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After 50 years, San Antonio's Rattlesnake Festival is finished

SAN ANTONIO— It was a good, long run — 50 years. But times change. People move on. Traditions fall by the wayside.

So it goes with San Antonio's annual Rattlesnake Festival and Run.

Last week, the Rotary Club of San Antonio announced it had decided to discontinue the festival, a mainstay since 1967. That's when Jaycee Club members Gerald McLeod and Willie Post came up with the idea of rounding up rattlesnakes and gopher tortoises as a way to entertain, educate and raise a little money for local causes.

It wasn't an easy decision to give up on the festival, said chairwoman and former Rotary president Betty Burke. But the advent of competing events has made it difficult to procure enough sponsors and volunteers to continue.

"It's kind of a bittersweet thing for us — a difficult moment for some of us," Burke said. "Several of us are lifelong residents, born and raised here. But we are a small club. We have about 15 members. It's just more than we could do.

"We really pulled it off for the 50th, though," she said, recalling the event's anniversary last October, which, along with snakes and alligators, featured the music of local boys Jesse and Noah Bellamy. "We did it up big."

Years ago, locals would ferret out snakes that were often caught burrowing in gopher tortoise holes, said John Greif, a former City Commission member and former treasurer of Rattlesnake and Gopher Enthusiasts, a now-defunct group that took over the event in the late 1970s.

The snakes would be brought by the park on the Thursday night leading up to the festival to be measured and weighed before being turned over to a professional snake handler, Greif recalled. The lure: a pair of snake boots for whoever brought in the heaviest snake.

"As time went on, we decided not to collect rattlesnakes. We just paid the snake handler to bring their own snakes," Greif said, adding that the protected species status of the gopher tortoise halted the rounding up of those, as well. That's when event publicist Eddie Herrmann and Ken Graham decided to design and build mechanical gopher tortoises that were controlled by ropes.

Various herpetologists and snake handlers — among them Art Bass, Ross Allen and Dennie Sebolt — came to bestow knowledge about the oft-feared reptiles. Organizers came and went, with the festival passing from the Jaycees to the enthusiasts group to a handful of east Pasco Rotary groups before the San Antonio Rotary Club took the helm three years ago.

Barbecue chicken dinners cooked up on grills in the park evolved into food trucks. There were arts and crafts vendors, car and truck shows and a beauty pageant. In an effort to change it up from time to time, organizers brought in hot-air balloons, flame dancers, live music and rock-climbing walls. An integral part was the Rattle Snake Run, where people from near and far could race over San Antonio's rolling hills. In 2016, the race brought in about 400 runners, Burke noted.

The family-friendly feel was constant.

"I grew up with the festival," said Greif's wife, Amy, who as a teen worked in the soft drinks booth. As the daughter of Eddie Herrmann, she knew well the importance of publicizing the Rattlesnake Festival, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the event's logo while vacationing with her family out of state.

"It was a true family-friendly, educational opportunity," she said. "We had people coming in from all over Florida. From other states."

At the core of it was an effort to help local youth.

"This was all started to help the kids play ball or have swimming lessons at the lake in the summertime," Amy Greif said. "They gave money to the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts. It was a community chest."

In recent years, the festival helped support the Dixie Youth League and mentoring programs with Farmworkers Self Help. It provided dictionaries, books and food bags to local schools, and college and vocational scholarships to high school graduates.

That won't stop.

The San Antonio Rotarians plan to continue their altruistic mission through smaller events held more frequently throughout the year. A monthly farmers market, to be held the second Saturday of the month, was launched in January, and there are plans to resurrect a more manageable Halloween festival.

If someone were to be interested in taking on the Rattlesnake Festival, Burke said, the club would be willing to share its knowledge and expertise.

But sometimes, organizers said, things just run their course.

"I myself, I figure it went for 50 years and it did what it was supposed to do, so I'm not upset about it ending," John Greif said. "It had a very successful run."

"I am at peace with it," Amy Greif said. "It has seen its time."

Contact Michele Miller at mmiller@tampabay.com. Follow @Michele Miller52.

After 50 years, San Antonio's Rattlesnake Festival is finished 02/08/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 8, 2017 5:50pm]
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