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provided by Chris Mayhew
provided by Chris Mayhew
provided by Chris Mayhew

A story about Henry Coppinger, my uncle .

Henry Coppinger did not just hybridize crotons, he was a nursery man and in his youth an alligator wrestler. He grew up on the Miami River, where his father had established the first Miami botanical garden in 1890. It was located on the river at about 17th ave. It was a tourist attraction with Seminole Indians and riverboat rides to the falls on the Miami River located about NW 21st Street and S River Drive. The falls are no longer there; the Okeechobee canal took care of that.

Henry was born in 1898 and one of his claims to fame was he was the "second white man born in the city of Miami". As a kid I guess it was just natural, being the only kid in town, to play with the baby alligators, laying them on their backs and rubbing their stomachs, putting them to sleep. He would capture baby alligators and sell them to tourists at a his fathers'tourist attraction. Later he developed the art of alligator wrestling, not the caged alligator in a pen type of wrestling but the dive in the water out of a dugout canoe, poled by an Indian, swim under the gator, come up and grab him by his mouth and wrestle him to shore kind of alligator wrestling. Henry was only 5'7" and 125 pounds. The biggest alligator he would wrestle was an eight footer that weighed about 250 lbs. He soon was traveling around the United States and Canada with a pool of water so he could perform this act for his crowds. He so popularized Miami that once when he was bitten, the City Council sent a telegram lamenting his injuries and wishing a speedy recovery. Henry had posted no feeding the alligaor signs but someone threw the gator some fatty meat. Henry's hand slipped off the gator's jaw and he was bitten, luckily not seriously.

Some are under the impression the Indians were the first alligator wrestlers. Quite the contrary is true; it was Henry who taught the Indians the art of alligator wrestling. As a kid, I got to watch the Indians wrestle alligators at one of Henry's Indian Villages along the Miami River. By that time Henry was mainly tending his nursery business selling sansverias, to northern markets. His bread and butter. Among other plants he grew were palms and cycads; one of the largest collections around. Also, at that time many rare and unusual plants, as well as variegated aralias, anthuriums, ferns, flowering trees and of course crotons everywhere.

After he died in 1976, I took care of his nursery for at least a year for may aunt Helen. The needs of my family prevailed so I could no longer tend it. I was able to get My croton collection started from that period but I can only lament that I didn't get more. Someday I plan on going by his last residence/nursey to see if I might talk someone out of some hidden treasure.

Chris Mayhew

REF: Article appeared in Vol. 12, Issue 1, July 2011, The Codiaeum Connection, International Croton Society, p.14, p. 15.