990s)

I penned this piece before meeting and marrying the love of my life, Marisa Forrest. Hired as a tour guide, I eventually became supervisor and then manager of the tours. Marisa and I were married at the Ranch Commissary by the late great Judge Elmer Friday, and spent our honeymoon in Telegraph Cypress Swamp. As manager, I was provided with a house and my company car was a swamp buggy. There is no place, I mean no place, as beautiful as the Babcock Ranch. Well, maybe Marisa's eyes. -- Mark Renz

Ninety thousand acres of pure Florida wilderness. That’s where I would be working. I couldn’t believe I had actually gotten the job. Never mind that it was part time and that there were no insurance benefits. Never mind that I would have to drive 19 miles one-way to get there. There was no traffic on those back-country roads. Here was a chance to get paid for showing visitors a side of Florida I was fast falling in love with. No one could have accepted the position more enthusiastically.

The ad in the Fort Myers News-Press called for an experienced nature guide. That I wasn’t. But because I was born near the place and thought of myself as a fast learner, I figured I could quickly catch on.

The job site was one of Florida’s largest working cattle ranches, sprawling out across part of Charlotte and Lee county. It was owned by Fred Babcock, a rich, cantankerous old codger whose father Edward – a former mayor of Pittsburgh – bought the place as a logging enterprise in 1914 for $800,000. At the time, it spread out for 156,000 acres. In 1948, 66,000 acres were transferred to the state and would eventually be called the Fred C. Babcock/Cecil M. Webb Wildlife Management Area.

The remaining 90,000 acres were a haven for red-cockaded woodpeckers, bald eagles, red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks, Eastern bluebirds, gopher tortoises, armadillos, Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, bobcats, black bears and an occasional Florida panther. The marshlands, open cow pastures and cypress swamps attract sand hill cranes, herons, egrets, wild turkeys, hogs, cotton-mouth snakes and American alligators.

My specific job – along with several other guides -- was to interpret the wilderness and ranch operations for the 50,000 annual visitors who climbed aboard 33-passenger swamp buggies for the 90 minute tour. In a former life, the buggies were Pepsi-Cola trucks and school buses. The metal roofs were removed and a canopy installed for shade. Their trademark yellow color was painted over with camouflage green.

In 1867, before the Babcock’s owned the land, the property was part of the route of the International Ocean Telegraph Company. A maintenance road and telegraph line cut straight south from Gainesville to the Caloosahatchee River ford at Olga, only a few miles from my brother’s nursery in Alva. From there, it turned west and passed through Fort Myers to Punta Rasa for connection to Havana, Cuba, as the world’s first undersea cable. This was the same telegraph system that in 1898, carried the message that the Battleship Maine had been blown-up in Havana Harbor, sparking the start of the Spanish-American War. A 10,000 acre swamp on the future Babcock property was a challenge for work crews to cross. Today those wetlands are called Telegraph Cypress Swamp. Telegraph Creek flows out of the southern end of the swamp, meandering slowly to the Caloosahatchee River. The primitive road through the property was the only overland entrance into Southwest Florida in the early 1900s. In 1912, the Roux Crate and Lumber Company used it for a logging spur, while timbering off half of Charlotte County. Southern slash and long-leaf yellow pine were harvested. The yellow pine was shipped to Africa to help shore up gold and diamond mines. Edward Babcock sold his timber rights to RCL in 1931.

Part of my tour would be through the remnants of the old logging town of Rouxville, which was inhabited by about 200 residents. Some of the townsfolk removed abandoned box cars from the railroad tracks, cut out holes for doors and windows, and called the box cars home. This was probably Florida’s first mobile home park. In the middle of town – restored as the ranch headquarters – is the original two-story commissary, or company store. Rather than money, workers were paid in script, which they could exchange at the store for food, clothes or other supplies. The town doctor delivered anyone born on the ranch, and also buried them when they died. In between, he gave them haircuts for 25 cents.

