Bill and Lester Piper were no strangers to living on the edge in dangerous times, doing dangerous things, and risking their lives on a daily basis. They were financially successful bootleggers during the Great Depression and after Prohibition was repealed they put the Detroit River behind them and settled in Bonita Springs, Florida. The brothers had visited this hamlet as younger men and had long been students of the wildlife of the Everglades and the regional wilderness. In the late 1930s they opened the Bonita ...
Bill and Lester Piper were no strangers to living on the edge in dangerous times, doing dangerous things, and risking their lives on a daily basis. They were financially successful bootleggers during the Great Depression and after Prohibition was repealed they put the Detroit River behind them and settled in Bonita Springs, Florida. The brothers had visited this hamlet as younger men and had long been students of the wildlife of the Everglades and the regional wilderness. In the late 1930s they opened the Bonita Springs Reptile Gardens that evolved into Everglades Wonder Gardens, and which by the 1950s became Florida’s premier wildlife attraction. The Piper brothers owned and exhibited the world’s largest collection of threatened American crocodiles, and also pioneered captive propagation of the endangered Florida panther. They, and their animals, like “Old Slewfoot” of The Yearling, were featured in major motion pictures. Their Wonder Gardens educated tens of thousands of Americans in the early days of environmental education and eco-tourism. Their mission was clearly stated in their own words, “We have only a sincere desire to give the visitor a clear picture of the thrilling life, dangers, intrigue and constant struggle for existence that goes on in the depths of the impenetrable and fascinating Everglades.” The Piper brothers were undeniably the Wildlife Barons of the Everglades.
Once I’d began reading Everglades Wildlife Barons I couldn’t put it down. Not only was the book a compendium of personal experiences and personal experiences of others contemporaneous with the Piper Brothers, but all of the events and situations peripheral to the Piper’s story were thoroughly researched and factually presented.
- Alton Waters
I recently read conservationist and author Charles LeBuff's latest book EVERGLADES WILDLIFE BARONS about the extraordinary PIPER BROTHERS (Bill & Lester) of Bonita Springs, Florida and their life helping to educate Florida visitors and conserve the local glades flora and fauna. After starting to read the book, I could not put it down and finished it that same evening. The book is well written, very interesting and above all entertaining.
- Hank Ingles
Charles LeBuff’s recent publication tracing the history of two of Bonita Springs’ most colorful and interesting original pioneers – Bill and Lester Piper - is more than an excellent read. Well researched and documented, the Everglades Wildlife Barons not only tells the story of the creation of the Everglades Wonder Gardens, but reveals a time when the narrow two-lane road, US 41 connecting Tampa and Miami became a snake-hunter’s paradise after sundown.
Charles LeBuff was born in Massachusetts. He moved to Bonita Springs, Florida with his parents and three siblings, in 1952. In 1953, Charles became an interpretive naturalist—a guide at Bill and Lester Piper’s Everglades Wonder Gardens. He remained there, with the exception of an eight-month absence, until the end of 1958 when he was selected for a position on Sanibel Island, Florida, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He had left the gardens in 1957 to take an earlier position with the federal agency in Naples, at their Red Tide Field Station, but when the laboratory was to be relocated to St. Petersburg Beach he decided to stay put in Southwest Florida. In early 1958 Charles returned to work at Everglades Wonder Gardens for another year while waiting to receive the appointment to the position he had been selected to fill by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Sanibel Island.
He spent thirty-two years at J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and he retired in 1990, but remained on the island until 2005. During his time on Sanibel Island, and in other than his official capacity, he served as president of the Sanibel-Captiva Audubon Society, was a founding board member of the Sanibel-Captiva Conservation Foundation, was twice elected to the Sanibel City Council, serving his community from 1974 to 1980, and he founded and directed the loggerhead turtle conservation project, Caretta Research, Inc. in 1968. Today, he and his wife Jean, a Bonita Springs native, live in Fort Myers, Florida, where he writes, carves wood, and is learning to master the acoustic guitar.