Gator In The Pheasant Branch Creek

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MTT News Desk's picture
By: 
Brian Root
Al Root retrieves the escaped family pet from Lake Mendota.

Editor's note: The following is one of four essays, all of which are featured in this week's print edition of the Times-Tribune, celebrating Middleton's 50 years as a city.

Middleton has been named one of Money magazine’s “Best Places to Live.”  You’ll get no argument from those of us lucky enough to grow up here in the 1950s and ‘60s.  The setting for many of our idyllic memories is a place called “the creek.”  (Today it is known as the Pheasant Branch Conservancy.  Back then, it was simply “the creek.”) 

To an outsider, it was a mundane patch of woods.  To us, it was as exotic as the Amazon, teeming with raccoons, snakes, lizards, turtles, and, in the summer of 1969, an alligator.

In the 1950s it wasn’t illegal to own an alligator; and, of course, it would never have occurred to us to ask.  So, when my brothers and I brought three of them home, it attracted only passing interest in our Sak’s Woods neighborhood.  We bought the foot-long reptiles at the pet store on Elmwood Avenue, and promptly named them Winston, Marlboro and Sir Walter; such was the impact of big-tobacco advertising on the minds of pre-teen boys with limited imaginations.

Life in Sak’s Woods was good for alligators and boys, and we all thrived.  By the summer of 1969, the alligators were almost six feet long and had nasty dispositions.  By contrast, my brothers and I never reached six feet, but by most accounts we were less anti-social than the alligators.

Young boys inevitably grow up and leave home, and so it is with alligators.  In July of 1969, Marlboro went missing.  He apparently scaled a four-foot fence, and when last seen he was slipping effortlessly into nearby Pheasant Branch Creek.

Which empties into Lake Mendota.

Impromptu search parties of neighborhood kids sprang up, all with strict instructions to not attempt capture.  Indeed, Marlboro was spotted numerous times and the legend of an alligator patrolling the banks of Pheasant Branch Creek was born.  But, inevitably, the reported sightings dwindled, and eventually stopped altogether.  It was commonly assumed that Marlboro had met an untimely end, and the creek was once more safe for human recreation.  That’s when we received the phone call.

The most opaque portion of this admittedly improbable tale are the events surrounding the phone call.  The truth can be an elusive phantom.  What follows is the most plausible version.

A woman was sunbathing on her Middleton Beach Road pier.  As she lay face down, looking between the planks of the pier, a North American alligator glided directly beneath her.  Her first reaction was to call my father, Al Root, who was well known to harbor dangerous reptiles.  He arrived moments later, wearing only his horned-rimmed glasses and baggy swim trunks.  With the panache of a circus performer, Al dove into Lake Mendota. 

In an unlikely sequence of events, Al managed to catch the alligator and wrestle it to the spectator-lined shore of Marshal Park Lagoon.  The event was reported on by Madison radio stations.

An alligator on the loose in Pheasant Branch Creek was unnerving to some, and the disturbance to Middleton’s collective psyche led to one unalterable conclusion:  the alligators had to go.  On an August day in 1969, a Dodge station wagon headed north on Highway 12.  In the back were three alligators, bound for a new home at Chuck Nadle’s Reptile Farm in the Baraboo Hills.  Eventually, the alligators were relocated to an alligator farm in Florida.  The general consensus was that Florida was a more appropriate home for the reptiles than the Pheasant Branch Creek.  Perhaps.

 

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