Posted on February 28, 2015

By Ray Carlson

In early May 1921, Neil Clark, the Yavapai County Attorney, ran an advertisement indicating that he would pay 50 cents for live bull snakes over 3 feet in length.  A common question was what a prominent attorney wanted with a bunch of large snakes?  This curiosity prompted the Prescott Journal Miner to indicate they were trying to resolve the mystery and noted that Clark’s request had something to do with the Way Out West show that was scheduled for the Fairgrounds on May 26.  An article in the Prescott Evening Journal revealed that the show was b­­eing planned by a committee chaired by Chris Totten, a local architect. Totten was quoted as saying the WOW would be four hours of fun at the Fairgrounds, but he offered no details.

The snakes that were turned in were placed in the windows of the Owl Drug and Candy store on the NW corner of Gurley and Montezuma Streets.  Placing the snakes in the windows of this popular facility added to the interest—particularly when the Journal Miner asked whether the snakes were to be used for lunch or as a liqueur.

Interest in the snakes was stoked by additional articles in the paper about efforts to catch large snakes.  In one example the article described how one day when Superior Court Judge John Sweeney and Assistant County Attorney P. B. Westervelt were driving to Humboldt for court they spotted a large bull snake.  While Judge Sweeney held it with a stick, Westervelt roped it with a piece of fishing line and tied it to a large stone.  The stone and snake were carefully placed in the car and, after court, were delivered to Clark’s office.

A strong hint about the eventual use of the snakes was given when the program for the Way Out West show was announced.  A featured performance was the Smoki Bullsnake Dancers, who were being invited to come to Prescott to do their “famous” dance.  Various articles noted that the Smoki was a peaceful tribe from the mountains in Northern Arizona and that this was the first time the dance would be presented off the reservation.  The dance was solemn and meaningful and involved the dancers holding the snakes in various ways including in their teeth.  The public was warned that this “death-defying” dance would be done in front of the grandstands, and, if more than 13 people fainted, the show would be stopped.

The day before the show, Chris Totten wrote an amusing article in which he explained that the show was intended to entertain but also to get money to offset the Frontier Days debt.  Ninety percent of the income was to be put toward the $3400 debt accumulated by the rodeo in the past two years.

This intriguing publicity helped to pack the fairgrounds.  The day after the show, one article suggested the audience was at least 3000 while another suggested 4000.  In explaining the audience’s enthusiasm, the paper noted the touch of “weirdest wildness” added by the Smoki to an otherwise comic program.  The paper acknowledged those responsible for the show indicating that the Smoki were actually local citizens including a doctor, a dentist, a judge, lawyers, and storeowners, and the dance was patterned after one done by the Hopi.  The dancers’ costumes and make-up made the performers’ true identities hard to recognize.  One non-accurate feature was the use of a drum to insure the audience heard the dancers’ beat.  Since the Hopi did not use a drum, a Navajo drum was used, and the drummer wore a Navajo costume.

The next day, Totten thanked those who attended for providing over $2200 toward the debt while Neil Clark thanked those who brought in snakes.  He noted that the planning committee had purchased snakes from a traveling show from Texas in case not enough Prescott snakes were collected.  They were pleased with the fact that enough local snakes were captured since the Texas snakes were “mean” whereas the Prescott ones appeared to be the most gentle snakes in the West.

First of two Days Past articles about early days of the Smoki People.  Content of these articles is based on material published in the Prescott Evening Courier and the Journal-Miner in 1921.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlothallmuseum.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.