Snake tales were staples among the stories I heard during my growing-up years in the 1930s and 1940, and those tales usually fell into two broad categories: fresh snake tales and classic snake tales.
Fresh snake tales were those usually told on someone’s front porch during warm weather. Family members would gather there on Sunday afternoons to discuss topics as near as the corn growing behind the barn and as far as the war (World War II) raging in Europe. Since most of my folks lived on farms, and spent their days in fields and woods, and around barns and other outbuildings, someone would usually have a fresh snake tale to tell.
One Sunday, for example, we had gathered at the home of Grandma Janie Belle Carroll Chesnutt, 1892-1976, in Sampson’s Turkey Township and she told us of her recent snake encounter. Grandma said she went to check on her 12 baby chicks or biddies as she called them. She opened the door to her brooder house to find four biddies dead, four missing, and four huddled in a corner as if frighten half to death. She knew immediately a snake was the culprit, and it didn’t take her long to spot him. He was a big chicken snake coiled in another corner as if eyeing his next meal. He never got to digest his last meal after Grandma nearly severed his head with a hoe.
Classic snake tales were usually told during winter when snakes were in hibernation and folks would gather around a wood stove to keep warm. With no fresh snake tales to tell at that time of year, a good story teller could think of tales from the past worth telling again.
Such a story teller was my father-in-law, Macon Swinson, 1910-1980, of northern Duplin County. One of Mr. Swinson’s classics was about two friends of his who liked to fish at night in Goshen Swamp. Their method of night fishing is unfamiliar to me. But, supposedly, they put sand into the bottom of a boat, built a fire on the sand, and paddled the boat into the run of Goshen. Attracted by the light, fish would swim to the surface, enabling the fishermen to flip them into the boat.
On this particular night the fishermen spotted a snake swimming along side the boat as if he, too, was attracted by the light. Afraid the snake would scare away the fish, the fisherman in the front of the boat rose to his feet, drew back his paddle, and waited to get a good swing at the snake. About that time the second fisherman, sitting in the back of the boat, felt something brush against his thigh. He looked down to see a cottonmouth moccasin sliding across his lap as if he, too, had seen the light. That fisherman jumped to his feet. The boat overturned, quenching the fire, and dumping the men in snake-infested water up to their neck. Mr. Swinson always ended the story with a chuckle as he said, “That was the last time they ever went fishing at night in Goshen Swamp.”
Some of the strangest snake tales were preceded by a disclaimer from the story teller that went something like this, “I’ve heard…” or “I’ve been told…” He or she would then tell about a about a type of snake that no one present had ever seen, but sounded sufficiently odd to talk about.
An example of this oddity was the hoop snake. He would grab his tail with his teeth, form his body into a hoop, and go rolling across the countryside at an amazing speed. Another example was the coach-whip, so named because his tail was braided like the coach-whips of old to give horses an added sting. Coach-whips would supposedly leap on a person, coil around their arms like a boa constrictor, and used their braided tail to whip their bottom end. Then there was the milk snake. He would crawl under a cow’s udder at night and suck her dry. I remember one story teller saying,” If you go out in the morning to milk the cow, and the cow has no milk, a milk snake has beat you to it.”
Years later I realized these snake oddities were part of American folklore. Hoop snakes, coach-whip snakes and milk snakes were real snakes. Their habits, such as I heard, were imaginary.
While snake tales could be entertaining, I’m convinced that a purpose of them was to teach farm children that snakes were mean, dangerous and evil, and they had been since the serpent tricked Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Thus, ridding the world of these evil creatures was viewed as doing the Lord’s work. When I heard grown-ups say, “He’s mean as a snake, he’s crooked as a snake or he’s a snake in the grass,” I could only conclude they were talking about a really bad person.
I was allowed to play with toad frogs, June bugs, baby rabbits and a wide assortment other critters, but I was told never to touch a snake. If I saw one, I was to yell for an adult and let him or her come and do the Lord’s work. My teacher once told my class that non-poisonous snakes wouldn’t hurt people. When I told an aunt what the teacher had said, she retorted, “but they will make you hurt yourself.” Thus, the message was clear: the only good snake is a dead snake.
Even the gender assigned to snakes sent a message. Admittedly, it is not easy to tell a girl snake from a boy snake. Thus, people always assumed they were males and referred to them as “he,” and never as “she” or “it.” As a farm boy I learned at an early age that bulls and boars were more difficult to deal with — meaner some people would say — than cows and sows. It was a rooster, not a hen, that attacked me and drew blood from my bare legs. And I know my Daddy, Marshall Byrd, 1913-1998, preferred female mules (mares) for plowing. He owned only one male mule or “horse-mule” as he called him. Exasperated by the stubborn rascal, I once heard Daddy say in language that shocked Mama, Virginia Chesnutt Byrd, 1915-2003, that he would never buy another one.
One of my most vivid personal encounters with a snake occurred when I was 10. That was in 1942 while I was spending time with Grandma Mary Etta Precythe Byrd, 1871-1943, on her farm near Faison. Grandma Byrd had many chickens and I liked it when she handed me a basket and told me to gather the eggs. While gathering eggs one bright day, I ran into a hen house with a nest that always had several eggs. Before my eyes could adjust to the indoor light, I started reaching for the eggs when I realized I was about to grab a snake instead. That sent me running for Grandma’s house, yelling “snake, snake, snake.” Grandma met me at the back door, asking “where, where, where?” When I told her the big hen house, she called to Mr. Percy Sampson, who was working in a nearby field, and asked him to come and kill a snake for her. Mr. Sampson came at a gallop, grabbed a hoe, and asked me to show him the snake. I went as far as the hen house door and pointed. With the hoe held high, Mr. Sampson eased in the direction indicated. Then I saw him come down with a mighty chop. After a few more chops, Mr. Sampson emerged from the hen house with a big chicken snake dangling from the hoe.
As soon as Mr. Sampson stepped outside the hen house, Grandma rushed in with me at her heels to see what damage the snake had done. There were no hen eggs left in the nest and that didn’t surprise Grandma. Chicken snakes didn’t get their name for nothing. What puzzled Grandma was the fact that her nest egg was gone, too, for it was a glass doorknob, made of white porcelain, from which the metal hardware had been removed.
Back outside, Grandma studied the snake’s carcass and noticed a big lump in his belly. She tapped the lump a couple of times with the back of the hoe and said, “There’s my doorknob.” About this time Mr. Sampson said he needed to get back to work. I later wondered if he thought he was about to be asked to perform an autopsy on a snake.
As Mr. Sampson hurried away, Grandma told me to drag the snake close to the woodpile. She gathered kindling, started a fire, and added sticks of stove-wood. The two of us then draped Mr. Snake on top of the wood. When the cremation was over, Grandma raked her doorknob from the ashes, and said to me, “I told you so.” The next morning Grandma built a new hen nest with fresh hay, wiped the smut from her door knob and returned it to service.
Grandma was a tough old Byrd. She grew up in the Suttontown area of Sampson County, a daughter of Joseph and Nancy Sutton Precise (later spelled Precythe). At the age of 16 she became the wife of a 23-year-old farmer from the neighborhood, Thomas Jefferson (Tom) Byrd, 1864-1940, for whom I am named. At the age of 17, Grandma presented Grandpa with a set of twins. Nine more babies followed, the last of which was my father.
Grandma died about six months after the snake cremation. Thus, she really didn’t have time to turn the story of that episode into a classic snake tale. Then, again, I don’t know that Grandma would have tried. Cremating a snake to her was probably just another day on the farm. Hardly worth talking about.