Monday, June 18, 2018
Features and More

Rattlesnake was king, and antivenin was near, in 1930s Tampa

TAMPA

George K. End, who was born in Wisconsin and educated in New York in the craft of journalism, became instead Florida's king of the rattlesnakes.

He loved everything about those Eastern diamondbacks, from their beauty to their danger. But more than anything, he was fond of their potential to grab headlines and add money to his bank account.

Catching them by the thousands, he sold their venom, hides, rattles and even their meat in a neighborhood he founded on the Tampa side of the Gandy Bridge in 1937. He called it Rattlesnake, Fla.

Like P.T. Barnum, the charismatic End was a natural-born promoter. In Rattlesnake, Fla., his thrilled customers included soldier boys from a nearby military base, bored sailors from the port and wide-eyed tourists. Their applause washed over him as he transferred buzzing 6-foot rattlers from a pit to the milking table.

Afterward, trembling spectators who purchased a can of creamed rattlesnake for $1.25 went home with a prized membership card to the "Subtle Society of Snake Snackers."

To the world outside the Deep South, rattlesnakes were a dangerous novelty like something out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. And a daredevil like End was right up there with Frank Buck or Tarzan. End's name and handsome visage showed up in Time magazine. A local celebrity, he was frequently photographed in the Tampa Tribune with his son, Richard, stalking rattlesnakes among the pines and palmettos out back. His beautiful wife, Jennie, meanwhile, was pictured stirring sausagelike snakes in enormous pans.

He had tried to be a farmer once, in Central Florida before turning to rattlesnakes in 1931. "The rattlesnakes were more prolific than the crops I planted,'' he once told a reporter. Moving his snake operation to Tampa he took possession of a two-story building to house his famous "Rattlesnake Cannery and Reptilorium.''

It drew so many customers he eventually persuaded the federal government to let him open a post office. Folks all over the country soon learned to treasure the letters and mysterious packages that arrived on their frozen doorsteps bearing the coveted "Rattlesnake, FLA" postmark.

Now it's all gone, even the post office. Not a brick or even a plaque marks George K. End's old stomping grounds on the corner of Bridge Street and Gandy Boulevard. Automobiles hurry by on their way to Starbucks and CVS and Wendy's. As far as North America's largest venomous snake is concerned, Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes are in short supply, too.

Times change. But some things never do.

Folks who do dangerous things like jumping out of airplanes or exploring underwater caves often die in bed of old age.

Others, of course, die as they chose to live.

 

 

If he were alive, End might not recognize a 21st century Florida where strip malls and housing developments are more plentiful than reptile-friendly woods.

In his lifetime, Florida was a much snakier place — even in urban counties such as Hillsborough. He and a small army of snake hunters found them almost everywhere, especially in the pine-infested western section of town.

Across the bay in Pinellas, rattlesnakes were considered such a pest, such an impediment to progress and such a menace to society that somebody came up with the idea of establishing a bounty. In 1935, conscientious citizens began shooting, clubbing and decapitating rattlers for $2 apiece. Nineteen months later, the county's rattlesnake population was smaller by a whopping 7,571.

Snakes have needed a press agent since Adam and Eve ate from the apple. Rattlesnakes were routinely killed on sight wherever they slithered in Florida. In Pinellas, 45 bites, including four fatalities, were recorded between 1945 and 1955. In 1967, rattlesnakes bit 16 Pinellas County residents, though no one died.

You have to be unlucky in North America to die from a snake bite, according to the University of Florida's Department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. You have a 1 in 37,000 chance of a nip and a 1 in 50 million chance of needing the services of a mortician.

Still, the bite from an Eastern diamondback rattlesnake is serious business, often producing excruciating pain that can be followed by coma and death. Most people recover completely, a few without medical help, depending on their age and health, the venom quantity and where it was injected.

 

 

In 1931, George K. End was among Florida's best-known rattlesnake experts. Today, it's Dr. Bruce Means at Florida State University. After four decades of study he can tell you where to look for them (pine and palmetto forests), what they eat (rabbits and quail) and how much they travel (miles during mating season).

"Almost nobody — nobody — is ever bitten walking randomly through the woods,'' he says. "A rattlesnake will do everything to get out of your way."

So how does a victim become a victim?

"You deliberately pick one up."

Means was last bitten in 1993 on a Florida Panhandle island. He had kayaked over to conduct a plant and animal survey. Still, he felt compelled to collect a 4-foot rattlesnake for study. He lacked his usual equipment that day, a pole with a hook at the end, so he chose a 2-foot branch to pin down the agitated snake.

