The Giant Snake of Wichita County
The Texas Story Project.
In July of 1946, just a few miles away from Wichita Falls, a phenomenon appeared rivaling Big Foot or the Marfa Lights. A monster reptile that, according to eyewitnesses’ descriptions was 40 feet long, was terrorizing the folks near Burkburnett. Wichita Falls newspapers of the time, the Wichita Falls Record News and the Wichita Daily Times, featured the reports of various sightings of a giant snake in the area as major news for several weeks.
Summer in North Texas can be brutal for kids without some distractions. Pete Mason and a few friends, including Buddy Warren and Twain Adams, were the creators of this ‘monster.’ Pete and his friends most likely decided that it might be fun to make a prank that would maybe scare a passerby but would be otherwise harmless. After finishing their chores each day, the boys got together to work on this project. They found all the materials they needed around the farm. Using burlap sacks attached end-to-end and stuffed with tin cans and cottonseed then all tied up with baling wire, the boys created a snake of large proportions.They attached a rope to one end so the snake could be dragged around.
After a few trial runs around, it was time to try it out. The boys had to wait until just the right opportunity. The snake made its first public appearance about 1 a.m. on a Saturday in front of the W.E. Milam family, whose car was stuck on a sandy road. It was dark and quiet on this country road. The boys prepared the sighting by placing the snake on one side of the road, laying the rope in the sand of the roadbed and waiting until a car appeared. It must have been a loose sandy road for when the family tried to drive down it, they became stuck. Of course, everyone piled out to help dig the wheels out. And then it happened. Pete and Buddy pulled the sack-snake across the road a few yards from where the family car sat axle-deep in sand. The effect was more than they hoped. The snake was first sighted as it slithered across the Seymour Highway at Fillmore Street near what is now Lucy Park. The sight of this monstrous reptile crossing the open road just a few feet away caused an immediate reaction. Mrs. Milam screamed, the two children cried. The boys had a great laugh as they pulled the sack-snake across the road and through the corn fields leaving a wide track in the loose soil.
The Milams made it to a nearby house where they called for help. Two Texas Highway patrolmen, John Lowry and Charles Reeves, responded to the call. They were joined by Ben Gould, a local newspaper reporter, and Norman Derby, a candy salesman. The four men searched an area one mile north and three and a half miles east of Cashion School between Thornbury and Burkburnett for about an hour, finding only the track of the snake. During the search, the group met two soldiers from Sheppard Field who reported they also saw the snake. Mr. Lowry reported that the stories were convincing. “Those people were too excited to be telling anything but the truth. Milam was still pale, nervous, and excited when we talked to him.”
The snake was reportedly seen crawling across several more roads over the next few weeks, causing all sorts of excitement in the county. Mrs. Bessie Walkup, a nurse at the polio ward of Wichita General Hospital, reported seeing the snake in her neighborhood at Cooper’s Church. James Hankins, a Wichita Falls truck driver, claimed to have seen the snake at the Santa Fe Trail marker on the Seymour road. There was about ten miles between the two places. One man claimed it was more than 20 feet long with a red belly and a black back and it reared up as high as his pickup window before making its exit into the nearby grass. Other area residents reported seeing the creature that night as it moved over roads and through fields. One driver recounted how he had to slam on his brakes to avoid hitting the beast and said it moved so fast there was no time to call the sheriff.
Things escalated fairly quickly after the first giant snake sighting. People reported catching a glimpse of the beast all around the Wichita Falls area. One woman said she saw it near Cooper’s Church a few miles east of Wichita Falls. There were even reports that the snake had been seen several times in Oklahoma. Another woman reported coming across the reptile near the Cashion School. She told police it stretched clear across the road with its tail up on one side while the head was up on the other and it was as big around as a drainpipe.
