Featuring: Academics Plus, Atkins, Bigelow, Central Arkansas Christian, Clinton, Concord, Conway, Conway Christian, Conway St. Joseph, Danville, Dardanelle, Dover, Greenbrier, Guy Perkins, Heber Springs, Hector, Maumelle, Mayflower, Morrilton, Mount Vernon-Enola, Nemo Vista, Perryville, Pottsville, Quitman, Russellville, Sacred Heart, Shirley, South Side Bee Branch, Two Rivers, Vilonia, Western Yell County, West Side Greers Ferry, Wonderview.READ ONLINE
111-year-old alligator farm continues to bring visitors to Hot SpringsOriginally Published September 1, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated August 30, 2013 at 12:35 p.m.
HOT SPRINGS — Only the steaming water flowing into the bathhouses and into Hot Springs Creek have attracted folks to Hot Springs longer than the Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo.
“This July, we were 111 years old,” said Jack Bridges, owner of the farm and the 150 gators that live there. “It was all started by H.L. Campbell in 1902 because there was no other attraction in town but the baths, and you can’t sit in a tub of water all day.”
Bridges said the attraction still draws crowds because it offers something for the entire family.
“I tell others who are coming into town that if you can offer something for the whole family, it will be a success in Hot Springs,” he said. “I remember when Oaklawn was frowned on, but today, it’s a place where the whole family can go and watch the races. This is a family-vacation town, and I will see family groups come in with eight or nine people, including three generations.”
There are days with few visitors, which Bridges says gives people plenty of time to see the alligators and the inhabitants of the petting zoos.
“We have three petting zoos now, with animals like a wolf, birds, deer, sheep and monkeys,” he said. “Kids like that because they can get closer to see the animals.”
But the main attraction is the alligators, as it has been since the very beginning. That is especially true of the feeding days.
“We had 200 people at the Thursday
feeding,” Bridges said. “There will be more on the weekend. We feed them Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at noon in the summer months.”
The summer months go from May and can go into October, Bridges said in an earlier interview.
“We tell people to get here early to get a good spot to see,” he said. “We feed the gators 200 pounds of chicken coated with vegetable oil.”
“The largest of the gators measures just over 11 feet long,” Bridges said. “We had a larger one that was 18 feet, 11 inches and weighed over 1,000 pounds.”
He said the gator died some 30 years ago and was thought to be 125 years old at the time.
The reptiles can live a long time, but probably none remain that was there when Babe Ruth hit a home run into the farm.
“They had spring training downtown back then [before 1920], and we were between the practice field and the playing field down Whittington Avenue where Weyerhaeuser is now, and he hit one into pen No. 2.
Bridges said the ball was never found and suspects it was gobbled down by one of the alligators.
“If something comes in there, they swallow it,” he said. “That’s why I don’t allow any Coke bottles on the farm.”
While walking around the farm with reporters in 2011, Bridges took a call from his cellphone, and when he put it in his pocket, it slipped and hit the ground inside the back alligator pen. He reached over, but when an alligator approached, he called an employee over to retrieve the phone.
“I’m 84 now,” he said this week, as he remembered the event. “My fence-hopping days are over.”
The original alligators that populated the farm through the early years of the 20th century came from south Arkansas between Hope and Texarkana in an area known as Grassy Lake. In those days, alligators were very common. They were considered an endangered species by the 1980s, but they have recovered in the state, and there may be as many as 4,000 in the waters around the state.
Jack Bridges Sr., the father of the current owner, purchased the alligator farm and added other attractions, while operating cabs and limousines in Hot Springs, then known for its nightspots and gambling as much as for the famous springs.
In those roaring days, it was usual for national celebrities to come to town and enjoy the bathhouses, fine hotels and other delights of the community, including the alligator farm. The city’s archives are filled with pictures of sports and movie stars visiting the springs or riding an alligator.
Jack Bridges Jr., who now operates the farm, started working with the gators in 1947 while he was in college.
In 1965, he and his wife, Norma Sue, purchased the farm from his mother. The Bridges then added the monkeys, a mountain lion, wolves and other animals. Later, they opened the petting zoo with deer, donkeys and goats.
And petting an alligator is still possible. You can hold one and take pictures. The gators available for camera duty are small, and in some cases, their mouths are held shut with rubber bands. Then the alligators can be touched. They have a smooth, soft skin like the fine leather that can be made from their hides. On older alligators, the dark skin can be thick like armor plating on their backs.
While the economy has seen booms and crashes, the farm goes on, Bridges said. But it is harder than it used to be.
“Seems like when the economy is getting better, something happens, and people stay home,” he said. “The market goes down, and an oil well blows up, or something happens in the Middle East, and we are on the edge again.”
Bridges said the summer of 2013 has been better than last year.
“We check day by day, and we’re running ahead of last year,” he said. “But then I do the bookkeeping now, and I just hope it’s right.
His wife, Norma Sue, once kept the books, but she died last year. They had been married for 62 years.
“She was brilliant,” Bridges said. “I just try to keep things straight.”
The alligator farm keeps bringing in people over the generations because it’s all about family, Bridges said.
The Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo is at 847 Whittington Ave. in Hot Springs. For more information, call (501) 622-6172.
Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.