Charming for snakes for 40 years

Published 12:20 am Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Some might say he’s a little crazy for catching snakes, but he’s OK with that.
Opp City Planner Don Childre said his snake handling days began when he was about 13.
“I caught a black snake then, and I put it in an aquarium in my room,” he said. “When I got a little older, I found out the Snakeatorium in Panama City would pay you money for water moccasins.”
So, Childre and his friends commenced to catching water moccasins for beach trip money.
“We would catch water moccasins in Gantt, with just a long pole with a noose. We’d get up there with a garbage can and ease up there and catch them. Sometimes, they’d get loose in the boat, and we’d have to jump out.”
Childre said his mom found out what they were doing and threatened to sell the family’s place at Gantt.
Years later, he was asked to join the Jaycees and became involved with handling snakes at the Rattlesnake Rodeo.
“My friends were involved in rodeo,” he said. “J.P. Jones had built a new place out in Onycha for the rodeo, and it had a country music talent. The merchants association decided they wouldn’t support the rodeo if it wasn’t in Opp, so we moved it to the (OHS Channel-Lee) stadium.”
Originally, the Jaycees didn’t charge admission, but the Jaycettes decided they should charge admission.
“I thought we should give the people something for their money,” Childre said. “So I came up with the idea to give them a little orange bumper sticker. It was free publicity.”
Childre said the next year, they added another band, a greased pole climb and several other events.
“We rocked on until 1976 – I was the president that year, and we added the arts and crafts,” he said. “We were looking for something to add, and it was a big hit. We’ve built up to 170 to 180 vendors now.”
Additionally Childre said they also had sideshow acts such as “Omar the Snake Man,” who would bury himself in snakes.
“We also had a ‘Kiss of Death’ show where a man actually came and kissed a cobra,” Childre said. “I actually handled a cobra.”
Childre said the cobra handler brought five cobras to Opp before the rodeo and asked to keep them in the city while he made a trip to South Florida.
“We put them in the box, where we kept the rattlesnakes,” he said. “I got a call from the police department about 1 in the morning and some guy had a little too much to drink at the Four Sons, and decided he was going to get him a rattlesnake. Well, he tore open the cage the cobras were in, so I had to catch them and put them in another one. “
Childre said catching a cobra is much different that catching a rattlesnake.
“You have to wait until they spread their hood,” he said. “And you have to distract them. Oh, and you only get one shot.”
Today, the rodeo has attractions for kids and the country music concerts are a big draw.
“The snakes really play a small part,” he said. “But people want to see the snakes.
“I enjoy it. I had a guy came up to me one time and say ‘Man, you are weird playing with these snakes.’ I said, ‘at least I didn’t pay to get in,’” he said. “You meet all kinds of folks.”