As South Dakota marks 125 years of statehood, SDPB is featuring stories that rediscover our identity and heritage through the people, places, and ideas that make this state unique. Although most people across the country might consider us as “Small Town, U.S.A.”, many of our “places” are world-class. Today we visit a Black Hills institution that just made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest in its class.
Snakes have always held a certain allure for various segments of the population, especially kids. Their popularity grew exponentially over recent years as a result of a skinny English kid who wore glasses and carried a wand.
But you don’t have to step into the world of wizards – or journey to the Amazon jungles – to find a hearty population of snakes or other reptiles.
“We have animals from all over the planet…obviously,” observes John Brockelsby. “But our beginnings were snakes like this. The eastern yellow-bellied racer…the pale milk snake, the smooth green snake, several different species of garter snakes…the bull snake, the prairie rattle snake…”
John Brockelsby is the public relations director for the Reptile Gardens which was founded by his father, Earl, in 1937. What would eventually become “the” place to see snakes and reptiles of all sorts in the Black Hills started out as a single open pit in the ground.
“It was very, very humble beginnings, if you will, back when we started,” Brockelsby explains. “Basically, Dad found $400 from a banker, he went and he dug a great big pit in the ground. And then he went out and caught animals that were indigenous to South Dakota. So, rattlesnakes, bull snakes, blue racers, things like that.”
In other words, mostly snakes. But Earl Brockelsby did give his audience a show for their ten cents admission fee.
“If you’d shown up on the first day you would get to see my father jump into his hand dug pit and play with these snakes,” says Brockelsby. “And there was probably seven or eight species of snakes and that was it. Of course, the exciting part was he would handle the rattlesnakes. And so that’s where they would have gotten some excitement and thrills seeing Dad handle the prairie rattle snakes.”
Earl’s $1.85 profit from that grand opening times many more such “profitable” days eventually resulted in the construction of a building made of native stone and a major addition…another snake pit.
“One was the venomous and one was the harmless,” Brockelsby explains. “And we had a lecturer in each one of them. And, actually, these guys would be in competitor with each other…especially whoever was working the harmless pit. It was a real challenge to see if I can get a bigger crowd around me than the guy who was with the rattlesnakes.”
Major expansion and notoriety began after World War Two, especially during the 1950s…when the entire country seemed to be on the move cruising the newly built highway system in their family cars. That’s when Earl Brocklesby brought in his first giant tortoise, the legendary Methuselah, and a dozen Nile crocodiles.
“We sold some to a few other zoos and that,” Brocklesby recalls. “Kept six of them ourselves. Unfortunately, three of them ate the other three of them. But….uh…three of them we had here at the Gardens…oh, until the early seventies.”
When they died peacefully in their sleep.
Having grown into the largest reptile zoo on the planet with over 200 species and subspecies on display, most folks might think the Reptile Gardens are limited to scaly, slithering, creepy crawly things that scare the Dickens out of you in the night – or any other time for that matter.
But, says John Brockelsby, there’s more.
“A bird show with parrots and birds of prey,” explains Brocklesby. “Our gator show which is perennially our most popular show. And then over the years we’ve become more of a botanic garden.”
In fact, in the opinion of Head Horticulture Curator David Yahne there’s nowhere that compares with what the Reptile “Gardens” have to offer.
“We have a variety of different fruit trees,” explains Yahne. “A variety of different flowering roses and flowering bushes. Annuals. We plant roughly thirty thousand annuals a year. And this takes my staff just a couple of days to do.”
I ask if that’s all done by hand.
No…no,” replies Yahne. “We’ve cheated a little bit. We use power tools. Attached to your do-all and it makes things go a lot faster.”
Nevertheless. There’s also a wide variety of orchids, including exotic, tropical species…and there’s always something in bloom.
And let’s not forget this guy – a big parrot hanging out in the back of the garden.
Right around the corner from the gardens is “Maniac” – yup, he’s just what he sounds like…a 16-foot Australian saltwater crocodile that even Steve Irwin would be proud of.
Of course, no visit to the Reptile Gardens is complete without a stroll – that’s a slow stroll over to see the giant tortoises, where Orville the latest addition to the trio is holding court.
As if being included in the Guinness Book wasn’t enough of a coup, the Reptile Gardens was just recognized by Trip Advisor as the one South Dakota attraction to go out of your way to visit. Not a problem, says John Brockelsby…he’s here every day.