I’m camped right across the street from Reptile Gardens. I couldn’t resist its charm, so I walked over to check it out. The origin story tickled my fancy, so I’ll share a little with you.
America’s largest reptile attraction isn’t in a Florida swamp. It’s Reptile Gardens, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and it’s there because local boy Earl J. Brockelsby (1916-1993) really liked slithery things. As a teenager, Earl would stand at the side of the road and stop cars by pretending to bite a live, wriggling rattlesnake (although he never really did). Another of his tricks was to politely lift his cowboy hat and reveal a live rattlesnake contentedly curled up on his head.
Visitor reactions to these antics convinced Earl that he was on to something, and on June 3, 1937, he opened Reptile Garden (The “s” was added years later). It was a stucco-fronted roadside shack that Earl built at the crest of a steep hill where cars often overheated. “They’d pull into the parking lot to let the car cool down,” said Johnny B, “and that’s when Dad would pop out of his little building and try to get them to pay ten cents to watch him jump in a pit and play with snakes.”
Reptile Gardens now has the largest reptile collection in the world — roughly 225 species — as well as tropical parrots, birds of prey, thousands of exotic plants (the “gardens” part of Reptile Gardens) and an entire prairie dog town with pop-up plexiglass bubbles for close human interaction. “He wanted to add a lot of things for people that might not be fans of snakes,” said Johnny B.