Ex-Silver Springs worker enjoyed a wild adventure

Published: Saturday, July 6, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, July 5, 2013 at 11:48 p.m.

Editor's Note: This is another in a periodic series about the people whose lives are as much a part of the Silver Springs tradition as the crystal waters that bubble up from the earth.

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Marion County Sheriff Capt. Leon Cheatom talks about his lifelong career at Silver Springs at the Sheriff's Work Camp in Ocala, FL on Tuesday June 25, 2013.

Alan Youngblood / Star-Banner

Leon Cheatom stood beside a barbed-wire fence at the Marion County Sheriff's work farm and hollered "Hee-up!" Almost immediately, a dozen cows scrambled from a pasture through a gate and made a beeline toward Cheatom, their eyes on the slice of bread in his hand.

A captain with the Sheriff's Office, Cheatom works part time at the facility, assisting inmates with the care of the animals and the crops.

But six years ago, Cheatom was working in a different environment with a different kind of critters. Instead of cows, hogs and chickens, he was handling snakes, alligators and the exotic wildlife that resided at the Silver Springs attraction. Today, he drives an all-terrain vehicle around the work farm; back then, he was tooling along the Silver River at the helm of a passenger-laden boat.

For Cheatom, the interaction with the cows and other animals at the work farm evoked memories of tossing bread to fish, teaching hogs to swim by luring them into the river, and handing a banana into the waiting fingers of a rhesus monkey. To him, those were the good ole days at Silver Springs.

But after Palace Entertainment picked up the management lease at Silver Springs, Cheatom and several other longtime employees were laid-off. The assistant operations manager at the time, Cheatom was 69 years old and had worked at the park for 55 years.

Now 74, Cheatom recalled with bitterness the day Palace Entertainment General Manager Terry Turner announced their termination.

"He said we were laid-off. I said we were fired," Cheatom said. "He couldn't give a reason why they let us go."

In a 2007 Star-Banner article, Turner defended the decision.

"We have to be more efficient and, unfortunately, people get affected by cost savings," he said. "We went through the whole organization, and Leon's position was one that was eliminated."

Cheatom's career at Silver Springs began when he was 14 years old. He started working there after school and during weekends and vacations. His father was chief of security at the park, and his uncle and cousins also worked there. A product of Central Florida's natural environment, Cheatom was born Dec. 10, 1938, in a two-bedroom shack on the banks of the Ocklawaha River, just seven miles from the wildlife preserve.

"I was born where the big bridge on highway 40 is now," he said. "Back then, it was a small bridge, the kind that swung around. My mom was the bridge tender."

Cheatom grew up with raccoons and an alligator named Charlie as companions.

"In school, my nickname was ‘River Rat,' " he said, a tone of pride in his voice.

Cheatom was hired at Silver Springs by Colonel Tooey, a concessionaire who ran the Jungle Cruise. From the start, Cheatom did everything from sweeping decks to donning scuba gear so he could clean the undersides of the glass-bottom boats.

A graduate of Ocala High School, Cheatom married his high school sweetheart in 1959. Having grown up on a farm, Betty Cheatom said she had no problem with her husband handling gators and other wild critters.

"Whatever makes him happy makes me happy," she said. "As long as he doesn't mention snakes to me, I'm fine. I have a horror of snakes. It don't have to be more than two inches long."

The Cheatoms still live in the house Tooey gave them as a wedding gift, along with two property lots, just one mile from Silver Springs. For Cheatom, it was a short jaunt to his daily job, where, in 1979, he became manager of Wild Waters, which was then only a year old. He held that position for five years, then returned to Silver Springs as supervisor of wildlife.

Over the years, Cheatom set up underwater props for film crews, drove passenger boats, handled reptiles alongside the park's herpetologist Ross Allen and, as a deputy for the Sheriff's Office, patrolled the river on weekends and holidays.

Cheatom's claim to fame was his stunt work driving a high-speed boat in "Smokey and the Bandit III," and he also appeared on the cover of a June 1971 Popular Mechanics magazine while demonstrating a two-man underwater submarine that sold as a kit for $400.

For Cheatom, a high point was when he planted rye, corn and Bahia grass to feed the area's wildlife. A low point was the fire that raged through the park in 1955.

"All the buildings were burned. The only thing that was left was the glass-bottom boats," Cheatom recalled. "The park was closed for only one day. Buck Ray had people from the community come in and set up makeshift buildings, and we were open the whole time while they were building it back."

During his career, Cheatom watched Silver Springs go from a nature preserve to a theme park, with multiple management changes and a variety of man-made attractions brought in. Despite a failed attempt to return the park to a more natural setting in 1975, crowd-luring attractions increased with each change of hands. Florida Leisure introduced the Jeep Safari, the Lost River Voyage, "A Touch of Garlits" auto museum and a white alligator exhibit. In 1996, Ogden Entertainment added several rides, shows, exhibits and eateries.

"What killed Silver Springs was too many times being sold, and too many managers," Cheatom said. "When Palace Entertainment came in, I could tell they weren't really interested in Silver Springs. They were interested in making money. We had had the same spiel on our boats for years, and they came in and said we weren't talking right. They brought in a professional to teach us how to talk and changed everything around. They even changed the names of every spring we had. What used to be the Reception Hall, the Bridal Chamber and the Christmas Tree Springs got names like the Abyss and the Snowstorm Springs."

With the upcoming takeover by the state on Oct. 1, the park will go full circle, back to being a nature preserve.

To Cheatom, it's long overdue.

"I'm all for going back to nature, but they're going to have to have some kind of entertainment value in order to get the guests," Cheatom said. "I don't have any problem with them getting rid of the exotic animals. I think that's the best thing they've ever done. But if they're going to do that, they need to start feeding the native wildlife, the turkeys and the deer. The jeep trail's got a good surface. They could make that one of the best nature walks there is."

Cheatom said he's only been back to the park once since he left.

"I just walked in and stood on the main walkway and looked around," he said. "I didn't cry, but I wanted to. It was so heartbreaking to see nobody's taking care of things. For 55 years, I put in a lot of time on that river keeping it up for the guests to see. I've seen it in its heyday, and I've never seen it so low down. It really hurt."

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