A rattlesnake can strike faster than the eye can follow; Means looked down and saw a drop of blood on his right index finger. He was alone on a wilderness island, a half mile from his beached kayak.

His hand felt like it was on fire. As he began paddling, his throat, tongue and gums tingled. He worried about suffocating.

A half mile later, he tumbled out of his kayak and crawled — his legs no longer worked — to his vehicle. Hauling himself behind the wheel, he leaned on his right leg to make the foot press the gas pedal. At the nearest building about a mile away, he fell out of the truck, rolled to the office door and yelled for help.

In the hospital he received 26 vials of antivenin. He didn't go home for a month.

"I was lucky," he says."

 

 

George K. End saw Eastern diamondbacks every day in Rattlesnake. Most modern Floridians will never see one in the wild.

Only 2 percent of the South's original rattlesnake habitat is left, according to herpetologist Bruce Means. North America's other charismatic predators — bears, wolves, panthers, alligators and crocodiles — are protected by endangered species laws, but dwindling rattlesnakes can be shot, clubbed and run over, no questions asked.

"They should be protected," says Means, who petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service last year to declare the Eastern diamondback "a threatened species.''

"It might happen," Means says. "You never know. But it's going to be hard. Rattlesnakes have a public relations problem."

But not everywhere. In eastern St. Petersburg, Lorraine Margeson is a zealous guardian. She lives in a wooded area that abuts Mangrove Bay Golf Course a few miles from Weedon Island. Rattlers sometimes hide in the palmettos near her bird feeders and ambush rats that show up to harvest fallen seed.

"When I'm working in the yard," Margeson says, "I keep my eyes open."

A ferocious environmentalist, Margeson wouldn't think of killing one and has tried to persuade neighbors to adopt her "conserve rattlesnakes" philosophy. They have — all but one, anyway. He killed a rattler after it fatally bit his corgi, Audrey.

 

 

Doug Bertrand is a history buff who moved from New York to Tampa in 1958 — long after Rattlesnake disappeared. He never saw a rattlesnake, but he loved to fish from the Gandy Bridge. He's 74 now. When he retired eight years ago he moved into Freedom Village, an assisted living facility on Bridge Street.

A guy at the bait store across Gandy one day said the words "Rattlesnake, Florida.'' Hooked like a trout, Bertrand began researching. On his computer he found a few George End references. Climbing into his motorized chair — he has bad lungs and bad joints — he wheeled across town to meet an 85-year-old mechanic with a sharp memory.

"So I finally found out where George End established Rattlesnake," Bertrand says.

He could see it from his window. The site is now occupied by a building hidden behind a sign for "New Port." It's the former headquarters of a proposed development that failed during the 2007 real estate crash. Now, bulldozed fields are being reclaimed by nature and perhaps one day somebody will see a rattlesnake.

Bertrand created a "Rattlesnake, FLA" website that eventually caught the attention of other people who knew George End.

Joan Allen, who lived next door to the cannery as a child, mined her memories.

"Mr. End sold everything,'' says Allen, now 80. "Live alligators, snakes, boots, purses and hides. And he milked the snakes on Sunday."

A rattlesnake supper might seem shocking today. During the Depression, protein-starved Floridians ate whatever they could kill or catch, devouring deer, turkey, hogs, rabbits, squirrel, possums, raccoons and alligators. They ate mullet, sea turtles, turtle eggs and even the occasional manatee. Gopher tortoises are a threatened species now; then they were known as Herbert "Hoover chickens.'' In the Everglades, the now-threatened white ibis wading birds were a delicacy called "Chokoloskee chickens'' by the shotgun-bearing locals.

Rattlesnake meat, for the record, tastes nothing like poultry. It's chewier, like the tail of an alligator or the legs of a frog, but perfectly mild. Still, it's a snake.

"In Rattlesnake," Joan Allen says now, "there wasn't much to do. So it was always exciting when tourists showed up and bought cans of Mr. End's rattlesnake.

"The men tourists, they were always kind of macho at first, and would open up the cans on the spot and start eating. There'd be a lot of laughing and joking at first. But then it would dawn on them what they were eating. If you were a kid like me, it was always fun to watch them throw up in the parking lot."

 

 

World War II posed a challenge to the snake business. Alarmed that the draft would decimate his own small army of dedicated snake catchers, George K. End summoned reporters. His business was in trouble — how would he keep up with the demand?

But taking a deep breath, he confided to a journalist that "Rattlesnake will go on to bigger things and better things, in spite of hell, Hitler and high water."

And it did. Until July 27, 1944.

