Nowadays seeing exotic animals in Thurmont is no big surprise. The Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo has around 400 wild animals on display across 50 acres.
However, 139 years ago, Thurmont’s animal population was lots of cows, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens…and one alligator.
Andrew Sefton was one of Thurmont’s leading citizens in the 19th Century. He arrived in Thurmont, which was then known as Mechanicstown, in 1831. The town at that time had a population of around 300 people, according to Sefton. Not only was there no Catoctin Zoo, the town had no churches (though the United Brethren in Christ Church was under construction) and no street lights.
Sefton wrote, “the streets were lit up a night from the doors and windows of the merchants’ shops, which made them very brilliant.”
He listed the town and nearby vicinity as having seven tanners, two blacksmith shops, a tilt hammer, grand stone, polishing wheel and turning lathe, all propelled by water power, one wool and cloth factory, two shoemaker shops three tailors, three weavers, one gunsmith, one silversmith, two wagon and coach shops, two mill-wrights, three cabinet maker and house carpenter shops, one saddler, one hatter, one doctor, three stone and brick masons, three hotels and a match factory.
After living in town for about 18 months, Sefton was able to purchase a piece of property on East Main Street. Sefton quickly set to fixing up the property.
Around that time, he also married Elizabeth Weller, the daughter of Jacob Weller, B.S., on March 18, 1833.
“We at once occupied our newly repaired and windows home and have been living in the same house ever since. We have had seven children born to us in this house, five sons and two daughters, all of whom are living, and at this time they are living in four different States of the Union,” Sefton wrote in the Catoctin Clarion.
In 1876, one of the Seftons’ sons, Joseph, was traveling in Florida. On his journey, Joseph thought he had found the perfect gift for his father. He bought it, had it boxed up and shipped to his father.
It arrived here in mid-October. Sefton opened up the box and found that his son had sent him an alligator. It was a young one that was about two feet long and was “greatly admired by the many—male and female—who have gone to see it,” according to an article in the Catoctin Clarion in 1876.
American alligators are found in the southeast United States. Louisiana has the largest alligator population. They live in freshwater as ponds, marshes, wetlands, rivers, lakes, and swamps. As reptiles, they need warm temperatures to regulate their bodies and an environment that doesn’t freeze over.
“Mr. S. is very anxious to keep it alive, but those who understand the nature of these animals say it will be impossible to do so, as the climate and water of this State are not adapted to the culture of alligators,” the Clarion reported.
While Sefton’s alligator was only two-feet long, large adult alligators can grow to around 13 feet and weigh 800 pounds. They can also live to be more than 70 years old.
“Should it live and grow to be a big one, no doubt there will be a scarcity of babies and small boys in this neck of the woods some day, as it is said they have a peculiar faculty for clawing up children and [African Americans],” the Catoctin Clarion reported tongue-in-cheek.
There’s no reference in the newspaper as to how long the alligator lived, but there also wasn’t a long list of missing children from town a few years later.
Andrew Sefton died in 1887.
Though the Catoctin Wildlife Preserve and Zoo has a large alligator swamp, the alligators can’t remain there year round. Each year, the zoo features a Gator Round Up in late October or early November. Visitors can come and watch the zoo keepers collect the alligators and transport them to their winter quarters.