PINECREST — It's gone now, what was Florida's roughest tavern on what still is a rugged I-hope-my-car-doesn't-break-down byway. For two decades the Gator Hook Lodge stood bristling with Gladesman culture on the notoriously unfriendly Loop Road in the Big Cypress Swamp. Inhabitants included hunters and fishers, froggers and gator poachers, moonshiners and misanthropes. There was at least one amazing musician who played fiddle like an angel.
In the Gator Hook, named after a poaching tool employed to yank reluctant alligators from their dens, folks fought, bled and drank themselves silly. "No Guns or Knives Inside," warned the sign above the door. On Saturday nights, almost everybody in the place carried a dagger or a pistol.
An hour away, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack ruled glamorous Miami Beach. Out in the Big Cypress, out in the Everglades, the Gator Hook served as a rip-snorting relic of an earlier Florida where law and order were of little consequence.
The Gator Hook sat only a few miles from the Miami-Dade County border on the Florida mainland. Actually, it was located in a sliver of Monroe County, where Key West was the seat of government. The nearest sheriff's office, in Key Largo, was 92 miles away. A deputy who made the miserable drive from the Keys to Gator Hook was likely to be met by hard stares. Trouble? What trouble?
In the swamp, the Gladesmen preferred to take care of their own problems. Their material and spiritual sustenance came from the gators and the birds and a harsh and unforgiving lifestyle. Gladesmen would have eaten the Hatfields and McCoys, with grits, for breakfast.
The paved road from Tampa to Miami, the Tamiami Trail, was completed in 1928. A dreamer named James Jaudon looped a 27-mile gravel road off the trail in hopes of attracting tourist dollars to his new enterprise, the Chevelier Corp. But in time the only people to use the Loop Road were the loggers and roughnecks who loathed the rotten-egg odor of civilization.
Pinecrest, a settlement of about 200 grizzled Floridians who tolerated the lack of electricity, running water and telephone service — not to mention mosquitoes and the occasional cottonmouth bite — was what passed for civilization on the Loop. It had two restaurants, a gas station and what folks later claimed was a brothel owned by gangster Al Capone.
• • •
I was a timid and pimply faced city boy who liked to catch bass and the occasional water snake when I first discovered the Gator Hook. Thinking back on my teenage years, I can hardly believe I ever ventured inside. I was never bold enough to visit at night; daytime was scary enough. It was the first place I ever saw a grown man lying drunk on the floor. At noon.
"Where were you today?" my dad asked one Saturday.
"Bass fishing," I answered. "We caught a couple of water snakes and let them go. Then we had a snack at the Gator Hook. Dad, you should have seen the guys on the floor. . . ."
He turned pale. "Not for you," he said. He had read something in the paper about unsavory swamp behavior.
I would like to say I was always an obedient son. But we all know that teenage boys like to do stupid things that might get them hurt or killed. So in the spirit of adventure I visited a few more times.
Entering the Gator Hook was like taking a time-machine trip into the 19th century. Maybe I wouldn't take my little brother along, and certainly not a girlfriend, assuming I'd had one. But if you were brave enough, and maybe foolish enough, what you got was an amazing peek at a vanishing culture that was colorful and unsettling.
Nobody ever claimed the Confederate flag behind the bar stood for anything but an angry warning to unwelcome outsiders. In George Wallace country, African-Americans, Hispanics, Miccosukee Indians, liberals, tourists in foreign cars and college boys were persona non grata. While perched at the bar to eat a Red Smith pickled sausage, after a rigorous morning of snaking, I was always careful to tuck my long hair under a ball cap.
• • •
Even now, when I travel to Miami, I like to leave the Tamiami Trail in Collier County at an abandoned building called Monroe Station and take the turn onto the Loop Road. I look for snakes and alligators and always hope I might see a bear or a panther. Near what remains of the Pinecrest settlement, I try to remember the Gator Hook. But what can I say? It's been 45 years. My memories are vague. I can't even remember where it was.
One day not long ago, when I was supposed to be working on a story, I began poking around Facebook, the social network that connects millions of people and their interests. Out of curiosity I typed "Gator Hook" into the browser. A page dedicated to the old roadhouse popped up. It was maintained by a guy named Charles Knight. Nobody alive, it turns out, knows more about the Gator Hook.
His brother, Eley Jack Knight Jr., started the Gator Hook in 1958. His sister Joyce ran it for few years before handing over the keys to their daddy, Jack Knight, the ferocious former police chief of Miami's rough-and-tumble Sweetwater community. With his sawed-off 12-gauge under the counter, and billy club in his back pocket, he oversaw the Gator Hook.
Charles, 54 now, lives in a small house in Brevard County. I drove across the state to meet him. He loves talking about a childhood that included hunting, frogging and playing with dynamite.
"Everybody had dynamite because the ground is so hard out there," Charles says. "You needed it to dig a pond, dig a hole for a fence post, or blow up enough fish for a fish fry."
