For the longest time, “round-up time in Texas” meant “headin’ up and movin’ out” cattle. Cowboys atop horses undertook the massive undertaking.
They paid special heed to the “young ‘uns,” “little dogies,” if the song lyrics are to be trusted. (NOT doggies, “dogies,” long “o.”)
Whoops, hollers and thundering hooves were sounds of excitement, all of this happening “when the bloom was on the sage,” harmonized by the Sons of the Pioneers.
In Sweetwater, Texas, however, when “round-up” is mentioned, locals think of their community’s world-renowned extravaganza, begun 56 years ago by the Sweetwater Jaycees.
They dreamed of a community-wide event to control the ever-growing numbers of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes that were plaguing farmers and ranchers. That was in 1959.
None of them could have envisioned the enormity of an annual event that has become the world’s largest rattlesnake round-up. Visitors from around the world attend, sometimes upwards of 30,000. Little did the organizers realize that they had birthed an idea that had teeth — uh, fangs — in it.
They were at it again March 7-9, doing “all things rattlesnake,” and much, much more, including the 54th annual run of the Sweetwater Rifle and Pistol Club’s Gun, Knife and Coin Show.
Motel and restaurant operators were in “chop-licking” mode. I’ve been to many county fairs and a passel of hog-callings, but nothing has come close to the big “do’ins” in Sweetwater. For the three big days, the city’s population doubles — and sometimes triples.
Everyone pitches in, and folks at the Chamber of Commerce get ready for phone calls from the curious. Some callers from Eastern climes — folks who don’t know a “round-up” from a “square-down” — really can’t wrap their minds around all the goings-on at the round-up. Consider these random queries: “Do I need to get vaccinated before I come? When they milk the rattlesnakes, do they use little buckets? Do I need to wear protective clothing? Do they parade the snakes around on little leashes?” The CofC staffers sometimes giggle between calls.
It’s a profit-making deal, and all proceeds are shared with 20 clubs, agencies and other Nolan County causes.
There were all kinds of activities related to rattlesnakes — handling, milking and educating, with emphasis, of course, on safety, particularly on the guided snake hunt. All tolled, they’ve “rounded-up” almost a third of a million pounds of snakes, including one round-up of snakes weighing a total of about 18,000 pounds in 1982.
The “fun for all ages” docket featured wide-ranging events and activities to pique many interests, including food, rides and crafts. On the grub menu were such exotic items as rattlesnake with ham gravy, as well as rattlesnake chili.
Miss Snake Charmer reigned. A midway lit up the sky.
Each year, something new is added. A 5K race was held a while back, but it didn’t really catch on.
A newspaper “goof” may have led to the race’s demise.
Abilene Reporter-News, the closest regional newspaper, always carries accounts of the round-up.
A writer, intent on amusing his buddies at the newspaper, added a sentence to the news release announcing the 5K race. “The route will be strewn with live, ‘unmilked’ rattlesnakes to make the race more interesting,” he wrote, intending to remove the sentence before publication.
However, he forgot.
A city guy bragged about participating in the round-up annually for many years. A friend asked how many rattlesnakes he’s rounded up so far. “None,” the participant answered cheerfully, “when you’re looking for rattlesnakes, none is plenty!”
No matter. At this happening, one can be “up close” or “far from” the reptiles at the coliseum. The whole deal is a much-magnified coming together of people who discover each year how much fun it is to be with others. Memories are made for the rest of the year — and beyond — of this West Texas community where, for 72 hours, there’s a “whole lot of hissing going on.”
For more rattlesnake round-up information, contact the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce. No matter your question, they’ll try not to laugh. And if you can’t find a motel room, camp out. You might be able to find a shade beneath one of those giant wind generators not far from town.
Dr. Newbury is a speaker in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Speaking inquiries/comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Phone: 817-447-3872. Website: www.speakerdoc.com. Twitter: @donnewbury