As I am writing this in the early 1990s, the only pines logged are for fence posts, although the Babcocks have large-scale lumber and shipping interests in the northeast. I was now one of 25 employees of the Babcock Florida Company – all of whom wore many hats. I was working for one of the largest cattle ranches in Florida, but also a company with a sizeable limestone and gravel mining operation, sod and vegetable farms, and an alligator ranching program.

In mid-summer, helicopters fly over the ranch to look for alligator nests in Telegraph Cypress Swamp. The nests are marked on a map so a ground crew can go in later to collect the eggs. This is not a one person job. Somebody has to distract the mother while the other person cautiously sneaks in and removes the eggs. The eggs are then incubated and the hatchlings are raised in a controlled environment. With a high-protein diet, the gators grow a whopping three feet a year, compared to a foot a year in the wild. At two years, when they’re about six feet long, they’re butchered for the meat and hide. The Pioneer Seed Company leases 1500 acres from the ranch to grow their special hybrid seed corn. Other large tracts of land are set aside for hunting leases. Hogs are allowed to be hunted all year, while there are specific seasons for deer and wild turkey.

My tour route took me through a 50 acre pasture where 38 head of bison roam. My new boss, wildlife biologist Steve Tutko, said that Edward Babcock helped bring bison back from near extinction at the turn of the century. As a Florida lad, I was used to seeing cattle with their big brown dopey look, easily startled by their own shadow. The bison looked as if they weren’t afraid of anything. They had a wild, untamed appearance, muscular in front, but sleek in the back. I was warned to never take them for granted.

"They can run up to 35 miles per hour and easily clear a six-foot fence," said Steve, "and can charge through just about anything in their way. The key to keeping them happy is to give them lots of space and plenty to eat and drink." Steve showed me how to handle venomous snakes, something I would be doing on every trip. At least I didn’t have to hold them with my hands. Steve had fashioned the end of a golf club into a hook. I was instructed to pull the swamp buggy up to a platform elevated to the same level as my wide-eyed passengers. Once inside the snake’s den, my group could see me through a plexi-glass front. I would open one of three boxes in the floor and poke the hooked end of the golf club in to pick up the snake. In one box there was a dusky pigmy rattler, a cottonmouth in another, and a large non-venomous yellow rat snake in the third box.

A few months before I started work, a ranch celebrity passed away. Her name was Lulu, and she was known as the horniest cow in Florida. By some freak accident of nature, Lulu developed three horns. After her death at the ripe old age of 24, the ranch had her stuffed and mounted in the tour reception area. There were some 5,000 cattle on the ranch, a mixture of Charolais, Angus, Brahma, Brangus (a Black Angus and Brahama cross), and Beefalos, which were only 1/32 bison. The small herd of bison was only for show. Roaming free were a dozen or so “Cracker” cows – cattle that had been around long before there were fences in Florida to separate the herds. Steve pointed out one of the up-and-coming breeds, a reddish brown, gentle-looking cow known as a senepol. Senepols were a cross between a West African Nadama and a British Red Pol. These cattle were ideally suited for Florida’s hot, humid climate and – best of all – they had no horns. Most of the adult cattle were breeding herds. After the calves reached a certain weight, they were shipped out west to the feed lots, fattened up and slaughtered. Then the meat was shipped back to Florida to be sold as Western beef. I guess the thought of cattle being raised here was not a great selling point. Our climate is rough on any animal. There’s no need for them to store up any winter fat. If the heat doesn’t take its toll, the mosquitoes and deer flies will do the trick.

I could not believe the cypress swamp covered 10,000 acres. Many of the trees were over 500 years old and well over a hundred feet tall. Slow to rot, cypress was used for PT boat hulls in World War II, and was great for funeral caskets, boat docks or beer barrels. Today in Florida, it’s a protected tree.

A special part of the tour for me was hanging out with the five cats. Big, beautiful cats. The largest weighed 150 pounds.

