Old Florida Blog
Discover What Made Florida So Great
Trapper Nelson and the Loxahatchee
Photos courtesy of Jonathan Dickinson State Park: by Earnest and Theresa Woleslagel (above); Toby Marcovich (Below)
The Wildman of the Loxahatchee River
The early 1900s saw the Great War and the Great depression, but neither were great for the working class American. Trenton New Jersey was much smaller in 1908-1923, when Vince Natulkiewicz was born and raised on her streets, but it was still a tough, urban area where working class men and women strove to make ends meet. For the Natulkiewiczes, recent Polish immigrants, things were made more difficult through not speaking English. They persevered as a family by all chipping in. From a young age, Vince and his brother Charles would spend most days hunting in the forests around Trenton for game to supplement the family’s meager wages.
Life was hard but exciting for the boys until their mother, Christine, passed away and their father remarried. Vince particularly did not like his new stepmother, and, at the age of 15, he ran away and dropped out of school. Using trains as a “free” means of transportation, Vince headed west to Colorado and New Mexico before making a fateful journey South into Mexico where he was arrested for gun running and sentenced to one year in prison. He did not serve much time at all, however. In fact, he claimed that he was released because the Mexican prison could not afford to feed him. So, he was asked to leave Mexico and never return.
What they saw was amazing, the Jupiter Lighthouse looked out upon crystal clear water teaming with snook, otters and goliath grouper. They did not make it to Key West, because they jumped off as soon as the train cleared the bridge.
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Unfortunately, Charlie soured on life in South Florida and decided to head back to New Jersey on short notice. Not wanting to go home empty-handed, Charlie demanded his third of the money they had made, but it was not available on such short notice, and despite having his life threatened, John could not meet the deadline. So, Charlie followed through with his threat and ended up in prison instead of Trenton.
It was hard on Vince to lose his friend and have to testify against his brother. Vince decided to move his camp upriver to a spot where a former trapper had set up camp for the solitude as much as anything else. However, he was not destined to avoid people for long.
Photo of Trappers first cabin courtesey of Phillip Cellmer, Trappers nephew with permission from Jonathan Dickinson State Park
Sometime during this growing popularity, Vince changed his last name to Nelson for marketing purposes and started putting on small shows at his Jungle Garden.
Trapping was good business and supplemented by the gardens at Trapper’s homestead/attraction, he had little need for the money that he was accumulating from his public life. So, trapper bought land. What began as 40 acres grew steadily between the mid-1930s and World War II. At the same time, Trapper’s popularity kept growing and the site began to be more of a tourist attraction.
Stationed by home, Trapper rebuilt his zoo, and spent much of his time there instead of on base. He was given extraordinary leeway since he was so good at snake and rodent removal and was never charged with being AWOL despite a purported frequency of being just that. While most men his age were away at war, Trapper was buying more land, building more cages and growing his notoriety. Thus, when the war was over, Trapper was well placed to flourish in his refurbished zoo and jungle garden.
Trapper Nelson returned to his playboy/Tarzan lifestyle for nearly 20 years following the war and amassed over 1000 acre of prime riverfront property along the shores or the Loxahatchee. He made good friends and bitter enemies during this time through land deals and social interactions. “A List" celebrities bragged about spending the night at Trappers, and the attraction became a must see for anyone visiting the West Palm Beach area for vacation. Life was good for Trapper Nelson.
Unfortunately fortunes change. The early 1960s brought a downward spiral for Trapper and his zoo.
Whether as a result of the stress involved with these changes or simply a turn in his health, Trapper developed chronic stomach pains that he believed incorrectly to be stomach cancer, and that was enough for him to go full recluse.
Trapper was not frequently heard from in the late 1960s. He had retreated into his oasis and tried to exclude the public. He even went as far as cutting down trees across the Loxahatchee and putting up “Danger Land Mines” signs.
