Ron St. Clair, right, helped friends hold a timber rattlesnake for a photo in the early 1970s. (Courtesy of the Christian County Headliner News/Ron St. Clair)
CHADWICK – It’s been decades since Ron St. Clair helped two friends wrangle a thrashing timber rattlesnake, but he still has a yellowed newspaper clipping to prove the experience. “I was picking it up, and it started shaking like just a fish,” he says of the snake. “And it was all I could do to hold it.”
But hold it he had to: If he let it go, the poisonous reptile, scared and perturbed, might bite. Or it might slither away flash-like, and lunge at someone else. “I was pretty nervous about that, because I knew what the head of that snake could do,” he says.
Thanks to his homemade snake catcher, he was able to keep the rattler under control, and the photographer snapped a shot. The photo wasn’t to prove that the circus was in town: Instead, it was to promote one of Chadwick’s annual snake hunts, which for years helped the small town proclaim itself “Copperhead Capital of the World.”
The earliest encounters
The Chadwick snake hunts most recall began in the 1960s. However, those weren’t the first in the area.
In 1894, the Springfield Democrat recounted Professor Chides, who opened a snake farm as a tourist attraction in Chadwick. The newspaper article noted, among other things, that the snakes were supposed to “swallow live rabbits and full grown hens” and appear to Chides’ bagpipe playing.
However, the snakes really didn’t behave as they were supposed to.
“As a rule the reptilian denizens of the Bull Creek hills have not yielded very passively to the notes of the charmer’s gaily decorated bagpipe,” the newspaper noted. “Prof. Childs pipes with a great deal of energy and persistence, but most of the old rattlesnakes and blue racers of the canons refuse to crawl into ‘the farm’ and twine themselves fondly around the neck of the musician’s partner in the business, Mrs. Chides.”
To add insult to injury, many Ozarkers didn’t believe as they were supposed to, either. The newspaper continued:
“Rattlesnake oil may be a sovereign cure for many of the hitherto fatal maladies that have afflicted the race, as the Chadwick oracle maintains, but the pioneers of southwest Missouri don’t know this occult fact, and in their ignorance of the value of the dreadful reptile they organized hunting parties on wet days and Saturday afternoons and slew many of Prof. Chides favorites.”
Pine Ridge appearance
In 1965, hundreds of snakes were killed during a revival at Pine Ridge Church near Chadwick. (Courtesy of the Springfield News-Leader)
Even though the “fake snake farm,” as the newspaper called it, didn’t seem to work out as its owners hoped, it didn’t negate the fact that the hills around Chadwick were filled with snakes. However, the creatures weren’t reported to show up en masse until 1965, when nearby Pine Ridge Church held a summer revival.
That year, something strange happened.
“It started Friday night,” said Roscoe DeWitt to a Springfield Leader & Press reporter in July 1965. “My son-in-law, Alva Walker, is holding a revival. The git-tars was playin’ in the church and somebody outside saw a copperhead. Then another, and another.
“Every night since then, the same thing happens. The women and kids carry on in the church and outside the men shoot snakes. It sounds like a war.”
Pine Ridge Church as it appears in August 2017.
Just what called the snakes to the church wasn’t officially determined, but it probably wasn’t God.
One of the most popular theories centered around vibrations from the music, which were said to make the critters come slithering in. At the time, a Department of Conservation agent also tied the high number of snakes to the year’s wet weather.
In 2002, local man Larry Burkhart told a Springfield News-Leader columnist that they likely came around because of a hollow tree that was cut down right before the revival. “The tree might’ve been over a cave where they hibernated,” he said back then.
Regardless of the reason, in around 11 days of revival, the newspaper noted that 149 copperheads bit the dust.
That reduction in snakes had an inverse effect on those turning out for the revival.
“Everybody got involved,” recalls Marie Day, a lifelong local resident and historian who notes people turned the novelty into an activity. “‘Let’s go down to the church, see how many snakes come up tonight. Forget the revival — let’s count the snakes!'”
One snake-hunter and church-goer noted in the Springfield Daily News that attendance at the services grew from 25 to 30 “to where we can’t hardly seat the people or park their cars.”
“There were people from everywhere there last night,” he noted. “One man from Arkansas said if we caught them alive instead of killing them, he could have sold them for enough to have built us two churches.”
Starting the snake hunts
Note the disclaimer at the bottom: “Not responsible for snakebite or accident.” Miraculously, no one was bitten during the hunts. (Courtesy of the Chadwick Museum)
Perhaps the Arkansas visitor’s comments got wheels turning. The next year, the first official snake hunt was held as a fundraiser for the Chadwick Cemetery Association.
“The snake hunt, which followed a barbecued chicken dinner Saturday night at Chadwick produced 25 snakes, including several copperheads, several rattlers, one cottonmouth and a water moccasin, according to Joe Hursh, Chadwick,” printed the Leader & Press in August 1966.
“We had a pretty good chicken feed, too,” Hursh told the newspaper. “We sold 250 chicken halves.”
It was a good enough turnout that Chadwick was dubbed “Copperhead Capital of the World” by the next year. The event was so unusual that it garnered attention far beyond southwest Missouri — and showed local folk’s knack for publicity.
“Joe Hursh obligingly loaded his jeep full of newsmen from Kansas City while a St. Louis reporter was directed off into the woods to hunt snakes on his own,” recorded the Daily News in August 1967. “Hursh led a convoy of news people to a house where a six-foot timber rattlesnake has been. Inside the house, a snake trap had been rigged, baited with a frog and a baby bird which he showed newsmen. He posed for photographs.”
