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The True Start of the (Original) Sanford Zoo

Monday, September 3, 2018

The True Start of the (Original) Sanford Zoo

The True Start of the (Original) Sanford Zoo

*Note – This article was originally posted with an inaccurate photo of the Sanford Fire Department. It has since been corrected.

Our History—Part 1 of 3

street view of downtown sanford

A downtown view of historical Sanford. Image courtesy of The Sanford Museum.

The city of Sanford has a rich history dating back to 1870 when Henry Shelton Sanford bought 12,548 acres west of Mellonville—a booming citrus community.  As the city rapidly grew, it merged with Mellonville. Celery was planted in 1896 to diversify the agricultural industry and was so successful, Sanford gained the nickname “Celery City.”

Despite recognition as an agricultural staple of the south, city commissioners wanted it to attract visitors. During a city council meeting in 1907, the development of a zoological and amusement park was proposed. The idea was denied but sixteen years later, Sanford would find itself stumbling into a Zoo. It all started with a monkey.

The well-known version of this tale begins in 1923, when a traveling carnival went bankrupt during their stop in Sanford. As the carnival workers dispersed, one man became friends with Cy Smith, a custodian at the local Elks club. As a gift, he presented Cy with a Rhesus monkey who ended up living at the club. As you can imagine, the monkey’s little antics made him extremely popular, except when he performed riotous tricks which disturbed lady visitors of gentlemen at the club. As it was, the little performer was handed over to Fire Chief Mack Cleveland Sr. in the firehouse on Palmetto Avenue.

A view of historical Sanford Fire Station. Image courtesy of The Sanford Museum.

The fire station provided quite the life for this little monkey who explored it as a playground and entertained the firemen. Deputy J.M. Vickery donated a bulldog who the monkey learned to ride bareback and the two became inseparable. J.C. Chamblee, one of the firefighters found a female Rhesus to be a companion, starting some serious monkey business in downtown Sanford. It took off from there—John Woods (the town’s iceman) began contributing all sorts of animals. He started with a raccoon, then an opossum, followed by grey squirrels, foxes, a porcupine, skunk and even an alligator! Sanford residents were delighted and spent Sunday afternoons petting and feeding the animals.

After just a few years, the city realized the firehouse was beginning to resemble “Noah’s Ark,” and sent the order to shut it down. The community was in disarray, including Police Chief Roy G. Williams. As it was, the city and county jails located behind the firehouse had just been deemed inadequate and were relocating to the lakefront. The Chief offered to relocate the animals to the vacated lots. With this, the motion was requested for the City Commission to designate the area a “Municipal Zoo for the Preservation of Florida Wildlife.”

With the promised dedication of the Junior Chamber of Commerce to furnish adequate enclosures for the animals, the police to care for them and citizens to supply food, the motion passed, and the first official Sanford Municipal Zoo was born.

sanford policemen

Sanford’s policemen stepped up to protect more than just its citizens. Image courtesy the Sanford Museum.


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