"Depending on where you’re from, these cats are known as panthers, pumas, mountain lions and cougars," said Steve. "The Florida panther is one of the most endangered mammals in North America. Males may roam as far as 250 square miles. The big cats can leap 12 feet straight up into a tree with prey in its mouth. These particular cats are fed beef and occasionally chicken."

The big cats spend their day in a one-acre compound. At night, we were to coax them through a tunnel and into a separate dens for feeding. After being released into the compound again in the mornings, their dens will have to be cleaned.

Steve showed me the proper way to hold a baby alligator. We bring one with us to give people a chance to touch and photograph it. It was a great opportunity to describe in detail how the alligator’s bony armor plates perform as solar panels to draw in the sun’s heat, warm up the blood and convert that warmth to energy. It was a chance to show people what an alligator nest looks like and to point out how the gator piles wet plants on top of her eggs. As the plants rot, they produce the heat that incubates the eggs. The temperature inside each egg actually determines whether the critter will be a male or female.

At a spot known as the "Gator Bridge," Steve pulled up to the beginning of the bridge, turned on the microphone and started mimicking the sound of a baby alligator in distress. Within seconds, dozens of adult alligators from all directions appeared out of nowhere, and were making a bee-line for the bridge. Visitors were in awe that he had the ability to call them to him. It was really an impressive site. But something wasn’t right. The bridge was the only place I’ve ever been able to command the attention of the toothy beasts. The few times I experimented off-ranch in the Peace River or Everglades, I was ignored. I wondered if there hadn’t been some pre-bonding time with man and alligator before the public shows.

I only took a couple of training trips with Steve before I was "thrown to the gators" and forced to guide on my own. On one of my early trips, the old man, Mr. ‘B’ himself, ended up on my buggy with some of his friends. I was a bit nervous and was sure it showed. I was careful about everything I said and how I said it. I worked on my voice inflection and timing when emphasizing certain points about the ranch. After a while I began to loosen up and felt confident that I was doing a good job of entertaining and educating the group. At one point, I stopped to point out a bobcat bounding through the saw palmetto shrubs, and glanced back to see if I could read any reaction to my patter in Mr. ‘B’’s face. He was sound asleep.

As impressed as I was with how well the ranch was run, I wondered what I might do differently if handed the deed to a piece of property valued at 400 million dollars. I suppose my first action would be to faint when I saw how much I would owe in property taxes. Once recovered, I would immediately free the big cats, stop the chumming of gators, sell off the bison and cattle, as well as the hunting leases, sod farming and limestone mining. Then I would offer a series of “what you see is what you get” low impact, large-scale wilderness experiences and dare any land owner in Florida to match this kind of natural Florida adventure.

To lighten human impact and still generate big bucks, I would offer eco-lotto tickets with limited winners who could spend a day, a night or a week immersed in the pine flatwoods or cypress swamp, “listening” to the wild in one of the quietest places in all of Florida. Planes would be banned from flying over the ranch to insure a wilderness experience, not just for human visitors, but for wild critters too.

I would also sell swamp water. That’s right, I’d bottle the stuff and sell it in BPA-free containers. Not all of it, but small amounts, again, through a lottery system. Winners could drink it or save it to pass on to their kids. It would be special either way. And a hundred years from now, when Florida's east and west coast connect in the middle as one gigantic gated community, the Babcock Ranch would probably resemble New York City’s Central Park, surrounded by concrete and cars, a wee patch of remaining green to remind us of our former connection to the natural world.

But I have a feeling that once the old man dies, the ranch is destined for development.

UPDATE 2011: I find it ironic that in it's prime, the tours were attracting 50,000 visitors annually. And now, Babcock City is designed to attract 50,000 "permanent" residents. Think about that...50,000 permies in the city, plus at least 50,000 annual visitors to the wilder side of the former ranch. Yes, the city will create a ton of jobs and the residents will all spend money which will help fill city and county coffers. But even though I am not a betting man, I'll bet that if the entire 90,000 acres were left wild...it would attract more "long term" money than what is currently being proposed short term. And gee whiz...there just might be a ton of green space left for future generations of humans -- and critters.


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