He illegally hunted gators, illegally drove an airboat, illegally drove a swamp buggy, illegally drove a car and illegally drank moonshine — all before he was 16. In the Gator Hook, he learned to use his fists. "Beers in cans, never in glass bottles at the Gator Hook," Charles tells people. "And plastic ashtrays, not glass. Glass could be lethal in a fight."
When drunk and riled, Gladesmen liked to mix it up. But if your airboat broke down, they'd stop and help. If you ran out of shotgun shells, they'd loan you one. Many could quote from the Bible.
Charles remembers playing with snakes, skinny-dipping and the night he was alone in the Gator Hook and heard something splashing outside. He froze when he saw a monstrous shadow looming at the window, followed by an unspeakable odor far worse than snake musk. Grabbing his dad's shotgun, he yelled "I'm going to shoot.'' The figure outside the window melted into the gloom.
Outside, he took a brave look around. Whatever he'd seen had been huge. The window ledge measured 7 feet above the swamp.
To this day, Charles Knight swears what he saw was Florida's bigfoot — the notorious, smelly skunk ape.
• • •
Charles Knight has friends who drink on Saturday night at Chili's. Sometimes they get a little crazy at a World of Beer or a Jimmy Buffett wanna-be bar out on the beach. He tries not to look bored. Instead he tells them what it was like at the Gator Hook.
Say around 1970. Around noon.
Charles Knight is a kid. He sweeps the dusty plywood floor while Loretta, Tammy, Hank and Patsy warble from the generator-powered Rock-Ola. He hears the pop-hiss of a beer can opening and the clacking of pool balls. A dozen gator skulls look down from the wall.
Charles greets the first visitor, the legendary poacher Gator Bill. Next he waves to Johnny Y, who has walked with a terrible limp since the day mobsters in Miami cut both Achilles tendons. The swamp woman Nell, all 225 pounds of her, comes in for an RC Cola. Everybody knows she's having an affair with a slender swamp man named Bob. There are rumors that she has arranged for her husband's murder.
A fearless long-haired young guy from Canada, Emile, strolls in for a hard-boiled egg and some eight-ball. He's taunted by a pair of Gladesmen until Jack Knight, watching from behind the counter, has heard enough. Plopping his 12-gauge on the counter, he asks the usual question.
"You boys looking for trouble?"
This time they're not.
The boy Charles Knight steps outside and sits on the front stoop for a smoke. A while later he hears a crash inside followed by his daddy's hushed voice at the screen door. "Charles, move aside." Charles automatically shuffles aside so his father can drag the unconscious battler into the parking lot.
• • •
Same day. A few hours later.
A kid named Lucky — Lucky lives on the Loop even today — is tired after deer hunting. Lucky is a large, gray-haired man now. Back then he was a strapping guy who never ran from a fight. On this day, he's brought along a 14-year-old buddy. Lucky is sure they will be served illegal beer in the Gator Hook.
"They don't check IDs," he assures his pal. "All they care about is being paid."
Lucky parks his pickup — his deer rifle in the back window — out on the road. Cocky as a turkey gobbler, he struts up to the Gator Hook front porch and immediately notices an enormous drunk, dressed in camouflage, leaning against the porch beam.
"WHAT YOU BOYS WANT?" he shouts, ejecting a stream of chewing tobacco at Lucky's boots. Lucky tries not to make eye contact, but notices a string of tobacco-colored phlegm dripping from the Gladesman's red beard.
"We just want to go in, sir," Lucky pipes up.
"YOU BOYS ARMED?" shouts Gargantua.
"No, sir," Lucky says, hoping he has provided the right answer. He hasn't.
"YOU NEED TO GET YOU A GUN OR KNIFE!"
Lucky and his silent pal retreat to the truck, climb in and get the hell out of there.
• • •
About two hours later.
The swamp opera is under way with parts performed by barred owls, whip-poor-wills and katydids. Pig frogs, thousands of them, join in. A bull alligator bellows. A black bear growls. Somewhere in the distance a bobcat screams.
Inside the Gator Hook, gripping his fiddle like it's a good woman's soft hand, a white-haired fellow puts down his beer and stands away from the counter. His name is Ervin Rouse and he is the Loop Road's only celebrity and resident eccentric.
He was born in North Carolina, one of a passel of Rouses who all played musical instruments. In 1938, he and his brother Gordon were staying at a fleabag hotel in New York, feeling homesick, when they pulled out their fiddles. By the time they'd checked out next morning, they'd written a new tune about the railroad train that ran between New York, Tampa and Miami, The Orange Blossom Special. In some quarters, it's still known as "the fiddler's national anthem."
Once or twice a year the fiddler receives a fat royalty check, drives to Miami and returns with a new Cadillac he proceeds to run into the ground. He impulsively buys airboats, gives away money and buys drinks for everybody in the bar. One time another musician notices an uncashed royalty check in Ervin's briefcase — for $25,000.
