Big Cypress Gallery / Clyde and Niki Butcher
If a magic fairy had appeared at our wedding back in 1963 and told us that in our future we would leave California to live in Florida, deep in a swamp, and own a gallery in that swamp, Clyde and I would have rolled on the floor laughing, but here we are!
My life with Clyde has been filled with chapters of excitement, fun, adventures, sorrow and joy. One of the most interesting chapters in the book of our life was purchasing the property of Orchid Isles in Big Cypress National Preserve to build our gallery, the Big Cypress Gallery.
We are often asked, "So, just how did you get to own a piece of property in the middle of a million acres of wilderness in a National Park?" It is a long story, but I will attempt to write a short version. Here is our story.....
I was setting up my tripod when the unmistakable sound of a rifle being fired filled the air and stopped me in my tracks. I looked up and saw a small elderly man with a round face and a head of closely shaved gray hair running toward me threatening me with a rifle! I didn’t have to understand the words that were laced with profanity coming from his mouth to know I wasn’t wanted. I picked up my tripod and returned it to the trunk of my car, then drove off leaving Orchid Isles behind me.
Tamiami Trail (Hwy 41) in Big Cypress National Preserve has always been a favorite drive of mine. I have photographed many wonderful images right along the road. I had passed Orchid Isles many times and lusted over the beauty of the front pond. The only thing that kept me from photographing the pond were the "No Parking" signs plastered all over the parking lot. It didn’t make sense. According to the signs on the building, Orchid Isles was a nursery that sold orchids and bromeliads. How could they make money if no one was allowed to park in the parking lot? I assumed the no parking signs were just part of the weirdness of South Florida and could be ignored…until I heard the sound of the rifle. Not being able to photograph the pond was a disappointment, but escaping with my life eased the disappointment quite a bit!
As I thought about it, I couldn’t understand why a person would come after me with a rifle just because I was going to take a photograph. A simple, "Please don’t photograph here" would have been fine. The more I thought about it the more I thought that maybe I just caught him on a bad day, so several months later I tried again. The same thing happened! I was again disappointed at not being able to photograph that beautiful front pond, but decided that if I couldn’t do it, then I must accept it.
Clyde and I often drove along the Tamiami Trail on our way to Miami. We love that scenic route. Every time we passed Orchid Isles, I wondered what was behind the corrugated iron fence that ran across the front of the property. The fence was connected to a barn, which was also made of iron. The fence was covered in signs that were layered with mold and lichens announcing that orchids and bromeliads were for sale. The place had an air of mystery. I wanted to stop to see what secrets lay behind the fence, but every time I would suggest we stop, Clyde would give me that look and say, "No way! Being shot at twice is enough for me!" and we would continue on down the road.
One day I was driving along the Tamiami Trail without Clyde. As I drove west, I saw Orchid Isles come into view and thought, "Now is my opportunity to satisfy my curiosity and stop to see what is behind that fence…I just hope no one will shoot me!" I pulled into the parking lot, which was covered in "No Parking" signs, and noticed a sign saying that I would have to pay a $2.00 entry fee. I got out of my car with two dollars in hand and went up to the window where a small man with closely shaved gray hair sat holding a small white poodle. After I gave him my money, he smiled and invited me into the barn, announcing he was Leon Whilden, owner of the orchid nursery. He was very friendly and told me all about his property.
Leon had owned the property since the late 1950s. At the time he purchased the portion of Robert’s Strand to create Orchid Isles there was no National Preserve in the Big Cypress Swamp. As he told the story, "The doctor said I was ill and wouldn’t live but a few more years. I had this idea. I was gonna do exactly what I want to do and that was exactly all I was gonna do. And so I did it. Me, myself, and I." He came to Big Cypress to create an orchid nursery. Since the strand was mostly trees and water, he filled a good portion with dirt so that he could live there. It was hard work and took years before the property took the shape it is today.
There are many stories about Leon. His fame as a hermit and his knowledge of orchids spread far and wide. During his early years he was written up in newspapers. The Everglades City High School wrote a book called Hermits of the Everglades in which he was included. As his reputation as a hermit grew, so did his peculiarities and opinions about who would be allowed on his property. The sheriff had taken away a series of weapons from him. When we actually got around to buying his property, he was threatening folks with a machete!
Leon continued his story as we walked out the back door of his barn and entered into a lush green jungle. I felt like I was in a jungle of Central America…green everywhere. Leon had planted all kinds of exotic tropical plants that were out of control and covering every inch of land and trees. Exotic orchids and bromeliads hung from every branch of every tree, with hundreds of potted orchids hanging from the barbed wire stretched between the trees. The rich smell of the earth filled my senses and a primeval feeling of ancient times touched my soul.
We walked down the path a short distance when Leon said, "I’d like to walk ya to the back, but I kinda hurt my foot and can’t go any distance, so you’ll just have to do it alone. Just follow that trail and it’ll bring you back when you’re through looking," and he pointed in the direction he wanted me to go.
