FORT MYERS, Fla. — Inside the Shell Factory, beyond the post office, animatronic pirates, upside-down Christmas trees, an exhibit on JFK’s assassination, the fudge, flamingo décor, an outhouse with a sign, “For a good time…Open the door 50 cents,” the clamor of arcade games, and a café with a deal on sliders, is a collection without peer.
“As far as we can tell, and I would not bet money on it, we have the largest collection of taxidermy animals in the country,” said Tom Cronin in his office one day. Cronin and his wife, Pam, own the North Fort Myers landmark.
“On continuous display,” stipulated his wife, Pam.
“Including the Smithsonian,” Tom added.
My eyes widened.
“It’s never been disputed and we’ve said it a lot,” Pam said.
Was it possible this mecca of oddities contained a grander assortment of dead animals than the Smithsonian? The skeptical reporter in me kicked in.
“How did you determine that?” I asked.
“We kind of looked it up and checked it. I would not put a lot of money on it,” Cronin emphasized again, “but we cannot find anybody bigger. We have over 400.”
That figure includes fish and fur. As a lover of Florida kitsch, I want this to be true. I want to live in a world where a taxidermy collection that shares space with a shell-encrusted golf cart and a talking buffalo head that extends a “howdy partner” offers more than the storied Smithsonian. Because I want it to be true and this story is not an expose, I admit to a dereliction of journalistic duty; I do not check with the Smithsonian.
The story of this uniquely Southwest Florida asset starts in true Sunshine State fashion: with an unscrupulous business man. A local doctor fell prey to a corrupt money manager and, at an auction of his belongings, the Cronins bought $165,000 of his animals, including a mountain goat that overlooks the retail floor.
There were more animals to come. Turns out, the loved ones of taxidermy enthusiasts aren’t always as gung-ho about dead animals as the actual collectors.
“When the owners of the other animals passed away, their spouses said, ‘it’s a chance for me to get the giraffe out of the living room,’” said Tom.
Though Tom and Pam are not hunters, Tom has a soft spot for taxidermy. He appreciates it, while acknowledging, “It’s a dead issue. They don’t do it anymore.”
“Nice choice of words there, honey,” Pam laughed.
Tom’s father was a professional taxidermist before the arsenic they worked with back then tightened his hands to his point he had to quit. Indeed, taxidermy is partially responsible for how Tom Cronin came to be. It’s how his father met his mother, “She had a school project and he helped her with it and they probably had hanky-panky.”
The bulk of the collection once belonged to Johnny Johnson, an Immokalee, Fla., farmer turned trophy hunter.
Around sixth grade, Johnson quit school to support his family after his father left, his family said. At the age of 15, he convinced his mother to fudge his age so he could enter the Navy early. He later moved to Immokalee to farm and ended as a multi-millionaire.
“He was one of the biggest farmers in Immokalee during the 60s, 70s and 80s,” said daughter-in-law Debbie Johnson.
He embodied an American ideal: work hard, play hard.
During the slower summer months of farming, Johnson made trips to Africa between 1968 and the '80s, said his son Doug Johnson. “He didn’t want just to kill something; he wanted to kill the biggest he could find.”
He hunted with game wardens and permits and saw hunters as part of wildlife management, his son said. The meat would go to the villagers and Johnson worked with a taxidermist in Las Vegas to mount the animals. His relationship with the taxidermist led to one of the most interesting pieces at the Shell Factory: a declawed Bengal Tiger.
“The tiger belonged to Siegfried and Roy. No place on the planet allows you to kill a tiger for trophy. My dad really wanted a Bengal tiger but you can’t shoot them. His taxidermist knew Siegfried and Roy and that Bengal tiger is one of their original pets. He died of natural causes,” said Doug Johnson.
To house his collection, Johnson built a nearly 4,000-square-foot addition on his home and opened it for tours to local students. But after Johnson’s death from cancer in 1991, his family was left to question, “What do we do with all the animals?” They planned to sell the home, but wanted to keep the collection together. Eventually, they donated it to The Shell Factory and Nature Park.
The Shell Factory opened its “Natural History Museum,” as part of its motley assortment of free exhibits in its retail space in January 2008. Calling it the natural history museum takes some “edge” off the whole taxidermy thing, said Rick Tupper, marketing director. The Cronins peg the value of the collection at around $6 million.
The point of the space is education and to give visitors an eyeball-to-eyeball experience with the animals, the Cronins say. (Granted, in this scenario, only one set of eyeballs is actually moving.) Lions, a rhino, a hippo, an elephant head, and bears, inspire awe and questions from the busloads of schoolkids who visit.
Meandering through the fluorescent-lit space, there’s less information about the animals and attention to the accuracy of habitats than you’d find at the Smithsonian. Still, an appreciation of the majestic animals comes through, though surely some animal lovers may shudder at the displays. The bear cub was tough to see.
“Sometimes you get people offended,” said Pam Cronin. “We do a lot of explaining that we don’t actually hunt … This isn’t our thing. We think these are magnificent animals, but this is a collection we were gifted.”
If he came in and said, ‘I went hunting last week and look what I got ya.’ That would be a whole different situation.”
Johnny Johnson died young, in his mid-60s, and didn’t dictate his wishes for his collection. In his trophy room in Immokalee, there was a plaque describing the space as La La Land.
“Everything in there was all a fantasy,” his son Doug said.
His fantasy persists in one of the most delightfully La La places around.