April 1995

Sweetwater Snake Charmers

by Velo Mitrovich

The most notable thing about west Texas is the wind. Pioneer diaries talk of people being driven to madness by its blowing, blowing, blowing. It's a constant wind, tossing tumbleweeds and dust across the road, and filling the wide open spaces with the smell of sage and cattle. It rushes up in the morning, ripping the daily paper out of the locals' hands, and doesn't drop a knot in the evening, tucking the folks into bed by singing lullabies with the neighbor's trash can lids. It's the type of wind that, legend has, can drive anyone insane. At least that's how it seems in Sweetwater, Texas.

At first glance, who else but a bunch of country crazies would put on and then actually boast of having "the world's largest rattlesnake round-up?" Milking snakes? Eating snakes? Having a beauty pageant and tossing the winner in a snake pit with 300 live, rattlin' rattlesnakes? Yeah, they're all crazy. Crazy as a fox.

It's Wednesday night during the second week of March in Sweetwater. It doesn't matter what year, the rattlesnake round-up has fallen on the second week of March for 37 years. The local Junior Chamber of Commerce, Jaycees, kick-off party for the event is happening at the Nolan County Coliseum-complete with a hidden bar. The whole shindig is for Jaycees only, but Jerry Ransberger, a member, will help even a complete stranger sneak in. He will even offer out his back bedroom to stay in and be a west Texas guide for just a thanks. When asked why, he seems very puzzled by the question. He mumbles something about that's just the way we do things here in west Texas.

At the party, plates of barbecue beef and beans are devoured at crowded tables set up on the coliseum's dirt floor; Miller and Pearl are the beers of choice. Jerry, 44, walks by slapping backs of each of the hundred that are there, knowing them all. He's a generation deep in rattlesnake round-up culture. In fact, Jerry's father, Bill Ransberger, holds the dubious honor of having been bitten more than anyone else in Nolan County-41 times.

As people begin to eat and drink more, and relaxation and reflection takes over the gab, a background noise begins to get obvious, sounding like 100 or more people frying bacon. There's an odd odor though, that's definitely not bacon, it's rattlesnakes. In the coliseum, rattlesnakes are already being placed in one of the five, large hexagonal pits above-ground. Soon, they'll number in the thousands.

The "official" history of the round-up starts back in 1959. Supposedly at the insistence of local ranchers who claimed the rattlesnake population was out of control and the rattlers were killing or injuring their cattle and sheep, the city decided to have a round-up. That first round-up brought in 3,128 pounds of Western Diamondback rattlesnakes (the average 3 to 4 foot snake weights around 1 to 2 pounds). Taken over by the Jaycees the next year, the last 37 years have seen over 286,100 pounds of snake brought in. But over a couple of beers, talking to Ken Becker, executive vice president of the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce, one soon realizes that snakes are not what they're trying to catch anymore-if they ever were.

According to Becker, this year's round-up will bring over 30,000 tourists to this small town of 19,000 and at least $1.5 million. In a rural county, in a state without a state income tax, most good things in Sweetwater, from the Sunshine Inn, a work center for retarded adults, to park playground equipment, to the Thanksgiving Day Feed, all depend on the Jaycees' rattlesnake money.

Tia Smith is 10 years old. Her favorite class is P.E., she hates math and she likes wearing black jeans. She lives in Sweetwater and dreams about someday becoming Miss Snakecharmer. "I love snakes. To be Miss Snakecharmer, it would be the most favorite thing in my entire life to do," says Tia.

Tia's not sure what part of the Miss Snakecharmer privileges and honors she would like best. The winner of the beauty pageant gets to sing in a pit with about 100 live rattlesnakes, milks the venom out of a live rattler, and then gets to skin and gut dead rattlers for a couple of hours in the skinning pit.

It's Thursday night, the first official night of the round-up, and the Sweetwater Municipal Auditorium (where Jerry and everyone else in town tells you Elvis Presley sang once) is packed with enough people standing on the side aisles to give a fire marshall a fit. Running late, country-rock starts blasting and the stage curtain goes. The backdrop is a desert scene flanked with two electric lit saguaro cactus. Dressed in cowboy duster coats and jeans, 12 teenage girls are on stage, each hiding their face with a cowboy hat. One girl lowers her hat, the crowd goes wild, and she walks towards the center stage microphone.

"Howdy y'all and welcome to the Sweetwater Jaycee Miss Snakecharmer Scholarship Pageant and the world's largest rattlesnake round-up. My name is Laren Barnes and I'm contestant number one."

For the next three hours, the 12 will model casual wear, display a talent-most will sing, two will read poetry they wrote, and two will play the piano. The highlight for the crowd seems to be the two evening gown displays, some of which have set back their parents $400 per dress to rent, $800 to a $1000 spent to chase after a crown and a $1,200 scholarship. But this is Texas.

