When I was a kid in Slope County, North Dakota, the rattlesnakes on our place were abundant. The snakes slithered their way from the den on the rocky hills surrounding our place to Deep Creek, back and forth, on a route that frequently took them through our yard. My late mother could kill rattlesnakes with the best of them. Mother kept a hoe in the trunk of her car and on the ready near the doors of the farmhouse. I have many memories of her slicing rattlesnakes into bits. I also watched her sister, Junette, kill a few rattlers with particular fury.
My father and his brother, who was visiting from Mississippi sometime in the early 1950s, got the bright idea of catching rattlesnakes, dumping them into gunny snakes, putting them into the car, and driving to Reptile Gardens in the Black Hills to sell them for extra cash. My uncle and my mother told many true stories about the racket those snakes would make in the car.
My mother was terrified that her children and grandchildren would be bitten by the rattlesnakes as we roamed about the Slope County place. We certainly encountered many, but by some miracle, none of us were bitten. Mother also kept geese for a time, because she knew that the geese would fight off the snakes. Once, Mother looked out to see her grandson on the swing in the yard and below him was a snake. She went out there and scooped him up and all was well. My mother was a nurse at the Bowman Hospital and one fall a man was brought in who had reached into his combine to clear out a clog and been bitten by a rattler. He almost lost his arm.
When we baled hay, my father and a farmhand would dump the loose hay into the trailer where his kids waited to stomp the hay down and we would watch with a weather eye because now and then the tines of the farmhand would pick up a rattler that my father wouldn’t see. We bailed out a time or two as the rattler came down with the hay.
My brother, Thomas, would go up on the hill directly to the south of the place, which we called The Little White Hill, where there was a den. He would hold a pipe of some kind at the opening of the den and the sound of the rattlers would come right up to where we stood. Or rather ― jumped out of our skin. I also remember many times when rattlers were encountered on Bullion Butte, including at the spring on the south slope.
I’ve roamed the Badlands countless hours, and have many times encountered rattlers. But I know how to be watchful. Once, late in the fall in the Killdeer Mountains, there was an enormous rattler out in the sun. Once, I saved my husband from a bite on the Petrified Forest Trail in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Once, when I was a summer camp counselor at Badlands Lutheran Bible Camp, on a hike in the buttes, there was a little boy sitting on the sandstone rocks, dangling his feet. I looked over and saw a rattler just under his feet and I scooped him up and moved him away to safety.
A few years ago, my two sisters and I were hiking in the Badlands and came upon a rattler. One of us screamed, one jumped, and the other fell down on the trail. The next day when we hiked up Bullion Butte, my younger sister stayed closely behind me.
Unlike my mother, I have never killed a rattler. But I do always carry a walking stick, and I do watch ahead on the trail, and I do take care where I put my hands and I do listen.
But today, the best thing I read was about rattlers. In The Hillsboro Banner, July 3, 1925:
Rattlers cause terror
“The last of three rattlesnakes that escaped from a circus at Courtney was killed last week by L.O. Larson and Louis Randolph. It marked the end of a reign of terror which had gripped the town for nearly a week. One snake was found dead the day following the reptile’s escape and another was found dying.”