"He was the greatest guy in the world," Charles Knight tells people now. "He was also insane and the drinkingest son-of-a-b---- I ever knew. He never bathed, always smelled bad, always had two dogs with him, Butter and Bean. But he was so kind he'd give you the shirt off his back."
• • •
Ten minutes later at the Gator Hook.
On the stage.
Tuning up, Ervin Rouse is going to be accompanied by Jack Knight's lovely daughter, Joyce, on bass. Charles, though he's a kid, gets to play drums. Nobody seems to know the new guitar player; the old one disappeared a few weeks ago after somebody accused him of making a sexual overture to a Gladesman's young son.
Nobody was arrested, of course, but the alleged pedophile vanished from the face of the earth, no questions asked.
Ervin Rouse's bow caresses the strings. He sings in a hoarse and a surprisingly high voice:
Hey, look a-yonder comin'
Comin' down that railroad track.
It's the Orange Blossom Special
Bringin' my baby back.
And couples, dozens of them, rush the floor, men in overalls with hair slicked back and shoes polished, partnered with barefooted Honky Tonk angels in cotton dresses. They're dancing — clogging, actually — at the Gator Hook, celebrating Saturday night on the Loop Road in the mighty Big Cypress.
About midnight, when things have quieted down a little, an inebriated Gladesman wades into the swamp and hangs a dynamite stick from the limb of a pond apple tree. From the back porch, a couple of other high-spirited Gladesmen open fire with their .22s.
The marksman whose bullet ignites the dynamite wins a free beer.
• • •
Today, part of the Loop Road is paved. Most of it is gravel though it's usually passable even in a Prius. During the day, tourists from Germany and England and Miami admire the swamp through open car windows. If they have a problem, or a question, a nice park service ranger in a station wagon will stop and help. At night, it's still lonely and spooky and loud from the frogs and insects. My cellphone can never pick up a signal.
In 1974, the federal government declared the Big Cypress a 700,000-acre national preserve, protecting it from development that threatened from all directions. Environmentalists were thrilled, but dismayed Gladesmen knew that life was about to change in the swamp.
In 1977, Jack Knight closed the Gator Hook, disillusioned with the federal government's presence in the Big Cypress. The Loop Road and the Gator Hook were Gladesmen habitat, was how he saw it, not a place for city folks in VW Beetles to visit for bird-watching. So he locked his door, went home to Miami, died of throat cancer.
His oldest son, the Gladesman, Eley Jack Knight Jr., the bar's original owner, gator poacher and wildest heart, drove out to the swamp a few years later with a can of gasoline. No way he was going to let the park service knock down the abandoned old bar. He burned it to the ground instead.
More than three decades have passed. You won't find anything about the Gator Hook in the history books, though it remains alive in Randy Wayne White's novel The Man Who Invented Florida and in Tim Dorsey's Electric Barracuda. Peter Matthiessen set a terrifying scene inside the bar — a gator poacher menaces a college professor — in his National Book Award-winning novel, Shadow Country.
Ervin Rouse is dead. His bass player, the gentle Joyce Knight, has passed away. Eley Jack Knight Jr. may or may not be resting in peace: In 2000 he died from liver disease after three years in a penitentiary for manslaughter. Charles keeps his brother's intimidating gator-skinning Bowie knife in a cardboard box.
Charles? He's had his downs and his ups. Today he is a rock musician, manages restaurants and plans to write a novel based on his wild youth on the Loop Road. He has wonderful children and a beautiful girlfriend to whom he enjoys retelling the legend of the Gator Hook.
"I didn't appreciate it enough when it was there," he says. "I wish I could go back to that time. It was a wonderful life."
Charles never tells anyone exactly where to find what's left of the bar because "I don't want it desecrated by some idiot." I told him I'd be respectful and he told me where to look. Even with directions I couldn't find it. I stopped at my friend Lucky Cole's house on the Loop Road. Lucky climbed into his truck and told me to follow him.
"It's in there," Lucky said a few miles later. "I'm wearing shorts, so I'm not going in because of the poison ivy."
I was wearing jeans and boots. I kicked my way through the poison ivy and weaved through the red maple, sweetbay magnolia, cocoplum and sword fern all the while looking for cottonmouth snakes.
My hair is gray. I take Lipitor.
The broken steps of the Gator Hook, weeds sprouting from cracks, lay before me like a monument. Beyond the steps in the shallow swamp water stood the two dozen or so concrete blocks on which Eley Jack Knight Jr. placed his Gator Hook Lodge in 1958. I saw no cottonmouths or gators, bears or skunk apes. I heard the distant cry of a great blue heron, but not Ervin Rouse playing The Orange Blossom Special.
Lucky called out from the road.
"I'll come back in a week,'' he yelled. "If your truck is still out here, I'll send a rescue party."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.