For the Sweetwater boys, if you make the football team, your number goes on a large, red wooden cut-out on your lawn. For girls, they can aspire to become school cheerleaders or enter the Miss Snakecharmer pageant.

An unknown wins. Joanna Cornutt from the nearby town of Highland. (1995 graduating class will be 15 people).

On Saturday, Joanna, wearing her Miss Snakecharmer tiara and a set of Rattlers Brand chaps, gets into a snake pit with close to 300 rattlers and sings a sad song-a song out of place with her smile. From the bleachers, Tia looks on enviously.

"At school my friends, they don't really know how much I do love snakes," she says. "I want to handle snakes now but mom says my hands are too small." But then her face brightens. "You know," she says, "the round-up is much better than Christmas, don't you think?"

A group of 20 weekend-warrior snake hunters leave the coliseum, driving their cars and trucks due south, they pass the huge gypsum concrete factory, and kicking up a ton of white dust on assorted dirt roads, they arrive.

Gathering around Wayne Wilson, who's heading this hunt, Wayne speaks. "This land we're on belongs to that man over there," he points at with his chin, "and I want you to show it some respect. Don't be leaving no beer cans out here and as dry as everything is, you sure as hell don't be smoking. Now we're not going on no Easter egg hunt. These snakes are mean and they're ready to bite. Now spread out and let's find some snakes."

Back at the coliseum most talked how they were going to bag a "mess" of rattlers, enough to sell to the commercial snake buyers back at the coliseum and pay for this whole trip. But for some reason their cars and cold beer seem to be having a magnetic effect on them, preventing them from leaving the site. Peter Saccoccio, a plumber from east Texas looks at the scene and shakes his head. He's a big man, about 6 foot 4, with most of his 250 plus pounds centered around his butt. He grabs his 14-year-old son and heads into the sage brush.

"I came here for snakes. That's all. I ain't messin' around," he says.

Most years at this time, the rattlers are still hibernating in their dens, coiled into balls of 50 or more snakes for warmth. The secret in catching them, Wayne says, is in finding their dens, spraying gasoline in them, and when the fumes drive the snakes out, grab them and bag them. But this year, winter never came and the snakes didn't den.

Working their way along a gully, Peter and his son drop down to their knees and put their faces directly against likely holes, squinting inside. Wayne, about 10 feet back, wonders what they'll do if a rattler decides to come out at the same time. Finally, Peter thinks he sees something.

Peter starts pumping the gas can to build up pressure. His son at the other end of the 8-foot hose inserts it into the opening. The son waits. Nothing happens. Anthony takes the hose and looks into it. At the other end, looking the other way, his father turns the release valve. A gush of gas hits Anthony in the face. Wayne rushes over, muttering "stupid yahoos" under his breath. About 15 minutes later with clear eyes, Peter and son begin to hunt again. Anthony sticks his bare hand under a bush and grabs something. He screams, jerking his hand out, clutching it. In a panic, Wayne runs over but then turns and spits in disgust. Anthony's hand is covered with cactus quills.

By Friday morning, the coliseum has been a mesh of scents from fried rattlesnake and garlic and onions from the "Ultimate Salsa Machine" demo, to candy apples and cigarettes.

In the pits, Jaycees, dressed like cowhands, give snake-handling demonstrations, snake-milking demonstrations, and answer any and all questions-"No, the snake's brain is not in its tail."

"People come here to see us get bit," says Randall Combest. "They got their video camera’s going. Hell, they just want to be the ones to capture us getting hit and going down."

While the Sweetwater Jaycees will not do what they call "stupid acts," like getting into a sleeping bag full of rattlers, they all seem concerned about getting a big crowd in. And if making it look more dangerous gets the crowds in, then they’ll do it.

Cliff Dent gets bit. Bill Ransberger runs over and using a snake bite kit he knows only too well, sucks out most of the venom. Still, it requires a trip to the hospital.

Bill says that milking, like Cliff was doing, is the most dangerous part. Hold the snake's head too tight and you'll crush it; too loose and it'll turn around and bite you.

He calls up Cliff later on that night and imparts the wisdom of being bit as many times as he as. Hanging up the phone, he talks about how his son Jerry is bar none, the best snake handler in the region and how he has never been bit. But Jerry won't handle snakes any more. Ever since his dad left the pit a few years ago, Jerry has never returned either. His mother says he's just too shy to be in by himself.

Jerry has grown up in Sweetwater. Outside of four years in the Navy, he's never really left. He now lives across the street from his parents and works six months of the year at a mental health/retardation clinic. During his free time, he helps them take care of his mother's retarded sister, Tootsie, who's in her early seventies, but has the mind of a 7-year-old.

Jerry has a collection of essays. A passage that is on a marked and well-worn page reads: "We keep things by giving them to others. The dead carry in their clenched hands only which they have given away and the living carry only the love in their hearts which they have bestowed on others."

As I leave his home that had been my home for a week, Jerry says, "Mi casa es su casa." He repeats himself. "Mi casa es su casa."


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