Friends and potential visitors were encouraged to make an appointment before coming onto his land which he militarily guarded with his trusty shotgun in hand. In fact, many a story circulated around Jupiter about unwanted visitors being asked to leave by a shot into the air.
All the while, Trapper grew sicker and more reclusive, until one day, he missed his weekly trip to town and an appointment with his long-time friend, John DuBois. When John drove to the zoo to check on Trapper, he found him lying in the dirt under his Chickee hut and ravaged by wild animals. He had been shot in the chest by his own 12-guage and had been there for 2-3 days. Needless to say, the crime scene was disturbed and there was significant evidence of scavenger activity.
The disturbances made an autopsy difficult. Rumor has it that it may have even been conducted on site, on one of the picnic tables still present but the family and the autopsy report seem to refute that. The death was ruled a suicide. Trapper had reportedly discharged his shotgun into his chest and died immediately.
However, rumors of murder are still rampant in the Jupiter area. During my time there as a Park Ranger, I heard at least a half dozen stories with supposed culprits ranging from Charlie to Al Capone. Two visitors even suggested that Trapper had discovered several bodies on the Capone property nearby and was whacked, with the second suggesting that the body was so unrecognizable that he thought it could have been a mafia hitman killed by trapper who ran off to Mexico and was never seen again. Don’t you love what a little controversy can stir up?
One thing is sure, however. Trapper lived on his own terms and left the land undeveloped and preserved for future generations. May he rest in peace knowing his river will be protected and his story will continue to be interpreted by local historians and park rangers.
Above: Photo of Trapper and Stumpy; Below: Photo of Trapper with Bozo; Both by Toby Marcowich and courtesy of Jonathan Dickinson State Park
If you visit the zoo today, the caged animals are gone, as is the rope swing and the giant, legendary man. However, much of the site remains under the protection of the Florida Park Service and the volunteers and staff at Jonathan Dickinson State Park. More importantly, the Loxahatchee which Trapper loved has been designated one of only two National Wild and Scenic Rivers in Florida. This affords a level of federal protection that makes the paddling to Trapper Nelson’s site nearly pristine. One can paddle from Riverbend Park in Jupiter all the way to the Jupiter inlet, Through prehistoric cypress swamps where the largest battle of the Seminole Indian War was fought, through the pine flatwood of Jonathan Dickinson State Park, and on to the beaches where the Jobe Indians thrived on aquatic resources and trade in salvaged items from the many ships left wrecked along the shores of the Treasure Coast.
Take the time to visit Trappers if you are close by. For 70 years, it has been a must see, and please stay tuned for more in our Old Florida series.
11/10/2020 09:41:59 pm
Great pictures and write up. We love the Loxahatchee and last year we did this trip. Thanks for sharing.
11/10/2020 10:03:55 pm
So glad you remember it fondly.
11/11/2020 08:01:53 am
A delightful well-written story detailing a piece of fascinating Florida History❤️❤️
11/11/2020 12:15:22 pm
Nice to see you guys. Thanks for reading
11/22/2020 07:13:40 am
Great story! Fun read, thanks!
Corey Kerkela, Brendon Kerkela
11/25/2020 07:27:08 pm
You are welcome. More coming on the first Saturday in December.
5/17/2022 04:16:33 pm
Awesome write up, and we enjoyed the information. We just stayed here for 2 weeks. Didn’t have an encounter with the Wildman but found his story fascinating. We vote the brother or the mob did it.
John michael Duffy
10/12/2022 12:18:10 am
i worked there as a ranger trainee in school for a summer on the 10,684 acre park,lt fillyaw was my boss and the new captain came in his wife had a sister i dated. was a nice experience , trapper nelson even had a pineapple farm near where he grew his vegetables. it was interesting to me how he survived on that land there for so long, to this day there is a way to drive roads thru tequesta to trappers zoo and walk to it n the river.
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A father & son team of anthropologists and Florida State Park Rangers who love to inspire travel and teach about nature and history. This blog digs into our home state, which we would love for you to come and visit.