It all began in 1935, when 19-year-old Earl Brockelsby discovered people's innate interest in snakes. As a young tour guide at a local Rapid City attraction, this fearless snake enthusiast would often end his tours by removing his hat and revealing a live rattlesnake coiled on top of his head!
He took special note of the visitors' reactions – they were always excited and thrilled to see a live rattlesnake close-up.
Reptile enthusiast with an entrepreneurial spirit
Wanting to explore people’s fascination with snakes, Earl enlisted the aid of some friends and built an 18 by 24 foot building at the top of a long hill about 3 miles south of Rapid City, and put a handful of specimens on display - the location was carefully chosen because in those days, cars would often overheat as they reached the top of a long hill. The idea was for them to stop in Reptile Gardens' parking lot to cool their radiators and maybe stay to see the Gardens.
On June 3, 1937, the doors were opened, and the Black Hills Reptile Gardens was officially in business. Admission was 10¢ for adults and 5¢ for children to see the exhibit. That first day of operation Reptile Gardens took in $3.85. For the next two days, no one visited and on the following two days it took in only 40 cents and 50 cents respectively. Fortunately business improved; by 1941, the business had 15 employees and was showing a profit.
World War II slowed business down drastically with gas rationing and with Earl and his pals serving in the military as part of the “Greatest Generation.” After the war, things picked up again, and many new exhibits were added. More improvements were made to the buildings and premises, and business steadily increased throughout the 1950s.
Modernizing the Reptile Park
In 1965, Reptile Gardens was forced to move due to the construction of a new highway. Moving to its current location - six miles south of Rapid City in Spring Creek valley - the new and improved park featured a new Sky Dome with a Safari Room. This large enclosed area gave visitors the rare opportunity to walk amongst free-roaming reptiles and birds. Although this kind of exhibit has become common at zoos, Earl was among the first to envision and create one in the US.
We have also survived our share of setbacks and natural disasters:
Sky Dome Fire
In August of 1976, the aluminum and plastic upper dome structure (that houses the main reptile exhibits and the Safari Room) burned - the plastic dome melted and covered everything below; the heat-weakened aluminum structure collapsed into the Safari Room. Sadly, hundreds of reptiles and birds died - some of which were irreplaceable. Although, the huge old Ponderosa pine skeleton in the center of the Safari Room narrowly escaped being crushed - the old tree remains the centerpiece of the Safari Room today.
A new dome with new exhibits was built over the course of the following winter; the Safari Room was planted with cactus and exotic plants brought in by the semi-load. New animals were obtained from far and wide, and all was ready to reopen in the spring of 1977.
The great Rapid City flood of 1972 caused only minor damage to the grounds. However, another flood in June 1977 was far worse. An isolated thunderstorm dumped 7 inches of rain in a small area upstream, and caused a major flash flood which covered the property with three feet of water, icy hail and much debris. During the height of the flood, the giant tortoises were swept out of their pen and carried away. Fortunately, they were all rescued at other places on the property.
An interesting side note: Some scientists have theorized that giant tortoises arrived in the Galapagos by being carried out to sea and floating to the islands.
If you’d like to learn more about the fascinating life of Earl Brockelsby and the history of Reptile Gardens, be sure to read Rattlesnake Under His Hat: The Life and Times of Earl Brockelsby by Sam Hurst. Earl Brockelsby's biography offers a rare insight into the evolution of tourism in the American West in the years after World War II when millions of families piled into their automobiles and set out on the vacation adventures that shaped the national identity and fueled the mythology of the region.