by Tim Dorsey | November 24, 2016

My Florida: Loxahatchee Lore

Enduring tales of the captivating outdoorsy hermit, Trapper Nelson

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Nelson with a sailfish in 1952

Trapper with a sailfish in 1952; Photography by Nelson family

He’s big and hairy and smelly, and I think he’s killed a bunch of people,” said Tommy Davenport, dangling from the monkey bars. “He howls through the trees, and his eyes are crazy—like the devil!”

“So you’ve really seen him?” I asked in first-grade awe.

“Are you kidding?” He dropped to the ground and scraped his knee. “Anyone who does see him is never heard from again.”

There we were, during recess at Saint Francis Elementary, wearing our little Catholic school uniforms and Buster Brown shoes and Band-Aids on our perpetually skinned knees. It was a small town called Riviera Beach, about an hour north of Miami, and it was the sixties. Some of my most powerful memories from that time come from the playground. The scuttlebutt around the monkey bars was the best—the scarier the story, the better. The most frightening tale of all was about the ultimate boogeyman.

Trapper.

Trapper was short for Trapper Nelson, a wild and crazy hermit who roamed in the remote woods way up the equally wild Loxahatchee River, where almost nobody dared venture.

And his legend lived, beyond the playground. In nearly every household in Palm Beach County, the parents talked about Trapper in ominous, hushed tones. That’s how it filtered down to the schoolyards. Every child who grew up in that time and place knew the story of Trapper. This was quite a phenomenon because Trapper wasn’t in the news during that era, and almost nobody could remember ever seeing him. It made the rumors all the more mysterious.

He lived off the land, the myths said, eating raw possum and skinning alligators and just about anything else he could catch. He’d shoot on sight anyone who came near his camp—maybe skin them, too. The few people who’d gotten close enough by canoe reported seeing glimpses of a shadowy figure darting among the trees on shore, then hearing warning shots. He was known as the “Tarzan of the Loxahatchee.” The kids in the schoolyards loved that.

The actual facts of this eventual Florida story are perhaps even more fascinating: Nobody knows for sure, but it seems that Trapper was born Vincent Nostokovich in New Jersey around 1909. He hopped freight trains, was jailed in Mexico and gambled his way to Florida. He ended up living on the beach near the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, made money selling animal furs during the Depression, and bought cheap land as far up the Loxahatchee as was navigable, which meant no neighbors or anything else for miles.

Trapper's boat dock 1957; Photography by Ernest and Theresa Woleslagle

Trapper’s boat dock 1957; Photography by Ernest and Theresa Woleslagle

He wasn’t always anti-social. Trapper was tall and rugged, and, by hand, he cleared part of the land, built a makeshift dock, and used slash pine and mortar to construct cabins and shelters so sturdy that they easily weathered every hurricane. He built pens for some of the animals he captured alive and opened Trapper Nelson’s Zoo and Jungle Gardens in the 1930s, where visitors on boat tours often stopped for lunch. Celebrities came, including actor Gary Cooper and boxing champ Gene Tunney.

The sixties arrived, and while I was a scabby-kneed school kid, Trapper’s hermit era was ushered in, along with a slew of rumors. His health declined, the state ordered his zoo closed due to poor conditions, and he fell behind on property taxes. Bitterness and paranoia took over, and he warned everyone to keep away—or else. He was said to always carry a shotgun. Oh, and there was a secret treasure.

Trapper’s notoriety took a tragic twist: In 1968, authorities discovered his body, killed by his own gun. Suicide was the official ruling of the police department, but the whispers suggested otherwise. Who shoots themselves with a shotgun in the stomach?

Parents talked in hushed tones again, and speculation ran wild on the playgrounds. To this day, the case is still unsolved.

Wild nature—vines and brush—began taking over Trapper’s place. Then the sixties became the seventies…

The autor, age 9, fishing on the Loxahatche River; Photo credit Tim Dorsey

The autor, age 9, fishing on the Loxahatche River; Photo credit Tim Dorsey

It was 1973. My scout group sent us to swim and canoe in the Loxahatchee—one of only two rivers in the state that are federally designated as Wild and Scenic Rivers. It is a short river as they go, running only 7.6 miles to its outflow into the Atlantic Ocean. Its name derives from the Seminole phrase meaning “River of Turtles.” The river runs through Jonathan Dickinson State Park, where every child in that era must have taken a dozen field trips.

I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the troop’s plan, but a friend and I decided to paddle all the way up to the headwaters and find Trapper’s place. There were lots of gators in the water, and I oddly remember that it was no issue. The ones that came near the canoe got a paddle slapped flat in front of their heads, prompting a quick departure. We were only twelve years old, but we were gator-tough Floridians.

With a few more strokes in the water around the final hairpin bend in the river, the real adventure began, clogged with marsh grass and bulrushes. We were at Trapper’s. If it wasn’t scary before, it was a horror by the time I got there. The place was a dump—the pier falling down and everything else overgrown by time. The eeriness of the scene was overwhelming, and our imaginations ran away with thoughts of a ghost slipping through the trees along the shore and watching our every move. That was enough to squash our precociousness and make us turn around in our vessel.

The seventies became the eighties. Older kids and young adults were coming around, digging the place up for Trapper’s secret treasure, only making the property look even worse. It took the state of Florida to discover the real treasure: remnants of Trapper’s pioneer homestead and survival-lifestyle out in one of our most remote and pure natural settings. The state acquired the land and commenced restoring it to its condition when Trapper tended the lot.

The unbridled gnarliness of the wildman was toned down and faded into quaintness. Then it got exciting again. In April of 1984, rangers were repairing a chimney in one of the old cabins and were about to mortar a loose brick back into place. Then they realized it wasn’t loose from decay. It was a secret door. Trapper’s treasure was real.

All told, they recovered more than 5,000 old gold and silver coins. If this had been a law enforcement press release on a cocaine seizure, they would have announced its value based upon selling it by the gram at street value. However, in Trapper’s case, they didn’t want another wave of trespassers digging up the place. So they said it was only worth about $1,800—the face value of the coins, like announcing a $20 gold-piece worth $1,600. You do the math.

They were also forced to put out an official statement saying they had thoroughly searched the rest of the grounds and there was no more loot to be found.

Fast-forward to early 2016, when I was outlining a future novel drawing upon my childhood memories. Of course, Trapper would have to be in there. I checked the Internet, and to my surprise, I discovered the state park was now giving boat tours up to the legendary grounds.

So I packed up the car and drove across the state. Soon I was boarding a pontoon boat that journeyed up that alligator-infested river, snaking around bend after narrow bend like I was twelve again, back in that canoe.

Except this time, I went ashore.

Trapper Nelson's cabin; Photography by Tim Dorsey

Trapper Nelson’s cabin; Photography by Tim Dorsey

I saw the wildlife pens, the homemade water tower, and Trapper’s cabin with a bleached alligator skull mounted on the wall and a hand-painted “Hurricane Log” of all the storms he had survived out in the middle of nowhere.

And, last but not least, I got to see and touch the chimney where they discovered Trapper’s infamous loot.

I probably wasn’t supposed to touch the chimney, but I found myself reverently running my fingers along the old bricks. I cracked a wry smile remembering how everyone always said Trapper was crazy. Yeah, a crazy kind of genius who continues to keep us mesmerized.