The entrance to Trapper Nelson’s camp.
HOBE SOUND — On a blustery winter Monday two dozen or so volunteers and staff from the Florida Oceanographic Society took a half-day trip on the Loxahatchee River to visit Trapper Nelson’s camp.
Nelson, known as the Wildman of the Loxahatchee, lived off the fruits of the meandering river for nearly 40 years by trapping, hunting and fishing. After several years of that rugged way of life, Nelson, known formally as Natulkiewicz, started a much-visited wildlife zoo that lured wealthy South Florida socialites to the cypress-lined banks of the Loxahatchee in the late 1930s. Among those who stopped by were boxer Gene Tunney and actor Gary Cooper.
A bit downstream from Trapper’s place.
Although Nelson had limited formal education, he was a natural promoter, who draped his chiseled, 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame with Indigo snakes to create a Tarzan-like persona, entertaining guests with yarns about his time in the wilderness. In between stories, Nelson sold everything from tortoise shells to baby alligators.
For years Trapper Nelson’s Zoo and Jungle Garden thrived, so much so that he added guest cabins, a boathouse and a chickee hut that served as picnic area and a place of respite from Florida’s suffocating summer heat. Also on site were a hand-pumped water tower and a multi-bay garage for a U.S. Army Jeep.
Although Nelson embraced progress enough to make a pretty good living, Florida’s population growth in the 1960s led to more scrutiny of his compound. Health inspectors declared the operation unhygienic and shut down the business. Nelson, in turn, became more reclusive, presumably because of his distrust of the government. He died in 1968 due to a gun-shot to the stomach. Local authorities ruled it a suicide, but a few who knew Nelson have speculated otherwise.
Nevertheless, his legend lives on, decades later.
Below are a couple of other facts about Nelson, who. …
- reluctantly served in the military during World War II, first in Texas, then at Camp Murphy, which was located close to his Loxahatchee River homestead.
- was born in Trenton, N.J. and later spent time in Colorado and Mexico before making his way back East and settling in the Jupiter area.
- was the son of polish immigrants.
- was an avid card player and an occasional boxer.
- was known for his voracious appetite and was said to have gobbled up an entire pie in one sitting.