History of the Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch, New Port Richey, Florida


Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch

Ed Haley’s Moon Lake Dude Ranch (1962)

Moon Lake Lodge, from a hand-tinted post card

Pictures of Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch

This article is excerpted from Tales of West Pasco (1962), by Ralph Bellwood.

A few years after the big Florida Boom “busted,” a man by the name of Ed Haley came to the West Pasco area with big dreams, which he proceeded to make come true. He was a financier and promoter who had built Clearwater’s Fort Harrison hotel and many other large enterprises in Pinellas County.

He acquired about six thousand acres of land which lay mainly to the West of Moon Lake, but included Moon Lake and numerous other smaller lakes in the area. Five thousand of these acres he enclosed with a four foot woven wire fence with four or five strands of barbed wire above it. The area surrounded by seventeen miles of this fence was a natural habitat for game. To the native game he added Virginia and English fallow deer, as well as hundreds of wild turkeys, quail and pheasants, and engaged a full time warden, Bill Pittman, who trapped wildcats and panther and shot many hawks and owls that preyed on the game. It is said that at one time the herd of deer numbered up into the thousands.

The greatest attraction and feature of the Dude Ranch was the sprawling rustic lodge that was built of timber and logs cut from the surrounding area. The interior of this structure was almost indescribable. There were chandeliers made from cypress knees, ingeniously put together and wired for hundreds of light bulbs. A majestic stone fireplace with a huge log mantle heated the lobby during the Winter months. Hanging on the walls, or perched about in niches, were mounted animals and heads as well as hawks and owls. A large stuffed alligator, so real looking that many a guest would shy away from it, lay sprawled on the floor. There were dining facilities where, according to Mrs. Laura McIntosh, Haley’s sister, who lived at the lodge, four hundred meals a day were frequently served. The meat that was featured consisted of venison, wild turkey, quail, or fresh water fish, all of which came from the forests or lakes on the ranch.

Included in the tremendous operation of the Dude Ranch was a stable of some thirty Kentucky bred horses, and fifteen miles of bridle paths that rambled about through the semi-tropical foliage and trees, where thousands of exotic shrubs and vines had been set.

In the spacious grounds surrounding the lodge a number of cottages were built and furnished with rustic furniture made from cypress and cedar which had been cut nearby. A quiet serenity, broken only by the joyous sounds of mirth and soft music, prevailed in this remarkable retreat, which attracted many nationally famous people, among whom were Rex Beach and Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., to say nothing about strong political and business leaders throughout the land. It took three years to lay off and build this mammoth playground. It was started in 1933 and opened to the public in 1937.

Workmen on the project lived in tents during the long drawn out process of clearing and beautifying the grounds and building the lodge and cottages. The whole project’s cost was over $600,000. At one time about two hundred people were employed to care for and operate the Dude Ranch. It operated four years, gaining popularity with each passing year, and then came World War II. This changed everything. Help could not be found to operate the place and people couldn’t get gas to bring them to this remote spot. The ranch had to be closed, and immediately deterioration set in and some say Haley suffered financial reverses. The place was never opened to the public again, and the area where the lodge was located, including the large lake, was sold to a real estate corporation that laid it off in lots, building hard surface roads that make all the area accessible by car. Many fine homes have been built in the Moon Lake Estates. The old Lodge still remains. The once popular lounge and dining room, along with some of the mounted animals and birds, hold festoons of cobwebs and years of accumulated dust, but a nostalgic memory will ever remain with all who visited or knew the magnificence of the place.

Cattle Graze Among Roses at Old Moon Lake Playground of Wealthy (1951)

This article appeared in the Evening Independent on Jan. 10, 1951.


Two hundred head of cattle today roam what was once the millionaire sportsman’s paradise, Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch, near New Port Richey.

But the touch of the fabulous spending hand of Edward A. Haley, one-time millionaire, its developer, still lingers on.

Cattle roam the 7,600 acres where still stand the guest cottages, lodge and casino, the planing mill where Haley sawed his own cypress lumber, and the stables where he kept horses for the dude visitors.

The property today is owned by St. Petersburg real estate man W. H. Mitchell, with offices at 646 Central avenue. Mitchell bought it recently for an unrevealed amount from Mrs. Laura McIntosh, New Port Richey, sister of the once famous developer.

It is not for sale. Mitchell wanted it because in the same section he owns 14,00 more acres of land where graze 700 head of cattle owned by the real estate man.

