SUN BAY SOUTH — A live 6-footer fetched a dollar — young men found that lucrative in 1940. It had to be; too much risk to catch rattlesnakes for sport. The Eastern diamondback, also known as Crotalus adamanteus, is the largest and most dangerous venomous snake in the United States.
Pretty tasty, too.
According to a man named George End, that is.
In 1939, the failed farmer with a get-rich dream put a South Tampa area on the map: Rattlesnake, Fla. He set up a snake pit at the foot of the Gandy Bridge. A cannery and post office soon followed to ship canned rattlesnake in "supreme sauce" and snake snacks around the globe.
Back then, diamondbacks lived roughly one per 20 acres in these parts, said Bruce Means, author of Diamonds in the Rough and considered the world authority on Eastern diamondbacks. In some areas, rattlers were as dense as one per acre. Today, they may be extinct in South Tampa, he said.
"Too many people altering the native habitat, the agriculture," Means said. "I call it homoculture: growing people."
And maybe too many rattlesnake dinners.
Most people don't remember the community where rattlesnake emerged as a delicacy, but the reptile still has a place at suppertime, especially in Texas and Colorado — as well as a steak joint not far from here.
Half a century ago the diamondback was fine dining. A 5-ounce tin went for $1.25, steep back then.
Today, at Spotos Steak Joint in Dunedin, appetizers go for $10.
"It tastes like a cross between chicken and veal," said Spotos owner Jimmy Stewart.
He had heard the history of End's cannery, but Stewart figures he has the only rattlesnake game in the area today.
He buys diamondbacks from a farm in Colorado, then hickory smokes them, minus the deadly fangs. He slices, chargrills and serves them on a pile of tobacco onions glazed with a Pan-Asian barbecue sauce.
"I've got quite an itch for wild game," Stewart says. He also serves up Burmese python, crocodile and kangaroo with a light chocolate sauce.
Outside of rattlesnake festivals and Texas, where the dish is common, Boy Scouts sample the meat during survival lessons.
Joe Tripp took a 5-foot rattlesnake on a trip with his son and Lutz Cub Scout Pack 212 last fall. He got the snake from a friend.
"We ate it caveman style — draped it over a stick over a campfire," said Tripp, who lives in North Tampa. "It tasted like chicken, but much sweeter and not worth the effort."
A rare sight now
In the 1930s, diamondbacks were plentiful in the palmettos, scrub and pine that blanketed Tampa's southern peninsula and were especially dense in MacDill Field, as it was known.
David Lueck, also known as the Trapper Guy, who catches snakes and other wildlife in the Tampa Bay area, comes across only one or two Eastern diamondbacks a year. He gets calls from around MacDill Air Force Base and several from North Tampa, he said. Often the snakes are other kinds of rattlers, smaller and less dangerous than the diamondback.
Means, the diamondback expert who was twice bitten by a rattler, says the snake has the ability to regulate the amount of venom it injects. A small amount kills a mouse. When surprised, the amount of venom can be great.
"If you have a severe bite you just can't keep enough antivenin on hand," he said.
The city of Rattlesnake no longer exists, but people still refer to the peninsula that juts into Tampa Bay, south of the Gandy Bridge, as Rattlesnake Point.
John Kearny, 68, works at an office building there and remembers driving over the bridge decades ago and seeing the snake pit. But he hasn't seen a rattler on Rattlesnake Point since the 1980s.
Originally from Wisconsin, End served in World War II and graduated from Columbia University with a journalism degree, but was unable to find a job.
He came here in 1939 with his wife, Jenny, and two sons from Arcadia, where he had tried to eke out a living farming, according to historical accounts.
"The rattlesnakes were more prolific than the crops I planted," he told the Tampa Tribune in the early 1940s. "We killed a lot of them and sometimes tanned the skins. Often I wondered how the meat would taste."
Turned out it was palatable, and End tasted opportunity. He wrote a letter to Time magazine raving about the delicate flavor. A stream of requests came in.
He built a two-story cannery and post office on Gandy Boulevard when it was a two-lane road outside the city limits. Tourists drove across the Gandy Bridge, stopped just west of West Shore Boulevard and lined up the family for a photo at Rattlesnake Cannery and Reptilorium. Canned frog legs and purses, slippers and jackets fashioned from rattler skins were sold there, alongside antivenin.
End cooked the rattlers in a pressure cooker or smoked them, then shipped them nationwide.
Joe Bollent had come to MacDill in 1940 as a new recruit and remembers going to see End's exhibit in a grass shack. End whipped a lid from a big woven basket on a table.
"There was a stuffed rattlesnake, ready to strike," said Bollent, who is now 89 and lives in Bayshore Beautiful.
George End, the venerable mayor and postmaster of Rattlesnake, met his end in 1944.
He was using a stick to take a large snake from a pen when it got free. His son witnessed the accident but couldn't save him. End died a few hours later, from a rattlesnake bite.
In 1955, the post office was renamed Interbay.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3321.