Sandy
Wesley
February 26, 2001
Boca's
Grand
Menagerie
Camino Gardens is considered one of the premiere subdivisions in Boca Raton
today, but at one time that area was home to giraffes, peacocks, camels,
hippopotamuses, elephants, antelopes, Abyssinian asses, zebras, gazelles,
ostriches and chimpanzees in what was considered the largest theme park in the
United States - Africa USA.

In 1985 Irene Konrad, wife of former Boca Raton Mayor William Konrad, wrote
a history of Camino Gardens, "Farewell Africa USA, Hail Camino Gardens." In
the course of her research, this is what she discovered:

One day in 1950, a stranger walked into a confectionery shop in downtown
Boca Raton and announced "This is the deadest town I've ever seen. How would
you like to see it liven up? I can make this city."

John Pedersen was the stranger, and the Boca Raton he wanted to "liven up"
was a town of 992 residents, whose economy revolved around the Boca Raton
Hotel and Club. As Konrad discovered, Pedersen, 55, was a dreamer, who
developed a yen for the African wilds as a youngster. As a man, he decided to
bring Africa to Boca Raton.

On January 17, 1951, Pedersen purchased a 350-acre palmetto patch from the
town at an auction for $25 an acre. The town had acquired the land from the
Mizner Development Corp. in the late 1920s, "probably in payment of back taxes
when Mizner's dream had ended in bankruptcy," Konrad wrote.

Pedersen built a home for his wife and daughter on a knoll at the entrance of
what would become his theme park. With the help of his 29-year-old son Jack,
who traveled to Africa to purchase and transport a hundred animals from Kenya
and Tanganyika Territory to Boca Raton, Pedersen designed on 177 acres what
would be the largest private zoo in the United States. He called it Africa USA. He
sold the rest of the land to developers.

Besides the animals, many of which cost $1,000 a head, Pedersen's theme park
featured thousands of trees and shrubs. Konrad writes that a sample list reads
like a horticultural catalogue: "3,000 royal poincianas, 6,000 bouganvilleas, 6,000
fireballs and single poincianas, tens of thousands of hibiscus and other tropical
flowers. Fruit trees from all over the world were imported: 1,000 bananas, tea,
vanilla, tapioca, sago...

"A realistic jungle bridge was constructed to span the El Rio Canal and six miles
of jungle roads were constructed along which Madagascar banyans lifted their
canopy heads. A seven-acre lake and miles of winding rivers were dredged.
Acres of plains were planted with millet and imported torpedo grass upon which
the denizens of the jungle would mingle and feed. Any African beast would have
felt quite at home in such a setting!" Konrad wrote.

The park opened in February, 1953. Visitors were taken on open-air,
rubber-tired trains past Nairobi city limits, through a vast savanna where they
saw unrestrained animals mingling on the grassy plains and elsewhere. Pedersen
had successfully recreated the African experience including the Zambezi Falls, a
30-foot cascading waterfall that "roared through 800 feet of flower-decked
rapids."

During the years that followed, Pederson's Africa USA was featured in national
magazines such as Life and on Jack Paar's TV show.

In 1958, Pederson sold the park. In a 1986 interview, the 89-year-old Pederson
told Konrad that during the next three years, the new owners failed to make the
required mortgage payments, and Pederson, who still lived in his home on the
knoll was unhappy with the changes the new owners were making.

By 1960, Boca Raton had grown to a population of 7,000. Park neighbors were
complaining about traffic and noise. The U.S. Department of Agriculture alleged
that its agents had discovered African red ticks at the tourist attraction, and
Pederson foreclosed on the park, taking back everything. Meanwhile, the city
condemned some of the park land for a right-of-way to extend Camino Real and
Pederson realized that Africa USA was a thing of the past.

In September 1961, the park was closed. Pedersen sold the land to Rhode Island
developers Powdrell & Alexander for $1.1 million. He then sold the remaining
animals to zoos and circuses throughout the United States and Mexico, and
moved to Australia with his wife and son. His daughter, who was married,
stayed in Florida.

Powdrell and Alexander developed the 450-home Camino Gardens on the site of
the park.

For a number of years after the demise of the park, residents of Camino
Gardens and Royal Oak Hills received periodic visits from peacocks, the last
vestige of Africa USA.

Ironically, John Pederson had never been to Africa.

Irene Konrad's history was republished in the year 2000 for Camino Gardens
residents.

It also is available at the Boca Raton Historical Society Gift Shop.
Africa USA!
As part of their African experience, visitors were transported
through the park in rubber-tired open air trains.
Irene Konrad
Zebras grazed undisturbed in the "savannah" of
Africa USA, now Camino Gardens.
Visitors to Africa USA were greeted by and
encouraged to feed friendly giraffes, camels and
other animals imported from Kenya and
Tanganyika Territory.
Zambezi Falls, a 30-foot cascading
waterfall "roared through 800 feet of
flower-decked rapids."