Recent transfer of ownership brought back memories of the days of a great spender — an early plunger who made at least two fortunes, lost one of them, and finally sank the second one, or most of it, into a lonely cypress swamp and woodland in Pasco county.

This colorful figure of the Florida boom days of the 20s died in May 1949, at the age of 73, at Asheville, N. C., and was buried in Indian Springs, Ga., where he spent most of his years as a boy.

Haley made his first money with an auto agency in Clearwater. Then came the land boom to skyrocket his wealth. He built the Ft. Harrison Hotel and developed Hog Island.

He sold Hog Island, located in the Gulf off Dunedin, and reached his first million.

The Ft. Harrison Hotel and Tampa Downs were ventures that followed. The track splurge cost him plenty. Depression times came along. R. E. Olds, the auto manufacturer, helped Haley save his Ft. Harrison.

He disposed of that finally and made his second fortune. Then he bought his Moon Lake project and announced grandiose plans for developing a veritable paradise for the wealthy in the midst of the silent, cypress swamplands, nine miles east of New Port Richey.

Haley was no piker when it came to achieving a lavish effect, old timers say.

Mitchell rummaged around in old papers at the dude ranch after he bought it and found letters pertaining to the purchase of 30,000 roses with which to beautify the landscape.

The roses still bloom around the Moon Lake grounds.

He purchased thousands of camellias and planted them with the roses around the shores of 120-acre Moon Lake.

To achieve an effect of beauty by night he strung electric lights all around the shores of the lake.

The lodge and clubhouse, with trophy room, covered 15,580 square feet. In the trophy room he built a huge fireplace of native white stone. There was a pipe organ and piano in the clubhouse and a huge dining room, too.

The auditorium and casino was 256 feet long and 71 feet wide. It was built of white stone. Four enormous stone fireplaces ranged down the long casino.

The dance floor was maple. It was the only wood not sawed on Haley’s ranch when he built it. Thousands of feet of cypress was hauled from the swamps to the mill. But the maple was imported.

There was a 60-foot long bar, where, even though prohibition was the law of the land, old timers recalled there were always white-coated bartenders to serve them.

It was reported that patrons could gamble there if they chose. But nobody ever claimed that Haley commercialized the game. If people wanted to gamble that was their business, according to his creed.

Five thousand of the acres were surrounded by an eight-foot high wire fence. That was where hundreds of Haley’s deer roamed at large. Two-thousand and some more acres were under ordinary fences.

The deer are mostly gone today and the grazing lands in this Paso county woods paradise are occupied by peaceful herds of cattle.

Moon Lake Gardens never paid back what was invested in it, friends of the developer said. Some said he died broke, others that he was almost broke.

But if you visit Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch you still can see the touch of a master in lavish living.

Moon Lake Lodge Immense Building and Game Project (1933)

Moon Lake brochure

This article originally appeared in the New Port Richey Press. It was reprinted by the Dade City Banner on Apr. 7, 1933.

The most outstanding development project of recent years for this section of the state is under way around Big Moon Lake, east of New Port Richey, where Ed Haley, owner of Ft. Harrison hotel, Clearwater, is having constructed a hunting lodge and entertainment grounds that will exceed anything of its kind in the state, so far as is known.

The writer was amazed when he visited the project yesterday to note the amount of work being done on the new proposition, there being over 50 men at work clearing the ground, sawing lumber, hauling materials, building foundations and erecting buildings on the immense property.

Mr. Haley recently acquired Hidden Lake Game Preserve, a 5,000 acre tract of land, just east of this town, which is completely fenced and is now stocked with more than 100 deer and other game animals, as well as many wild turkeys and similar fowl, pheasants, quail and the like, to make it a perfect huntsman’s paradise. He has acquired another large track of land adjoining this on the east, which contains Big Moon Lake, a large body of fresh water, which is teeming with fish, and all is being thrown together as part of the lodge property.

A massive lodge building is being erected, the foundation, studding and other uprights being already in place with a crew of men busily engaged in rushing it to completion. This structure will have a perimeter of more than 700 feet and approximately 74,000 feet of lumber will go into its construction. It will contain lounge and living rooms, kitchen, dining room, dance hall and other modern features, offices and everything necessary for the convenience of the guests, who will occupy the cottages that are also being built.