End was always careful — everybody knew that. But one day a hunter arrived with a $5 snake — a wriggling 6-footer, in fact. Surely, it would have lots of venom to contribute to the supply that End sold to local hospitals to treat snakebite.

We don't know what happened exactly: a moment's carelessness, perhaps.

Or possibly karma for the thousands of rattlesnakes he had killed over more than a decade.

End gazed with alarm at his right hand. Blood dripped from the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. For the only time in his life, he was snakebit.

It's considered more dangerous than helpful today, but back then he treated himself the traditional way. He sliced an "X" across each puncture wound with a sharp knife and began sucking and spitting.

He must have felt the hot poker pain, and perhaps a flutter of mortality. In his office he located a bottle of antivenin and administered it. But it was old and stale. He felt worse by the minute.

The nearest hospital was nearly 8 miles away.

The nurses removed his boots and put him to bed. The doctors administered some fresh antivenin.

Eight hours later he took his last breath.

The snake emporium soon went out of business.

A few years later, the post office closed.

Afternoon traffic hurries past the old site in the 21st century. Tall grass waves in the breeze.

Special thanks to Andrew Huse and University of South Florida's Special Collections.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8727.

Comments
Restaurant review: Chile Verde is serving up very solid tacos in an unlikely spot

Restaurant review: Chile Verde is serving up very solid tacos in an unlikely spot

ST. PETERSBURGThere are a lot of decommissioned gas stations across the country. Some have been reinvented, cleverly made over as upscale restaurants. There’s Big Star in Chicago, Elaia & Olio in St. Louis, Red Truck Bakery in Warrenton, Va., even Bi...
Updated: 4 hours ago
Taste test: Chocolate chip cookies

Taste test: Chocolate chip cookies

When we started seeing ads for Nestle Toll House cookies already baked and prepackaged, I knew it was time for our tasters to get involved. They are cookie lovers, and one even has his own cookiemaking business. We found the Nestle brand and had hope...
Published: 06/18/18
Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — In his vision for this weekend, Connor Coyle is standing in the ring at the Coliseum, and the referee is raising his gloved fist.He’s got a National Boxing Association middleweight championship belt around his waist, the first of sev...
Published: 06/15/18
With over 40 years between the birth of my two daughters, I am two different fathers

With over 40 years between the birth of my two daughters, I am two different fathers

Still shaken by Bobby Kennedy’s assassination six days earlier, I sat in the hospital waiting room mindlessly thumbing through a May 1968 Rolling Stone while my wife, Fran, gave birth to our daughter Elle. As was customary, when everyone had been fre...
Published: 06/15/18
Puerto Vallarta is a dreamy Mexican getaway within reach

Puerto Vallarta is a dreamy Mexican getaway within reach

LOREN ELLIOTT • Times CorrespondentPUERTO VALLARTA, MEXICOThe third-floor balcony attached to our rented apartment served as a peaceful refuge above Puerto Vallarta’s bustling central district streets. Below us, taxis honked, people crowded bus ...
Published: 06/15/18
How Tampa's Cole and Marmalade got famous, beat cancer and helped save more cats

How Tampa's Cole and Marmalade got famous, beat cancer and helped save more cats

Here's how to make your cat famous on the internet, according to the owners of some famous felines.
Published: 06/15/18
Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

Irish boxer brings his dream to St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG — In his vision for this weekend, Connor Coyle is standing in the ring at the Coliseum, and the referee is raising his gloved fist.He’s got a National Boxing Association middleweight championship belt around his waist, the first of sev...
Published: 06/14/18
Updated: 06/16/18
High-tech nighttime lagoon show coming to Universal Orlando this summer

High-tech nighttime lagoon show coming to Universal Orlando this summer

A gliding, wraith-like figure of a Dementor from the Harry Potter films enters Central Park, and the exteriors of the surrounding buildings immediately are covered in a layer of ice, a sign of their power to drain happiness out of the air around them...
Published: 06/14/18
Why this ballet dancer is skipping college in favor of her own St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory

Why this ballet dancer is skipping college in favor of her own St. Petersburg Ballet Conservatory

GULFPORT — Brianna Melton is as serious a ballet student as they come.By her junior year at St. Petersburg High’s International Baccalaureate program, she had already spent four summers training with ballet companies across the country and had narrow...
Published: 06/14/18
Frito and Cheeto: How rescued seahorses found webcam fame

Frito and Cheeto: How rescued seahorses found webcam fame

Smile for the camera, Frito. The world is watching, and you have a story to tell. The tiny seahorse came to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on Sunday with fishing line wrapped around her neck. By Wednesday, she became the CMA’s newest internet ...
Published: 06/13/18
Updated: 06/14/18