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Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Rattlesnakes

The former owners warned us that there were rattlers around and mentioned finding one at the garage door drinking from the dog's dish.

By Lois Barton

Posted on Jun 6, 2003

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Western Rattler, courtesy of the Wild, voice of the natural world

For a farm girl from Ohio where blacksnakes and blue racers and garter snakes were our native herpitology, it was an adventure to move onto an old farm in the coast range of western Oregon, where rattlesnakes were part of the natural landscape. I felt some trepidation about having small children running about outside. Over the years while they were growing up, we had a number of encounters with those snakes, but no real problem.

It was enlightening to read in the book One Women's West (Lois edited this book from from the writings of Martha Gay) about the rattler population a hundred years before we moved here into the same area. Martha Gay wrote as follows about the subject in her autobiography. Martha was sixteen or older at the time of these events.

"We had been on the ranch two or three years, and had located several snake dens. Father prepared some long poles with sharp hooks on them. With those picks the men and boys would go snaking on warm days early in the spring. They would hook the rattlers out from among the rocks and kill them. Some days they would kill hundreds and in this way keep them from leaving their dens and scattering over the valleys. When we saw a snake we never let it escape if we could prevent it. In this way we cleared them out considerably in a few years.

"(One) time I was after the cows when my horse jumped and nearly threw me. I heard the dreaded rattle and soon spotted a very large snake in its coil. The horse had heard it and shied from it. I rode to a pile of stones, dismounted and left my horse standing. I got as many stones as I could carry and cautiously walked back and killed that snake. Then I threw the other stones on it and got away quickly, fearing the poison in the air which is bad for the eyes or to breathe. I left it writhing. A few days later I was riding near and looked to see if it was there, and was surprised to see it had got away from the stones in its exertions.

"One day brother Frank, always into some mischief, was walking about the yard. He spotted a large old rattler and with a long stick was driving it over a large bare place in the dooryard. He called me to come out and see it. We went. He said, 'Pink is afraid of snakes, I want to see how near she will come to this one.' She walked up very near it. We were all around her and the snake's head was away from her. We were not anxious about her approaching it in this way. We had startled it, however, and it sprang around toward her and almost to her feet. I snatched her away and Frank killed the snake. Mother told him a rattlesnake was a dangerous thing to play jokes with among the children.

"Some of our neighbors collected the rattles of all the snakes they killed, showing how numerous they were. A Mr. Maloney who had a stock ranch near us had secured a string of rattles eight feet long.

"The Indians protested against the whites killing them, saying they gave us warning to keep away by rattling. They never killed them when they rattled, as that was the snakes manner of saluting. If an Indian encountered one that did not rattle, then he felt it his duty to kill that silent enemy because it meant to strike, or it would have warned him.

"We had nice strawberries and blackberries on our place and crabapples and cherries. We feared the snakes most in strawberry season. We moved gently along, picking berries, and often put our hands near them before we noticed them. Then that terrible rattle, and we would jump away and likely encounter another one, as they were seldom alone... A neighbor called for me to go strawberrying with her and I said I was afraid of snakes. 'Well,' she said, 'I think you could see a snake quick enough when you are looking for a little strawberry.'

"'Yes, but I don't want to look for snakes. They are pesky things and the bane of my existence.' I would go horseback riding after blackberries and , as they grew on tall bushes and logs, I could wear boots and pick them in some degree of safety. But strawberrying was another matter.

"Father got a band of sheep and in a few years, the snakes seemed to change their quarters. As sheep run in flocks they tramp over nearly every inch of ground in their range, and father thought they caused the snakes to go to more quiet places." (One Woman's West , pages 70–71)

Over the years since we moved to this place we've had a number of encounters with rattlers. They were run over and killed on the highway every year for a good while, but I've not seen one there for at least ten years. One of our neighbors, who lived on the south slope of Spencers Butte used to go regularly in the spring of the year up to outcroppings on the face of the butte and use his pistol to kill the snakes as they came out of their den to warm in the spring sunshine.

Here near the house we had several sightings. The former owners warned us that there were rattlers around and mentioned finding one at the garage door drinking from the dog's dish. Once when I was hoeing in the garden the scraping of the hoe disturbed a snake under the plants and it began to rattle at me, but escaped down over the bank out of sight before I could get after it. Our daughter ran barefoot down an orchard path when the grass was about full grown and ready to mow for hay. Her bare foot came down on the back of a rattler as she ran down the path, and it was so long that one end of it was hid in the grass on either side of the path. Until her foot made the impact she had subconsciously identified it as a stick lying across the path. She still has a strong aversion to snakes, even the harmless garter snakes in the garden. One evening at dusk I went to close the chickenhouse door for the night, and chanced to observe in the almost dark under trees by the door a coiled snake. At first I mistook it for a small stump at ground level--a familiar item in that landscape.

We mowed and shocked grass for hay in the fields, and one year there were seven snakes under one of the shocks which were left to dry before being brought to the barn. Another daughter told of sighting a live rattler on the road as she and a friend drove home from high school. They stopped to kill it and could only find the handle to the car jack as a weapon. She said she just beat it to death like the fat lady in the BC comic.

This daughter and her husband built their log house near us in an area that had never been much subject to human presence before. She told her two preschool sons to be aware of snakes. Her instructions were that if they saw a rattler at least three feet from where they were, to run away promptly. If they saw one closer, they were not to move, but to call her. One day three year old Jim spotted a snake almost at his feet. He stood quietly and yelled at top voice for his mother who was in the house not far away. That child's bare feet were not more than 15 inches from the coiled snake, giving his mother heart-stopping fright when she saw it. She killed the snake with a shovel, rescued the boys and commended them for following instructions. It has been perhaps ten years since we have encountered any rattlers where we live. We have assumed that they are eliminated from this vicinity. I said as much to our daughter as I was preparing this report. She told me that her son had just that day killed a small rattlesnake where they live on the west side of the butte, not more than a couple of miles away. They have two toddlers in that family. Will there be another chapter in the saga of rattlesnakes?

Copyright 2003 by Lois Barton

Writer and historian
Lois Barton
Lois Barton is an 85 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil.

Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Visit the Sunnyside of Spencer Butte Section in our new format for more of Lois' stories. See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:

Visit the Heron Rookery

Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife - The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

Books by Lois Barton

History and stories of the peoples of the Northwest.

© Copyright 2000-2004 by West By

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