Bongoland was a roadside attraction that operated between 1948-1952. It was the brainchild of Dr. Perry Arthur Sperber (1907-1996), who leased the land in Port Orange, Florida from Daytona car dealer J. Saxon Lloyd. It was doomed from the beginning.
Florida has a long and rich cultural history, and Port Orange is no exception. Situated south of Daytona Beach, the area saw Franciscan monks founding the Lost Mission from 1602-1625. The coquina shell walls of the mission are in ruins yet explorable today. (They failed at persuading the Native American Indians to convert to Christianity.) In 1763, the English Crown deeded 101,400 acres to Dr. Andrew Turnbull, who exploited the land and the slave labor.
Bahamian native Patrick Dean purchased 995 acres in 1804, establishing a plantation. He was killed by the Seminole Indians in 1818 during the First Seminole War. The land passed via will to his aunt, Cicely Green Bunch, whose husband was Patrick’s uncle and owned adjacent property. According to records, it appears that Cicely predeceased Patrick and her share went to her grandson upon her husband’s death. The grandson by then was Admiral John Bonnemaison Bunch McHardy, who favored the military over farming. He sold the plantation to Joseph and Charles Lawton on May 3, 1832. Later that year, the brothers sold it to Sarah Petty Dunn Anderson for $4,500. Sarah’s sons, James and George, ran it for three years. It was during this time that the land became known as Dunlawton.
Dunlawton burned during the Second Seminole War, 1835-1842. By 1838, it was rebuilt, only to burn down again in 1856 during the Third Seminole War, 1855-1858.This time the plantation was under new ownership. John F. Marshall paid $8,000 for the land on September 18, 1846. Marshall attempted to bring the plantation back to life, only to fail. He decided to lease the property with a right to purchase to Charles P. Vaux, who also failed, in 1853, and the property reverted back to Marshall in 1855. Upon the third and final burning, the plantation ceased to be agriculturally viable.
The Civil War interrupted the timeline, as Confederate troops used the property for camping. After the Confederates lost and surrendered, Marshall was able to locate a buyer, attorney William Dougherty, who sought to subdivide the land and sell it piece by piece. The last person to own the property was Joseph Saxon Lloyd (1907-1991). Somehow Dr. Sperber was able to pitch the idea of building huge dinosaurs amongst the fauna, set up a Seminole Indian village, and small zoo in an attempt to lure vacationers traveling by car to stop in. A baboon named “Bongo” gave the attraction its name: Bongoland.
Manuel David “Manny” Lawrence was a sculptor and cement worker. He created the dinosaur statues, of which 4 survived (spoiler coming). Manny build a 42-foot Tyrannosaurus Rex; 30-foot Stegosaurus; 25-foot Triceratops; and an 8-foot Dimetrodon. His work was known throughout the area as he worked at the Museum of Natural History in Holly Hill, Florida. Manny died in 2003 at the age of 79.
Advertising the park was expensive and ultimately led to its closure. Although the live animals were removed, the dinosaurs remained. In 1963, Lloyd donated the entire property to Volusia County. In 1972, it was added to the Florida Historical Registry. The Botanical Gardens of Volusia, Inc. began maintaining the property in 1988. The Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens are a unique place. Even though the plantation and mission and odd mini zoo are gone, the county realizes the interest it generates. It is one of a few abandoned locales that encourages people to explore. Call ahead to check on seasonal hours.
Dr. Perry A. Sperber wasn’t finished with dinosaurs. In 1970, he published Sex and the Dinosaur, where he theorized that animals are direct ancestors to the dinosaurs. Before his death on October 4, 1996, Dr. Sperber made the rounds discussing Bongoland and his book.
And now for the spoiler: In 2019, the T-Rex crumbled and fell. Apparently, it is unable to be salvaged and restored; however, several groups have offered assistance. Decades of extreme Florida weather claimed the mighty dinosaur.
Dunlawton Sugar Mill Gardens are located at 950 Old Sugar Road, Port Orange, Fl, https://www.dunlawtonsugarmillgardens.org/index.html. Let me know if you visit!