Today in Sanford history (TSH), James Moughton, the Superintendent of Parks for the city of Sanford and father of renowned architect Elton Moughton, announced that a “monkey island” would be the next addition to the Sanford zoo. It was April 2, 1938.
Monkey Island would go on to be the most prominent and popular feature at the zoo, which was appropriate because it was a monkey that started the whole thing.
In 1923 a traveling circus came through Sanford. While here, the circus went bankrupt. Cy Smith, a custodian at the Sanford Elks Lodge No. 1241, befriended one of the circus workers. To repay Cy for his generosity for helping him during a time of need, the new friend gave Cy a Rhesus monkey.
Cy kept the monkey at the lodge, but frankly, the Elks brothers didn’t need a primate to create monkey business. The Elks’ membership roster included Sanford Mayor Forrest Lake, who was at the height of his influence but just 4 years away from being convicted of bank fraud and sent to prison. Besides, some of the female guests at the gentlemen’s club found the monkey’s “tricks” rather rude and distasteful.
For reasons lost to history, Cy and the Elks decided the monkey should live at the fire station on Palmetto Avenue. Fire Chief Mack Cleveland Sr. had no way of knowing it at the time, but his firehouse was about to become a zoo – literally.
It started when Deputy J.M. Vickery donated a bulldog, which the monkey soon began to ride bareback. The real monkey business began, though, when firefighter J.C. Chamblee found a female Rhesus to pair up with the lonely male.
It was the city’s iceman, John Woods, who really got the ball rolling. Woods regularly dropped off animals he found while delivering ice. First a raccoon, then an opossum, grey squirrels, foxes, a porcupine, skunk and, of course, an alligator. Sanford residents would spend Sunday afternoons at the fire station petting and feeding this motley menagerie.
In 1887, 10 years after the city was incorporated, most of downtown was destroyed in the “big fire.” In 1925, the city fathers, many of whom remembered the devastation, decided that the firemen needed to spend their time fighting fires, not tending to animals, so they voted to remove the animals from the fire station.
Residents were upset with the decision, and a movement began to build an actual zoo. The Sanford Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce) agreed to provide enclosures for the animals. Police Chief Roy G. Williams declared that prisoners at the jail would tend to the animals, and local residents agreed to donate food.
The board of city commissioners chose a site on the new zoo on lakefront, and it stayed there until 1975 when officials moved the zoo and 39 animals to its current location near Interstate 4.
For those Sanford residents who never visited the zoo before 1975, the old location is easy to find. You know it today as Sanford City Hall. In fact, Monkey Island sat just about where the city commission chambers are.
Some say the monkeys are still there. 😉