Silver Springs was ‘one big family'
Published: Monday, August 5, 2013 at 6:12 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, August 5, 2013 at 6:12 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.
From her teenage years until she retired in 1988, Peggy Ann (Mixon) Collins worked at Silver Springs park on three separate occasions and in a variety of departments, including Paradise Park and Ross Allen's reptile institute. She handled admission tickets, sold snakes, posed for photos and took pictures of visitors on the glass-bottom boats.
Though Collins left the area a couple of times to pursue a career on the stage, she kept coming back to Silver Springs, a place she had begun to call home.
“We were like one big family at the springs,” Collins said. “Everybody knew each other. Everybody helped each other. They made me feel right at home, that's why I always wanted to come back.”
Born on June 20, 1931, in Charleston, S.C., Collins moved with her family to Gainesville when she was 3 years old, and to Ocala when she was in the seventh grade. While attending Ocala High School, her first Silver Springs job was in the office at Paradise Park, a segregated African-American area with its own beach, animal shows and festivals.
Collins said Eddie Vereen was the manager of Paradise Park and worked under Ross Allen, founder and operator of the reptile institute. With a roll of her eyes, Collins recalled the tricks Vereen used to play on her.
“Eddie would come inside in the mornings and tie something to my desk,” she said. “When I opened the door to come in, a wildcat would be hissing at me or a big old boa constrictor would be on my typewriter. I drove up one morning and saw a beautiful dog tied to a tree. I rushed up and hugged him. Eddie came up and said, ‘Do you know what you are petting? That's a wolf.' After that, he would call me outside during the show and had me woolly up the wolf for the visitors.”
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A singer and dancer, Collins left Silver Springs for a brief period to work in Hollywood and Las Vegas and to tour with a USO troupe. In 1959, newly divorced and with a toddler in tow, Collins returned to Florida and worked at Diana Shops, a former clothing store in downtown Ocala. But, it wasn't long before Silver Springs lured her back and she took a job with Ross Allen, selling admission tickets and working in his gift shop.
“I looked at Ross Allen like another daddy,” she said. “I didn't like snakes, but I had to sell 'em. You'd be surprised how many people wanted these things. Their kids wanted them for birthdays and Christmas.”
Now 82, Collins recalls the special details that made Silver Springs a unique tourist attraction before Disney came to Central Florida and lured the crowds away.
“I remember Silver Springs when the water was crystal clear,” she said. “We girls used to swim under the glass-bottom boats and wave at the people. The drivers would cut the motors for us.”
One of Collins' favorite exhibits, the Prince of Peace, was a religious display by sculptor Paul Cunningham, who died in 1985. His hand-carvings depicting the life of Jesus Christ were arranged in individual rooms within an A-frame, church-style structure.
Other exhibits also had special significance for Collins.
“There was a tower where the Osceola statue is,” she recalled. “A man was up there playing the chimes. They made a beautiful sound through the trees.”
Then, there was Ross Allen's reptile institute and, on the property behind it, a Seminole Indian reservation. Collins smiled as she reminisced over pictures of Indian children posing with her son, Bill Singer.
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Over the years, vendors came and went, and there were changes in park management.
“Tommy Bartlett's Deer Ranch was there. You could go in and pet the goats,” Collins said. “There was an artist out on the sidewalk who would paint your picture right there. Alward's Restaurant was there, too. They were known for their pecan pies. And, there was an open fountain where you could get chips and hot dogs. My son worked there on weekends while he was in school and full time in the summer.”
When the attraction reached it's zenith, the number of guests jumped to 800,000 a year. Well-known stars would come there on vacation. A touch of excitement in her voice, Collins spoke about a lunch date she had with actor George Jessel. When actress Sandy Duncan came to the park on her honeymoon, Collins was selling admission tickets. They immediately recognized each other, having performed together years before at the Silver Slipper in Las Vegas.
During the park's flourishing movie years, Collins doubled for actress Mari Alden in “Distant Drums,” a Gary Cooper film about the Seminole Indian Wars. The crew shot for six weeks at Silver Springs and another six weeks at Marco Island, years before it became an elite residential paradise.
“At Silver Springs, I ran through the saw grass,” Collins said. “I also had a scene where they were carrying me into the dirty water. I did everything the star didn't want to do.”
For her work in the film, which also included a close call with three alligators at Marco Island, Collins earned $15 a day.
Collins' moments in the limelight also included posing for a postcard shot by the park's official photographer, Bruce Mozert. For the picture, Collins donned a leopard-skin bathing suit and sat with a live leopard named Lolita.
“I had the chain wrapped around my wrist and in my hand, and the leopard got edgy,” Collins said. “She moved and took me into the ditch. I got all dirty and had to go wash off. Then we got back in place and Lolita was still restless. She reached over with her mouth and grabbed my arm, just hard enough to make some red marks. Bruce said, ‘That's enough. It's a wrap.' ”
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Such was the environment where Collins, a single mother, raised her son.
Singer, now a doctor of clinical psychology in Orlando, said his life at Silver Springs provided some valuable tools for his career.
“It was a great learning environment,” Singer said. “I had so much diversity from people of all races, backgrounds and ages. I was like a sponge. I just soaked it up. I grew up in a place that was like the inside of a movie. Many people came from all over the world to experience what I experienced every day. I could go pretty much everywhere I wanted, and I saw things the public never saw.”
Collins and her son lived for a while in a nearby cottage owned by Ross Allen's mother. Among Singer's role models were Newt Perry and his wife, who taught him how to swim in the springs, Allen, who taught him how to call a gator, and Mozert, who put him in the darkroom developing pictures.
“By the time I was in high school, I had my own darkroom setup in my house,” Singer said. “I learned skills far beyond my age.”
As for his mother, Singer had many praises.
“As beautiful as she was on the outside, her heart was even bigger,” he said. “She could do things with animals that other people would not think possible. She worked hard all her life. At the springs, her biggest paycheck, I think, was $50 a week or something. But I didn't know we were financially strapped, because the people shared what they had.”