Not only a highly popular tourist attraction, the Ross Allen Reptile Institute was an invaluable research facility for reptiles.
Yet another of the pioneers of Florida’s tourism industry, Ross Allen’s name is synonymous with snakes, especially venomous ones. His institute was an important part of the Silver Springs attraction, located just east of the city of Ocala. Silver Springs is often considered to be the oldest operating attraction in Florida (the world-famous glass bottom boats were invented in 1878) and Allen was a significant part of its long-term success.
Ensil Ross Allen (1908-1981) was a herpetologist, who was born in Pittsburgh, PA. His family moved to central Florida when he was a teen. It was then that he began to collect turtles, snakes and alligators. As he grew older, he continued to work with reptiles and eventually became a noted herpetologist, even though he only attended Stetson University for one year.
In 1929, he approached Carl Ray and Shorty Davidson, the owners of Silver Springs, with the idea of creating an additional attraction at the springs, based on his work with reptiles. Maybe the start of the Great Depression wasn’t the best time to go into business, but he made it work.
The beginning was meager. His family says he showed up with 22 snakes and began doing shows. This was the beginning of the Ross Allen Reptile Institute. It started as a taxidermy shop, with his mom, Florence Martin Allen, as manager, along with a few pens that contained alligators, turtles, tortoises and snakes. Eventually, the taxidermy shop was replaced by two demonstration arenas and a gift shop in a log cabin.
In 1935, Allen would also add a Seminole Indian village to the Institute that was similar to the one at the Musa Isle attraction in Miami. Several Seminole families moved to Silver Springs from the Big Cypress Reservation, all the way at the southern tip of the state. They spoke with tourists, displayed their crafts, cooked food and sold handmade clothing. They earned their living from sales as well as tips from visitors. The Seminoles were allowed to hunt on Silver Springs property and would help Allen by catching snakes for the attraction.
The goal of the Ross Allen Reptile Institute was to educate the public about reptiles. It did this with regular demonstrations of all sorts of reptiles, alligator wrestling and rattlesnake venom milkings. Considering the name, it’s not surprising that the Institute did a lot of research on snakes, especially the venomous ones.
Prior to World War II, Allen focused on collecting the venom of many types of snakes to assist in creating antivenom. Antivenom was first developed at the very end of the 19th century, but it’s creation in the US came as late as 1927. Allen and his team were some of the earliest people in the country who were working on the problem. Allen would even get other famous Silver Springs staff, such as Newt Perry (who would go on to develop Weeki Wachee), to help him collect and take care of snakes for research. Antivenom became particularly important with the start of WWII in the Pacific and the large population of venomous snakes in places such as the Philippines, China and Southeast Asia.
In the 1930s, Allen began to appear in newsreels and documentary shorts – brief informational movies that were regularly shown before feature films in movie theaters. Because of movie appearances, magazine articles and the growing popularity of Silver Springs and his Institute, Ross Allen became the most famous herpetologist in the US.
The Institute was one of the most successful attractions in Florida’s golden era of tourism – the 1950s and 1960s. By the late 1950s, Silver Springs had grown into a collection of attractions, including Tommy Bartlett’s Deer Ranch, the Carriage Cavalcade and the Prince of Peace Memorial. Visitors could easily spend an entire day visiting all these separate, but affiliated, attractions.
This attracted the attention of the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), one of the country’s three major television broadcasting companies. Officially known as ABC-Paramount, the large company purchased both the Silver Springs and Weeki Wachee attractions. Not surprisingly, the affiliation between Silver Springs (which had continued to be focused on two types of tours: glass bottom boats and jungle cruises) and all the other attractions was something that ABC wanted to resolve, as it was the variety of the of attractions that was bringing in the tourists.
To this end, ABC pushed for the other attractions to sell to ABC or leave Silver Springs’ property. Allen chose to sell in 1962 with the condition that he remained the Institute’s director. It was a role he held until 1975.
Allen’s career included “milking” venom from snakes. He did it thousands of times over the decades, often as a public demonstration. The process of milking involves grabbing a snake directly behind the mouth, forcing its jaws open and having it pump its venom into a glass so that it can be used to create antivenom. This dangerous process inevitably exposes the person to bites and injections of venom.
Allen’s family has said he was only bitten about a dozen times, with two instances being the most notable. One of his sons, Craig Allen, recalled a bite on his dad’s thumb that turned the digit black. Craig said: “He didn’t lose his thumb. They made a spike out of it. It was really good for holding snakes.” It’s likely that necrosis destroyed much of the flesh in his thumb. The second attack was from a rattlesnake near him in one of the arenas. It was able to reach up and bite directly into an artery in his leg above the top of his boot. “In about five minutes, he was totally paralyzed.” another son, Robert Allen, remembered. Luckily, the effects were reversed by the antivenom he worked so hard to make. It’s possible that he kept a stock of antivenom on property so he didn’t have to wait until he got to the hospital.
Allen’s influence on snakes in popular culture was huge. He worked on movies as a snake wrangler, he wrote articles and books and he helped develop antivenom and taught millions of people that snakes weren’t something to be feared. The Ross Allen Reptile Institute was one of the more important attractions in the state’s history, both for its entertainment value and its educational role. Allen himself appeared to be a fairly regular guy. While he was often in the spotlight, his family considered him mostly as the dad who kept wild snakes, alligators, otters, and turtles at home.
After Allen left Silver Springs, the Institute continued for a few more years until it became just another part of the attraction. Silver Springs’ attendance dropped due to larger and newer attractions in the state, such as Walt Disney World, and its owners would keep changing things around to try to make a profit. In 1993, the owners, Florida Leisure Acquisition Corporation, sold the property to the state of Florida, although they continued to manage the property. In 2002, Palace Management took over the management of the attraction and in 2013 they agreed to end their management. By September 2013, Silver Springs became Silver Springs State Park.
In 2000, the large island that makes up the southern part of the Silver Springs headspring area was named Ross Allen Island in his honor. Allen died in 1981 due to a recurrence of cancer. Both he, and the Institute he created, had a significant and lasting impact on Florida and its tourism industry.