Such articles likely propelled the hunt’s notoriety in future years.
Folks caught snakes weeks in advance, just like Hursh did. He contained his in a glass cage in front of his service station. Others were kept in cream cans, awaiting the competition. After all, bragging rights weren’t the only thing at stake: Monetary prizes were given out for winners in various categories.
Those prizes were awarded at the hunt, which was quite an event — and it wasn’t limited to folks around Chadwick. In 1967, the Leader & Press noted that “outside of Chadwick, the largest single contingent of hunters was believed to have come from Strafford in a jeep and a pickup camper. Other hunts came from Ozark, Forsyth and Springfield.”
The event included the aforementioned barbecue, and in some years, a festival-like atmosphere with entertainment and booths where trinkets were sold. In some years, there was even a pit of snakes that St. Clair recalls was lined with a tarp.
“This guy was walking around in the middle, ‘course, he had big, tall rubber boots on it, had a snake catcher and he’d catch one. He’d hold it up in front of everybody, you know. I can remember that really well. There was lots of snakes crawling around.”
A teenage St. Clair was there hunting with near most everyone else around. “I started doing it because everybody else was doing it,” he says, noting his friends and even his father participated. “Everybody done it. It was just kinda a thing to do.”
They were best found around the local roads, since the warmth of the pavement would draw the snakes. “Once you started hunting, you could spot one right off,” he says. “Then if you saw one, you’d try to get it where it wouldn’t get across the road. And you’d just try to get close to it, and put your snake catcher around it.”
Those roads were also good places to play tricks on locals. St. Clair mentions one time, armed with a long, snake-shaped piece of rubber, when he and a friend did just that.
“Me and my buddy, we threw it across the road, and I had a fishing line on it,” says St. Clair. “And we’d hide and a car’d come by and we’d start pulling it. This one lady, stopped real hard, turned the car around and went right back to town. And boy, pretty soon everybody started coming down there. She went up there and said, ‘I just saw the biggest copperhead … I’ve ever seen!’”
When folks came to see the “snake,” they likely brought their snake catchers. Those contraptions were commonplace around Chadwick: Made from PVC pipe — “the longer the better to keep the snakes away from you,” St. Clair says — locals would often thread speedometer cable through the pipe. Then they’d smash one end of the cable to create a loop to slip around snakes.
Others used more creative methods to bring back snakes, like the man St. Clair recalls carrying around a sawed-off shotgun.
“Probably kind of dangerous,” he says, looking back. “I mean, you’ve got snakes that’ll bite you, and you’ve got (pellets) that’ll bounce off of highway.
“I’m sure he was careful with it.”
Ending the hunts
Locals aren’t definite on how long the snake hunts continued, but what is known is why they stopped: The Missouri Department of Conservation told them they had to. After receiving a complaint, conservation agents visited the snake hunt in 1977 and, according to a Leader & Press article, said the snakes were being mistreated.
“But the people who make those rules are in Jefferson City,” says St. Clair. “They don’t live down here.”
Along St. Clair’s line of thinking, locals argued that abuse wasn’t the case. In the hunt’s early days, snakes were killed. But in later years, all snakes were required to be brought in alive and were removed from the area in various ways.
At one point, the snakes appeared to have been sold and milked for their venom to make antidote. One account mentions captured snakes going to Golden Rule Reptiles in Branson, and an article from a different year mentions them being released in a “remote location.” In 1972, a few snakes even went to live at the Dickerson Park Zoo.
Regardless of why they ended, they seem to have ceased by the late 1970s. No immediately available newspaper account notes a hunt past 1978.
Even though the snake hunts been gone for nearly 40 years, the tradition lives on in various ways. At the town’s annual Railroad Day, a rubber snake hunt is held for small children.
“They get so excited about getting all those snakes, and then they count them. The turtle race and snake hunt is kind of their favorite things,” says Day, who is heavily involved with the festival. “It’s part of the heritage of the town.”
Another way the hunts’ memories live on is through the snakes themselves, since a lot still live in the hills thereabouts. St. Clair pulls out his phone to show off a few recently killed around his farm in Chadwick.
“Yeah, I usually take pictures of them, and it’s probably a habit from (the snake hunts),” he says with a laugh. “Sometimes I’ll post them on Facebook, you know. Just a habit I suppose.”
Want to learn more?
The Chadwick Museum, housed in the town’s old post office, contains newspaper articles and memorabilia related to the snake hunts. It’s open by appointment. To learn more, call Day at 417-634-3734.
“And then what happened?” Springfield Leader & Press, Aug. 2, 1966
“Chadwick didn’t take snakes in stride,” Hank Billings, Springfield News-Leader, April 13, 2002
“Chadwick snake hunt set,” Springfield Leader & Press, July 25, 1977
“Copperhead count climbs to 149,” Springfield Leader & Press, July 27, 1965
“The fake snake farm,” Springfield Democrat, June 21, 1894
“Late snakes in bag, Chadwick turns to barbecue,” Larry Brown, Springfield Leader & Press, Aug. 19, 1967
“Serpent hunters come up short at annual roundup at Chadwick,” Bill Maurer, Springfield Leader & Press, July 16, 1978
“‘Snake Capital’ hard up for snakes,” Larry Brown, Springfield Daily News, Aug. 19, 1967
“Snake hunters give zoo gifts,” Springfield Leader & Press, Aug. 1, 1972
“When the snakes come marching in,” Frank Farmer, Springfield Daily News, July 20, 1965