There will be 100 or more of these attractive cottages placed conveniently around the main lodge building. Each cottage will contain living room, bed-room, bath and a porch. A large fire place will also be a feature in each of the cottages.

All buildings are to be of the rustic type, the natural wood without finish being used everywhere excepting for floors, and the raters of cypress logs will be exposed. The main building will be two stories in height, with one story wings, a great porch surrounding the entire structure, which has a frontage of 142 feet.

A board walk runs from the lodge to Moon lake, where a pier is being erected and diving boards and other swimming equipment will be installed. Boats and gondolas will also grace the lake for the benefit of fishermen and others who wish to use them.

A complete fish hatchery is being built, the excavations being well under way, where stock will be grown for the many lakes on the property, to supplement the many fish already in the lakes.

An eight inch well has been drilled to a depth of 204 feet, which will provide ample water supply for the entire project. A complete electric power plant will be installed, furnishing lights and refrigeration, and modern sewerage disposal will care for the miniature town’s sanitation.

Every modern convenience will be installed for the convenience of the guests, including a swimming pool of great length for those who do not care to make use of the lake itself, which will have diving towers and other features for the athletically inclined.

Various courts, including tennis, shuffleboard, etc., are planned, and billiards and similar games will be installed indoors.

Horton Belcher, general superintendent for Mr. Haley, is enthusiastic over the future outlook for the hunting camp, stating that 16 reservations have already been made without solicitation. He feels that every cottage will be taken before the beginning of the season. “If they are, Mr. Haley is ready to build more,” he stated.

An attractive grouping design for all buildings has been arranged by Theodore Skinner, noted architect, of Clearwater, who has made the plans for the entire building program, and Phillip P. Hood, superintendent of construction, is seeing that the work is carried out just as planned, taking special pains to see that the rustic design predominates throughout.

Much interest is being shown in the new project by visitors from St. Petersburg, Clearwater and other points. The new project will be run by Mr. Haley in connection with Ft. Harrison hotel, making a unique tie-up for the two hostelries, which will attract many who would otherwise go elsewhere, and he is negotiating for more land to add to that he already possesses, hoping to have under wire at least 20,000 acres before the opening of the coming season.

All lumber for the gigantic project is being sawed on the premises, from native trees, and the palm trees, of which all columns for the porches are to be made are being cut on the lodge’s own grounds. …

Travelers Throng to Dude Ranch (1937)

This article appeared in the Dade City Banner on Feb. 12, 1937.

Moon Lake, February 9.—Special.—Hundreds of people from almost every state in the Union have visited the famous Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch near New Port Richey this week. Thousands of azaleas are in full bloom and lilies are beginning to bloom.

Much work has been done at the gardens this year. Thirty thousand red rose bushes have recently been planted around Moon Lake. Until the new road is finished visitors have to walk to see the roses but when the road is completed in a few weeks, one may drive all through the gardens and see them without getting out of the car. Of course the real flower lovers will want to go to every bed.

There are now 63 peacocks on the grounds that may be seen at different times of the year. They look very majestic as they strut and prune themselves among the thousands of flowers. Pet squirrels have the run of the ground and will eat tid bits from the hand of the visitors.

A new Hammond electric organ was installed last Sunday and a two hour concert was given by Miss Ruthy Nagel, St. Petersburg. It is planned to have a system of loud speakers so that the wonderful organ music can be heard all over the Garden.

Work is being rushed on the new auditorium at the edge of the lake. It will when finished be one of the largest halls in Florida. There will be plenty of room for the 15,000 that come to the gardens to see the many flowers and to hear the open air concerts. A large formal opening will be held when the 270 by 70 foot building is completed. Native wood had been used to a large extent which adds beauty to the huge building.

There are now over 150 men employed at Moon Lake. A separate little town has been built to take care of the men that are working in the gardens. Moon Lake has its own electric plant, road engineer, and everything else that is necessary for the completion of the tremendous task of making Moon Lake the show place of the United States.

Six thousand of the ten thousand acres is fenced off for a game preserve in which 4,500 wild deer are protected from hunters. Game of all kinds is plentiful. Recently a wild board was killed that weighed over 200 pounds. Its head was mounted by Oscar Swed, Moon Lake taxidermist, and is now on display in the ranch house, where other animals killed on the place are on display in life-like poses.

