Days Gone By: Interesting happenings in 1890s | Lifestyles
James Gooch and his friend Cox seeing a bull snake crawling on the L. Smoot farm normally wouldn’t have been news. But they reported this snake was crawling on the snow on Jan. 20, 1897. Now, that was news.
The information on the winter snake sighting was recorded on the inside cover of the Hill Bros. & Co. Telegraphic Cipher book. It was noted the two men “kild” the snake. The next day the luckless reptile’s body was delivered to the grain elevator in Fithian, Illinois, where it was a prize exhibit for the public. That was also where the book was that recorded the event for posterity. It was dutifully noted the deceased snake was 40 inches long.
An active winter snake would have been quite a draw for the business, which not only handled grain but also sold merchandise. Even the skeptics would have dropped by to take a look at the bull snake as it enjoyed its brief moment of fame. They might have even bought an item or two as a thank you to the proprietor for providing a bit of winter excitement. But they probably didn’t buy the story of a bull snake crawling around in the snow.
It would have been interesting to have heard the snake debate that undoubtedly occurred among the regulars who roosted in the general store up the street from the elevator. The oracle of the group would have been given the floor after the junior members of the group had their say. He was usually older, with more of life’s experience under his suspenders. A general store oracle was often a well read person, and a thinker. An individual who would consider what to say before replying to a question, or offering an opinion.
The oracle might have asked if any of the regulars had ever seen a snow snake. This would, in all likelihood, have elicited a chorus of negative answers from the stalwarts gathered around the store’s stove. Of course not, he might have said after they had all answered, knowing snakes became immobile in the winter when their temperature drops drastically. Then there was the question of who saw the snake when it was alive, Well, that was just Cox and Gooch and they said they “kild” it in the snow.
There were probably some long faces as the regulars began to realize the winter snake might have originated from some place other than the snow. That realization was probably almost enough to make anyone who had enthusiastically spread the word about the winter snake to put down a free pickle if they were eating one. Pickles were provided by storekeepers from a communal pickle jar in many country stores..
The booklet the snake story was recorded in was interesting. Hill Bros. were merchants in Cincinnati, Ohio, dealing in flour, grain, and hay. The cipher book allowed the company and customers to use code when sending a telegram. For instance, if one railroad car of number one corn was to be shipped, the code would be NABOB for one car and BAMBOO if the corn was graded number one. If the shipment would be made in the next thirty days, the word ELEPHANT signified that. There are hundreds of cipher words in the small red booklet. If the merchant thought the grain markets were going to decline, the word FILTHY was used. The word FABLE signified a market that might go up. FERMENT predicted an inactive period for prices.
All very interesting, but not as astounding as the winter snake. Was there a bull snake crawling in the snow on the Smoot farm in January of 1897? It has been written there was. Right in the front of the Hill Bros. cipher book. It is not recorded if Cox and Gooch gave a wink and a nod to the grain buyer when they left the snake with him. Odds are they were smiling when they walked out the door.