REMEMBERING THE OLD HIGHWAY TO BAGNELL DAM (Part 4)©
By Dwight Weaver
The narrative for Part Three of this series explored the history of Stuckey’s Pecan Shoppe and Nickerson Farms Restaurant, which once sat along old Highway 54 (now an abandoned segment of highway known as Midway Road) a short distance south of the junction of highways 54-52 in the Eldon area.
In Part Four, we simply step next door to visit the former MAX ALLEN’S ZOOLOGICAL GARDENS, a roadside attraction that was at first typical of the small privately-owned roadside zoos so popular with vacationers in the Ozarks in the 1950s, 60s and 70s (See building photo courtesy of Dr. Max Allen Nickerson). All that exists there today are the rock ruins of a long, narrow, one-story roofless building with vacant window openings staring out at people passing by on Midway Road like empty eye-sockets.
Ivan James “I. J.” Nickerson, the owner and developer of the Nickerson Farms restaurant chain, opened Max Allen’s Zoological Gardens in 1951. The Nickerson family sold appliances and had businesses in Albany, Rock Port, Mound City and St. Joseph, Missouri, before moving to Eldon. They named their animal attraction for their son Max Allen who, from early childhood, had a strong interest in animals, reptiles in particular. By the time Max graduated from high school he was so dedicated to the zoological gardens and herpetology that he began running and moderating the garden’s first television programs on a local scale. Three years later he organized and led his first collecting trip outside the United States to obtain live specimens for the gardens. The field trip went as far as Guatemala in Central America. (See the 1968 photo of the author’s daughter, Karen, at age eight, sitting on the back of the garden’s giant turtle.)
With Max at the helm, the zoological gardens was transformed from a run-of-the-mill roadside attraction into one of the most respected zoological parks in the world featuring live reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds. Max also began working towards academic degrees in the field of zoology. He obtained his B.A. degree from Central College of Fayette, Missouri, and his Ph.D in Zoology from Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona.
All of this was good for the Nickerson family roadside attraction south of Eldon. Of course with Max often away on field trips to obtain new animals and to expand his education and contacts, he had to maintain a staff of six to eight people (many of them college trained) back home to keep the zoological gardens up and running. His mother Ruby Maye Nickerson was closely associated with the management of the gardens.
A visitor to the zoological gardens could see exotic live snakes like reticulated pythons, deadly cobras and mambas as well as common species from Missouri and the Ozarks such as copperheads and rattlesnakes. Sometimes Max would demonstrate the milking of snakes for their venom. The venom could be sold for use in medical research and the creation of anti-venom. The value of this activity would be realized when one of his employees, A. E. (Ed) McDaniel, was bitten by a black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) one of the world’s most deadly snakes. In Max’s own words: “I had just completed my German language exam requirement for my Ph.D at Arizona State University, Tempe, when I got the call about Ed’s bite. I provided information on which anti-venin [sic] was needed and had him taken to the hospital. I then called the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (AAZPA) anti-venin officer, Dr. Herndon Dowling at the Bronx Zoo, and started the process of getting anti-venin coming in from there and the Oklahoma City Zoo. We did have one vial of polyvalent mamba anti-venin at Max Allen’s, but it would require many 10 cc vials to counteract the bite of a large mamba. The anti-venin from Oklahoma arrived first on a jet fighter which arrived at the Jefferson City airport and was transferred to the hospital at Tuscumbia by the Missouri Highway Patrol. Ed survived the bite and perhaps didn’t receive much venom from the bite or our quick action reduced the venoms effectiveness.” (From the author’s personal communication with Dr. Max Allen Nickerson in 2004)
Not all of Max’s field trips were far from home; many were taken in Missouri. One of his favorite haunts was the wetlands and swamps of southeast Missouri where he and his students could find highly venomous cottonmouth snakes. And yes, he sometimes got bitten. One such bite cost him the first two knuckles on his right index finger.
It was field trips in the Ozarks that introduced Max to the endangered Ozark Hellbender, an ancient species of giant salamander. Once plentiful in Ozark streams, they are scarce today. Dr. Nickerson has studied the Hellbender for more than 30 years and is one of the world’s leading experts on the animal. He still prowls Ozark streams with his students in an effort to better understand and protect this fascinating creature.
Dr. Max Allen Nickerson’s accomplishments as a professional zoologist are extensive and impressive but the list is too long to cite here. He currently lives in Florida and is associated with the University of Florida at Gainesville.
Max Allen’s Zoological Gardens thrived for several decades. When U.S. Highway 54 was upgraded to a divided highway and bypassed their business location entrance, Max built a new building along Highway 52 at the northeast corner of the Highway 54-52 overpass and continued to operate for several years. That building is now being used by Mid-Mo Liquidators.