Many visitors have said the Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch are worth a trip from everywhere. Until one has visited the Gardens one cannot realize the beauty spot that has been made in the wilds of Pasco county. A few years ago it was a wilderness; now it is a show place that people come from every state to see.

A complete stable is maintained with horses available at all times for the convenience of guests who care to ride on the ranch.

Excellent meals are served at all times. Dade City and New Port Richey offer near-by hotel accommodations.

Fishing has been excellent this week. A 12½ pound black bass was caught in Moon Lake the first of the week by one of the guests. It will be mounted and put on display. Speckled perch are just beginning to bite. Many fishing parties have reported good catches lately. Guides are always available.

The Banner has just received a congratulatory telegram from United States Senator C. O. Andrews on the presidential approval of the WPA project for the rebuilding of the Moon Lake Road, which he believes will be of great benefit to the county.

Aloysius Coll Associated With Big

Recreational Project in Florida (1937)

This article appeared in the Daily Courier, Connellsville, Pa., on May 21, 1937.

Aloysius Coll, a former Connellsville resident, co-author of the Connellsville centennial 584-page “History of the Borough of Connellsville,” one of the most thorough and authentic volumes written of the early Indian and Colonial trails and events of this section of the nation, is now associated with one of the biggest attractions in Florida, and the only enterprise of its kind in that State. In a note to the editor of The Courier he gives a few facts concerning this enterprise, the Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch. Unusual features are under construction now, completing a development work which has continued for nearly 10 years.

Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch is a 14,000-acre estate located on the beautiful new government aid road No. 210, which connects the Tamiami Trail on the east with Road 19, the Florida west coast gulf shore highway on the west. The estate covers the area from the Gulf of Mexico near New Port Richey, a town many Connellsville people know, just a few miles north of Tarpon Springs, to a point six miles inland. In this vast beauty spot, one of the most historic and unusual in all Florida, are the headwaters of the famed Anclote River, and of the equally famous Pithlochascootee River. On the estate also, and all bordered with primitive forests of cypress, bays, magnolia, pines, maples and other trees, giant ferns and rare plants of the semi tropics, are 20 magnificent crystal-clear lakes, in size from that of Big Moon Lake, 140 acres, to little bodies of water hidden in the deep forest. In part of this estate is a game preserve of about 7,000 acres, in which are 5,000 Virginia and English fallow deer, wild turkeys, African partridges, English ringneck pheasants, sacred ibis, egrets and every form of mammal and bird known to Florida, including vast flocks of wild ducks, other migratory birds, many of which are remaining through the whole year under the protection given in the preserve. Recently the first of the 2,400 fawns in the 1937 crop was picked up in the brush. The Pinellas County Conservation Association organized a caravan of motor cars, drove from St. Petersburg to the ranch and game preserve and the president of the association, A E. Pendergast, christened this first fawn “Pinellas” with a shower of rose petals as the babe of the woods was held in the arms of John S. Smith, mayor of St. Petersburg.

The development of the great acreage of natural beauty, forest, lake, river, huge “sinks,” or lakes set deep down from the surface, includes a huge lodge with its big verandas, stone fireplaces, dining room, women’s lodge; an auditorium, now nearing completion, 260 feet long, with two wings, one a porto cochere 40 by 40 and another 40 by 80; the largest private nursery and greenhouse in the state, if not in the United States, covering acres; 35,000 rose bushes, bedded to surround Moon Lake with four miles of radiant blooms at the rate of about 80,000 a day; rare fruit trees, shrubs, millions of flowers, lilies in their lagoons, blooming all the year; the papyrus plant, from which the ancient paper was made and known as the bull-rush in which Moses was found; huge stables for the Kentucky thoroughbreds, and a training ground built around a lake; pea-fowls, turtles, wild life such as it probably is not found otherwise in the state; rustic cabins for guests who remain for a week or more; two saw mills operating for construction within the grounds, using the native timber; a steam power plant for the mills and for generation of current.

An area of about 400 acres is beautified in a most magnificent layout of rock gardens, lagoons, miles of flower beds, thousands of palms—all so introduced as to preserve the natural and distinctive beauty of the Florida west, which is the most lovely part of the state.

All the lakes have been enriched with all known plant foods for fish, turtles and wild fowl. In Big Moon Lake at one stocking 90,000 big mouth bass were released, at another time 45,000, so that in the 20 lakes the very best fishing in Florida is provided.

