the true and unembellished tale of Rattlesnake Pete Smith

Grand Coulee was a boom town. People flocked there from all over in hopes of getting work on the huge Dam being built within walking distance. Word was it would employee thousands of people and everyone wanted some of that federal money. Even before the first concrete was poured small towns began to spring up, filled with people and their dreams and aspirations from all over the financially repressed country. The town of Grand Coulee with it’s infamous B Street was one of these. One of the characters that could be seen on B Street back in 1933 or 34 was Rattlesnake Pete Smith. Pete was a rugged and tattered looking man well past mid life full of whiskers and scruffy unkempt hair. Pete was a thrill seeker by nature. When he was younger he was one of the first parachutists in the state of California where he would put on exhibitions for money. The Great Depression that was sweeping the land and soon to infect the world had also taken a bite of Pete’s pocket book so when he heard about the dam he packed scant supplies, what little money he had, if any, and hitch hiked to the land of promise, Grand Coulee Washington. It’s really hard to imagine the hardships he faced on his way to Washington State, but when he finally made it to Grand Coulee he was able to secure a little land on a slope he called home. He never built anything there, and it was more of a dug out type squat. What he did in the winter to stay warm was anyone’s guess, in the end it turned out he was just passing through anyway.

For the short time Pete was in Grand Coulee he earned the name Rattlesnake Smith, or Rattlesnake Pete and was the go to man for snakes. Pete seemed to have a knack for catching rattlers, like a snake whisperer, they seemed to come to him. And back in the 1930’s there was actually a market for the vipers and their venom. Pete would milk the snakes of their venom and sell it to people who would make roadside quality medicines out of it; snake oils. The snakes were sometimes sold to private people for one use or another. Pete had been bit several times, once was while he was transferring a snake from his sack into a display case behind a bar on the infamous street. Have a snake in your yard, house or business? Rattlesnake Pete was the person to get a hold of. He would approach the snake with his forked stick, securing the head he would then move a flat stick under the snake to secure it till he could reach down and pick it up, placing it in a bag, box or whatever he happened to have at the time. If no one wanted the venomous viper he would dispose of it, often saying he would take it home to clean and eat. True or not it is hard to say, but makes a great story. He once bragged to Wenatchee World editor Hu Blonk that he caught more than 30 of the varmints in one day and that was his record. Rattlesnake Pete planned on selling authentic rattlesnake skin ties, belts and hat bands to toursets when they came to see the dam. Pete claimed that out by the Speedball Highway he had a small farm where planned on creating a huge rattlesnake den and charging admission to curious tourists and locals. He even planned to supply free camping for his patrons. How far he made it into this venture we may never know as he soon faded to the background being more of a novelty character in a world full of incredible events and people, and eventually he left the area for parts unknown. Leaving his story behind to become a Grand Coulee Dam historical footnote.

Rattlesnake Pete was seen again in about 1935 when he was once more passing through. He was spotted by a reporter who noted a sharp change in attire from his old tattered clothes to a fresh clean modern look. It seems he had found a new way of getting paid rather than snake wrangling, but for a while he was the king of his trade, the ‘go to’ man on B Street, Rattlesnake Pete Smith.


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