I passed by Leon’s original house and marveled that it was standing at all. The walls were rotted out and didn’t touch the floor. Leon was living in a motor home parked in the parking lot. It had sat there for so long that it blended in with the mold and lichens growing along the fence. I followed the small fern-laced, overgrown path as it meandered through the green jungle. Everything touched my heart.
I felt like I had found home. As I walked deeper into the property the environment changed from a jungle into the tropical growth of native Florida. I followed an electrical line that was strung from tree to tree along the edge of the path until I came to a small trailer and a large clearing. I sat down in the grass and absorbed the quiet beauty of the place. Butterflies fluttered all around me, iridescent dragonflies zipped through the air and bees hummed as they flew from flower to flower. I felt like I was in one of those Disney cartoons where every living thing was dancing around me!
As I sat there I began to daydream about what it would be like to live on this property. I thought, "We could have a gallery up in front and our house back here. It would be perfect for a gallery of Clyde’s photography because this is what he loves to photograph." But, of course, I was just daydreaming.
After a while, I decided I had better head on home. I stood up, took one more look, and headed back to the car. As I made the left turn out of the driveway heading west I noticed a sign that said, "FOR SALE $85,000."
All the way home my mind whirled. "Thirteen acres of wilderness in the middle of nowhere. A place for a home and a gallery." As I tossed the idea around, I knew I had to be sure before I brought it up to Clyde. He is much more adventurous than I am.
The next morning I decided that yes, I would love the adventure of living with nature in the middle of the wilderness, so I told Clyde about my experience at Orchid Isles. His first response was, "I’m glad you’re alive to tell me the tale." His second response was, "Let’s do it!" He called the Big Cypress National Preserve and made an appointment the next day to speak to the superintendent.
Our appointment with Superintendent Wally Hubbard was a great experience. He was open and enthusiastic about having a gallery of my photography inside the boundary of Big Cypress National Preserve. He felt it would be a great educational tool for the people who visit the Preserve.
To this day I’m not sure if Superintendent Hubbard was more excited about getting rid of the gun-toting antics of Leon and the threats made to tourists, or if he was excited about having Clyde...or both!
Our next visit was to Orchid Isles. This time I did what Niki had done, I drove straight up to the little window where Leon and his poodle sat and got out of the car with two dollars visible in my hands. Leon was very friendly.
Leon didn’t remember me and it was then that I understood why he needed to sell the property. He really wasn’t in good shape physically, or mentally. His age was showing.
Niki and I did a quick walk through the property. I agreed that it was beautiful and would be a great place to live. Having a gallery of our own to display our photography would be an added benefit. After we left Orchid Isles we drove the short distance down the road to the Oasis Visitor Center and used the pay phone to call the realtor to make an offer. A short time later we were the owners of thirteen acres in the middle of more than a million acres of the wilderness of the Big Cypress National Preserve, part of the Everglades eco-system in South Florida.
We thought this was a path to the back
but it was a road to the back that was overgrown!
We were able to purchase the land from Leon because when the Preserve was created it was stipulated that those people who owned the land could keep it if there was already a legal structure on the property. They could also sell it unless the sale had a negative impact on the environment of Big Cypress National Preserve.
We bought the property in May of 1992. Leon was more than eighty years old, so we knew it would take a while for him to move. We gave him two months to move off the property. His son, a musician in the Tampa Bay area, came to help Leon whenever he could.
One day while we were visiting the property we met Leon’s son. As he spoke about the orchids we could tell he had a great love for the plants. We enjoy seeing orchids, but our life is not about orchids or taking care of a nursery. Under our care they would have died, so we told him he could have all of the non-native orchids.
Leon managed to move off the property by the end of July. Since Leon was no longer on the property I didn’t have to worry about him shooting me, and so, the first thing I did was set up my camera and photograph the beautiful front pond that was now ours. The image is called Big Cypress Gallery #2. I often jokingly say that I had to buy the property in order to take the photograph!
Big Cypress Gallery 2
This is the photograph I had longed to take
when I first stopped by Orchid Isle.
After purchasing the property I was finally
able to capture the beauty of the front pond.
The front pond is one of the most beautiful ponds along Tamiami Trail. Because Leon wouldn’t allow anyone to stop and take pictures of the pond, we decided that we would make sure people felt welcome to come and photograph it any time...without getting shot!
Our first project was to clean the property. My best friend, Oscar Thompson, and his wife Miladie, Bill, and our employee, Bob Polk, helped us. When we brought Bob on the long drive out to the property he got out of the car, turned to me, and said, "Clyde, you have a screw loose for ever thinking you can be successful at owning a gallery in the middle of nowhere!" To be frank...I kind of thought so too, but irregardless of the success or failure of a gallery, this would be a beautiful place to live. So, I named the back half of the property "Loosescrew Swamp Sanctuary." I figured it would become a place for all those folks who, like me, have a screw loose and need a sanctuary where they can relax.