The subsequent police search turned up nothing. Search parties were organized by local men during the following weeks. Local businessmen began to post rewards for the capture of the snake. J.B.Griffith, who operated the amusement park at the Haven Park swimming pool, opened an escrow account with $1,000 for anyone who could deliver the snake alive. The reward was reduced to $500 if the snake was brought in dead. There were other conditions that had to be met to collect the reward, including that the snake had to be at least 20 feet long. The stories told by people who claimed to have witnessed an appearance of the reptile had begun to report the length of the snake was up to 40 feet. A second requirement was that the snake had to be the one seen in the Wichita Falls area. This was to keep anyone from bringing in a “foreign” snake. And the reward was only good for a two-week period. The County Tax Collector, Jim Robinson, was appointed oversight of the reward. Another reward was advertised when J.A. Rhodes, a taxi driver, offered $1,500. Then Norman Baggett, Foye Sandefer and Ted Raub together offered $2,000, as did R. Genschorek of Mankins, to anyone who could capture the giant snake and bring it in.
The searches became larger and more elaborate. The radio technician for the police department took to the air to search for the demon. He repeatedly flew over a ten mile area at the low altitude of 50 feet off the ground, and even flew up and down the Red River, hoping to see the snake in the water. He assured the public that the snake had not crossed the river. Other planes from the nearby airbase buzzed the treetops in the search. The number of people in the ground “posse” was estimated by a local paper to be “plenty of them.”
Organized hunts were arranged, some based at the army bivouac area near Cashion School. One local man, Pershing Gellner, recalls riding horseback to look for the snake. He thought a riding height would give him an advantage of seeing the snake before anyone else. The trail was easy to follow at first. It went through a corn field with stalks knocked down for a ways but then was lost when the corn ended and Johnson grass began. One local man declared that he would bring his Jeep so the search could cover areas that might be difficult for horsemen or men on foot. The citizen army was armed with all manner of “shooting irons” as they combed the countryside. Armed soldiers from nearby Sheppard Field joined the hunt and there was a rumor that two of these men actually lassoed the reptile. However, this was just gossip and there was no truth in it. People became so leery of an encounter with the giant snake that they changed their routines. Children were not allowed to sleep out on the porch in fear the reptile would drag them off at night. And even cotton production was affected when parents wouldn't let the kids go out to hoe or pick cotton in the fields. The snake was reported to be big enough to swallow a small child, so for a couple of weeks, children remained close to home.
There was a brief boom in the promotion and sale of snake weapons. Good snake-hunting dogs also ranked high on the list. Two people, Carl Childs and Connie Watson, offered the services of their world-class snake-hunting hound. According to the two owners, this dog needed only a whiff of the snake and then he was off. They swore this dog could find the snake, provided the trail was less than eight hours old. Carl and Connie said they would charge only $500. No one took them up on their offer.
It was always at night when the giant snake appeared because the boys all had farm chores to do during the daylight hours. The reptile was stored in the old cellar of the Mason’s house during the day. The cellar was a round room lined with seats for some reason, but it made a great place to store the snake. Stanley, the oldest Mason brother, was afraid his brother and friends would be prosecuted or sent to jail for the giant snake prank, so one day he snuck the snake out of the cellar and into a field where he burned it. Soon after, the county sheriff made a visit to the Mason’s home and questioned the boys about the snake. Pete and the other boys held their breaths when the sheriff announced he was going to search the cellar for the snake. When he returned to the house without finding anything, the boys were confused because they didn't know what Stanley had done.
According to newspaper accounts, some of the perpetrators were eventually discovered. The truth was that one of the boys told on the rest of them about the snake. The airbase called off the search and everyone went back to their pre-giant snake lives. The boys thought it was all in fun, but they knew that if they were caught, they would be punished. For the rest of their lives, they were kind of looking over their shoulders, worrying that they might still be sent to prison because of the hoax.
The names of all the participants are still known only to a few and most of those are over 80 years old now. Their parents failed to see the humor at the time and passed on a message to all the sons, daughters, nieces and nephews as they grew up not to ever do anything like that because they might end of doing time in jail for giant snake possession. Or something.
Scott White, Ph.D, is the Director of Collections, Exhibits, and Research at the National Ranching Heritage Center (NRHC) at Texas Tech University. He is also the editor of NRHC publications, a board member of the Texas Oral History Association, and an author of three books related to Texas and Western history. This is one of his favorite stories, told to him by a friend whose uncle was one of the boys who made the giant snake.
Posted January 07, 2015