The varieties of snipe hunting

The Enterprise (Williamston, N.C.), January 27, 1928 — DigitalNC.org.

I don’t remember when I first heard about snipe hunting, but I was probably pretty young at the time — and skeptical from the beginning. Not only did it sound ridiculous, but as a child I wasn’t too keen on going into the woods with strangers either. So I was never “left holding the bag,” and I never participated in pulling the prank on others. I also don’t recall hearing about an actual incident of the prank in practice — until now. In the January 27, 1928 edition of The Enterprise in Williamston, N.C. I found this delightfully detailed narrative about two employees of Western Electric from New York installing repeater equipment in the local telephone exchange in town. Here’s an excerpt:

“After explaining the theory of snipe-hunting over a period of several days, employees of the local telephone company…willingly consented to teach the two young men snipe-hunting from the practical side.
It was during the few days of recent cold weather and about 9:30 o’clock, the time when the snipes begin to jump freely, that the party left for a small stream about three miles from here... Mac and Mac felt highly honored when they were privileged with holding the sacks while the ‘wise’ fellows went up the small creek to frighten the unsuspecting snipe down the stream and into the sacks held by the two young men…
An hour passed, the sound of the driver’s voices grew faint, but still Mac and Mac continued with high hopes and faithfully held to their sacks. A spark of doubt was lighted by the passing of a second hour, but even then the boys remained at their posts, hoping against hope that a snipe would per chance jump at the last minute.
It was with vain regrets that the faithful hunters turned from the stream to explore the woods…”
Pin-tailed Snipe by JJ Harrison — own work.

However, as Joe Smith explains for Nature: “The truth of the mythical snipe hunt is that the ‘fake’ tools and techniques a rube is supposed to use are actual tools and techniques for catching real snipe.” When it’s a bird I guess, in which case it originally meant to “shoot from a hidden place” (1773) in reference to hunting snipe as game. Hence the word sniper.

But as folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand notes: “While the snipe hunt is known in virtually every part of the United States, the description of the prey varies: it may be described as a type of bird, a snake, or a small furry animal. In one version, the snipe is a type of deer with a distinctive call; the dupe is left kneeling and imitating the snipe call while holding the bag to catch it” (Wikipedia).

Also in the news and folklore, we find narratives of real-life snipe-hunting expeditions, initiation rights, and what appear to be stories intended to provide some practical advice on how to live one’s life — don’t just sit around holding your sack open waiting for someone else to chase a prize into it. Go get it yourself! So there’s apparently more to this snipe hunting than I was led to believe as a child. But at least I’m not left holding an empty sack. I now have this blog post instead.

“Yeah, he’s probably still settin’ there holdin’ that cussed sack open, waitin’ for somebody else to drive th’ snipe into it for him, but some people is like that; all they want to do is set and hold th’ sack while somebody else does all the damned walkin’ and climbin’ and so forth, so they just set, and set, and hold th’ doggone sack.” — An Uncle Steve Robertson Story, As told by Earl Bowman, December 23, 1938

If you enjoyed this post, please click the heart to recommend it. You might also like my eBook about my German-American paternal ancestors who settled in the Catawba Valley of North Carolina — where I thought I had learned everything I needed to know about snipe hunting, until today! 😲

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