We removed seven thirty-yard dumpsters of trash that Leon had thrown into the swamp. Today, every now and then, old clay and plastic orchid pots that he had thrown into the swamp years ago suddenly appear in the muck. I keep wondering, how much longer will they keep popping up?
We also removed three thirty-yard dumpsters of tires from the property. The tires were an amazing magnet for the breeding of mosquitoes! Leon had collected the tires for his nursery. Whenever there was a threat of frost he would burn them so the smoke would protect his orchids. While I was throwing out the tires Leon happened to visit the property. He was very upset about me getting rid of the tires. "It took me years to get that many tires and you’re just throwing them away!" he screamed.
We had finished cleaning the property and were ready to tear down all of the buildings when Hurricane Andrew raised its ugly head out in the Atlantic.
We were living in Fort Myers at the time, so we left the property and watched Hurricane Andrew on television as it grew in strength to a Category Five hurricane. As it started moving toward South Florida it never wavered in its direction. It was traveling in a straight line that matched up with the Tamiami Trail.
All I could think about was how much damage the beautiful forest we had just purchased was going to receive from this hurricane. In my imagination I saw nothing but snapped and twisted remains of trees that would be left if a Category Five hurricane hit our property.
When Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida we spent the night watching the television until the electricity was lost due to the storm. We had no idea if it had continued straight down Tamiami Trail.
The next day we learned about the devastation of Hurricane Andrew as it blasted its way across South Florida. However, we also learned that it had moved south of Tamiami Trail and did not directly hit our property. We were greatly relieved.
It was two days after the hurricane before Tamiami Trail was cleared of debris and open for travel. As we drove up to the property I was devastated. The front half of the property had been planted with large exotic trees and they were all down. The property was knee and waist deep in trees and broken limbs. All of the buildings lay in ruin. As I looked at the mess I became exhausted. We had just cleaned the property and now we had to begin again...
The hurricane had demolished all of the buildings on the property. The buildings were old and it didn’t take more than a stiff wind to knock them down. When we finally removed all of the buildings and debris, we were ready to build. We had a difficult time finding an architect and contractor. With the devastation left behind after Hurricane Andrew the building industry was pushed to its limit working to repair South Florida. We finally located an architect and contractor in the Fort Myers area that would work with us.
We began building in January 1993.
It is difficult to describe how hard it was to find construction workers who would come out to the middle of nowhere to work when there was so much work in town. South Florida had received so much damage from Hurricane Andrew that construction workers came from all over the United States to find work…some of them good, some of them very questionable. We had both kinds. We were thankful that both Bill and Bob were around to help where they could.
Not only was it hard to get and keep construction workers, it was also hard to get supplies. The stress and frustration seemed never ending.
One day, while I sat in the car waiting for Clyde to talk to the contractor,
I noticed a number on the telephone pole located on our property:
Chills ran up my spine when I realized the numbers matched our life:
T– Our son Ted was killed when a drunk driver hit the car
he was in. His death caused Clyde to re-evaluate his life
and return to black and white photography.
1 – Ted was our only son.
17 – Ted was seventeen when he was killed.
86 – Ted was killed in 1986.
When I pointed this out to Clyde we both agreed that this property was a gift. We feel it doesn’t really belong to us; it belongs to everyone, just as the earth does. We realized we needed to help people understand the importance of taking care of Big Cypress and the Everglades and use this property to help educate others as our thanks to God for giving us the opportunity to live here.
The thing that kept me centered and able to continue through all of the stress and frustration of building in the middle of nowhere was the belief there was a higher purpose to this project. I believe we were blessed with this property to help others learn about the beauty of Florida and in doing so, help to keep our environment clean and healthy.
After we moved in and got settled we invited our daughter, Jackie, to come spend the weekend with us in our new swamp home. She was happy to get away from her business for a quiet weekend in the woods. A smile comes across my face when I remember what she said when she woke up the next morning, "I’m leaving. I didn’t get one ounce of sleep last night because of all the noise! Those frogs are way too loud!"
Jackie now loves the musical sounds of the swamp and the primeval beauty located here. She came to understand the underlying purpose of our life was to help people walk a higher path and treat the earth with respect. Wanting to be a part of that, she sold her business and joined our business in 2000, opening a second gallery in Venice, Florida. She became our administrator of museum exhibits, event coordinator and business manager...basically, the CEO! Her husband, Neal, also works for us as an assistant to Clyde in the darkroom as well as an all around manager.
I think I am as close to paradise as I can get because I work and live in the environment I love. Niki and I are very glad that the prediction of failure by having a gallery in the middle of nowhere turned out to be untrue. We are humbled by the success surrounding us and pleased that so many people have come to love and understand Big Cypress and the Everglades as they walk through the journey of life with us.
Visit clydebutcher.com to learn more about Big Cypress Gallery / Clyde and Niki Butcher.