There are 10 miles of bridle paths through the most beautiful parts of the preserve and ranch. Since the State, the National Government and the county authorities all have special interest in such a game preserve and definite preservation of forests and wild life, the Moon Lake enterprise has become something different from other attractions in Florida. More than 200 acres of the forest and gardens have been lighted. A special new system of reproduction and broadcasting has been installed, so that as one wanders through the lightened gardens and forest the music of a grand opera performance may be sounding in every part of the vast estate, and in communion with the wild birds and the strange sounds of primitive forest at night.

The operations include a department in taxidermy, with skilled artists in charge, and the mounted specimens are considered of the best in the nation. On the estate are two eagles nests or aeries, the nesting places of many rare birds.

Recently, for the first time in Florida and probably in all the country, the proprietor started to floor a portion of the forest; all that big area between the new auditorium and dancing salon an Moon Lake. This floor is raised high above the ferns and marginal waters of the lake, and is fitted around the trees. Concrete forms were sunk to ground level, rising slightly above the floor level, and these become flower beds, thus converting this great outdoor tea room and dance pavilion into a forest garden, the cypress trees, with their feathery foliage and festoons of Spanish moss, carrying the system of tinted lights. The new auditorium has a dance floor of polished maple to accommodate 2,500 or more; it is in heavy beamed rustic, with four great fireplaces.

Guides are furnished if desired to hunt the deer in season, wild turkey and other game and for fishing. On the lakes are power boats and row boats. The dining room draws on the poultry pens. There are about 20,000 chickens, thousands of turkeys, ducks, guineas; the fish is served fresh from the lakes or the Gulf of Mexico.

Additional Notes

On July 4, 1929, the St. Petersburg Times reported:

Work in stocking the 5000-acre Hidden Lake fish and game preserve near New Port Richey will be started this week by Ed A. Haley, of Clearwater, head of the syndicate organized to buy the land and operate the place. An eight-foot fence has been constructed around the property as a precaution against poaching. Wild game, including ducks, deer, quail, pheasant and wild turkey, will be placed in the preserve to make it one of the finest in the country.

On Aug. 4, 1933, the Tarpon Springs Leader reported that the Moon Lake lodge was formally opened “last Friday night.” D. B. McKay, former mayor of Tampa, acted as toastmaster. According to the article, “There is still much work to be done in beautifying the grounds and completing the remaining cabins. Although there are now about seven cabins complete and in the course of construction Haley plans to have 50 two- and three-room cabins in the development.”

The Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch began operation in 1937.

A photograph in the Dade City Banner of Apr. 23, 1937, has this caption: “The new rustic auditorium at Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch, New Port Richey, is 260 feet long, 70 (?) feet wide, with two wings, one a porte cochere 30 by 40 feet, another 40 by 80 feet. It has four large fireplaces with stone chimneys, is built in heavy, rustic cypress, and a feature is the promenade decks extending from the loggia to the immense tea garden, bordering Moon Lake. Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch, with its 14,000 acre estate, the state’s biggest herd of deer, wild turkeys, African partridges, ring neck pheasants, Kentucky thoroughbred riding horses, training grounds, 35,000 roses in full bloom, fishing, boating, millions of flowers and 200 acres of lighted natural beauty and imported wealth of rare plants, trees and shrubs is one of the big attractions of Florida.”

The WPA Writer’s Project described the facility as follows: “A private game preserve of 7,000 acres enclosed with a wire fence. The tract has been stocked with wild turkeys, deer, otter, beaver, and numerous game birds. Trails wind through the woods and along the shores of Moon Lake; the gardens are planted with azaleas and roses. Various buildings and cottages have been erected for the accommodation of visitors.”

On July 23, 1938, members of the Florida House of Representatives held an informal caucus at the new Moon Lake Gardens for the purpose of choosing a speaker for the 1939 session.

Ed Haley died on May 19, 1949, at Asheville, N. C. He was apparently living in New Port Richey at the time but was a frequent visitor to Asheville. He is bured at Indian Springs, Georgia.

Robert L. Sumner of Dade City purchased Moon Lake Gardens in March 1951 from James W. and Dorothy Schluter of St. Petersburg.

In August 1954, Sumner sold the property to Alexander T. Spare of Chicago.

On Sept. 22, 1996, the lodge at the Moon Lake Gardens and Dude Ranch, which had been empty in recent years, was destroyed by an early-morning fire set by an arsonist.

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