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Trapper Nelson

Vincent Natulkiewicz (1909-1968), born in Trenton, New Jersey, rode boxcars as a hobo with his older brother, Charlie, throughout the West. In 1931 they jumped off one in Jupiter and took on the shorter surname of Nelson. With them was a childhood friend, John Dykas, who Charlie shot and killed; Judge Curtis Chillingworth sentenced him to life imprisonment.

Vince, who had trapped wild animals from a young age, took over an abandoned hunter’s cabin,

where he planted various fruit trees. After showing visitors around for free, in the late 1930s “Trapper,” as he came to be called, started charging admission to Trapper Nelson’s Zoo and Jungle Garden, selling souvenirs and wrestling alligators. In 1960 he finally closed the camp to the public, when it was attracting more trouble than income.

Nelson accumulated 857 riverfront acres over the years. When he could no longer afford the mortgage payments and taxes, he tried to sell it to wealthy people who would donate the land to the State of Florida, thereby saving it from development. He was still negotiating with officials in 1968 when he was found shot to death at his camp. Although the coroner ruled the death a suicide, many locals suspected foul play.

In 1970 the state paid $1.3 million to Nelson’s nephew to add all 857 acres to Jonathan Dickinson State Park.

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