As a young man, full of ambition but struggling to make a living in the Great Depression, Earl Brockelsby had a remarkable insight. People were more fascinated by poisonous snakes than repelled by them. He had been an amateur snake collector his whole life, but in the mid-1930s, he began to handle prairie rattlesnakes and made up his mind to open a snake zoo in the Black Hills.
Brockelsby imagined a place where tourists could stand face-to-face with the most poisonous snakes in the world; cobras from India, eastern diamondback rattlesnakes from the pine forests of Georgia and North Carolina, Inland taipans from Australia and Black mambas from southern Africa. He imagined shallow ponds for Nile crocodiles, exotic lizards from South America, giant tortoises from the Galapagos Islands. Over the course of a half century, he created the largest private collection of reptiles in the world under the dome of Reptile Gardens.
Brockelsby rode the crest of postwar tourism, when the automobile became a temporary home on wheels for two weeks each summer as the expanding American middle class took to the road to explore America and escape from the drudgery of assembly line jobs and the constraints of city life. Brockelsby and his guides, most of them high school and college students, dressed in cowboy hats and embroidered western shirts. They stood ready to jump into a snake pit or onto the back of an alligator to entertain the crowds. They affirmed the spirit of adventure, freedom and bravado that were at the heart of the mythology of the American West.
Brockelsby was a relentless entrepreneurial spirit, who brought an expansive and eclectic intellect to his life’s work. He was a voracious reader, a philosopher, an admirer of Spinoza, and a lover of art. He was fascinated by extra sensory perception and the paranormal. He was a world traveler, who felt as comfortable among the remote tribes of the Sonoran desert and the villages of Papua New Guinea as he did among the Chamber of Commerce and City Council in Rapid City.
He was also a conservative businessman who voted for a Socialist. He fought honorably in World War II but hated war and opposed the Vietnam War. He was a master of human psychology, the nuts and bolts of roadside tourism, and mass-market advertising.
In the late 1940s, Brockelsby experienced an emotional breakdown, and spent the rest of his life trying to understand the wild peaks of creativity and the terrifying darkness of manic depression. His wife Maude rode the ups and downs of Earl’s emotions and his four children grew up surrounded by wild animals and reptiles. Earl spent most of his adult life addicted to tranquilizers and barbiturates, trying to find peace and solitude amidst the hectic life of a successful and serial entrepreneur.
Earl Brockelsby was a complicated man, of uncommon accomplishment and stark failure, whose life offers insight into the real world struggles of entrepreneurial genius in the Golden Age of the American Century.