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OPINION: Panic in the Ozarks — The Great Cobra Scare

April 21, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Springfield, Missouri's acting city manager, Del Caywood, needed to come up with a plan. The folks in the Southwest Missouri Ozark town were in a panic and he needed to do something. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and Del knew just what to do.

Caywood found a suitable truck and rented it. Atop the truck, Caywood attached a loudspeaker from which a special sort of music could be broadcast for all to hear. That special music would be typical of music used by snake charmers for, you see, that's what was needed. Del drove that truck up and down the streets in Springfield with music coming from the speaker in an attempt to lure the deadly cobras out into the open. That's right, there were deadly venomous snakes slithering about in Springfield.

How in the world had it come to be that such deadly vipers were roaming fields and yards in Springfield, Missouri? After all, the natural habitat for these animals was thousands of miles away. The answer to that question seemed to reside with the owner of a local pet store, Reo Mower.

The first sign of the ensuing problem came when an odd-looking snake was killed. The killer of the reptile took the carcass to Mower's Pet Shop, thinking he might be able to identify the yet unknown species. After some minutes of examination Reo Mower proclaimed, "Oh, that's just a puff adder. It's just got a funny-looking head on it."

A few days passed and yet another odd-looking snake was killed just a block from the pet shop. This time the snake was taken to a Jarrett Junior High School science teacher. "Oh, dear lord! Where did you get this? This is a deadly cobra."

The next few days saw the execution of several more cobras. These snakes were killed near the Springfield streets of St. Louis and National. Not coincidentally, those two streets were very near to Mower's Pet Shop.

Authorities finally questioned Mr. Mower about the presence of the snakes. He was known to offer for sale an assortment of rare and exotic animals, so the idea that he may have once owned the cobras was not too far-fetched.

No proof was ever found that Mower was responsible for the problem, but Springfield was a small town and word of his possible involvement spread fast. Someone had to be blamed and that blame ultimately fell upon Mower. Mower's business license was revoked and Reo Mower left Springfield.

The city created what was to be called "The Snake Hunting Militia." With guns drawn and at the ready, policemen walked the streets and alleyways of the town. Ordinary folks began carrying rakes, shovels and hoes. High grass and weeds were checked, and loose boards and bits of tin were overturned as the hunt for the cobras continued.

The reptile hunt continued for a couple of months with some success. All in all, eleven or so snakes were killed. That's not counting several innocent bystanders of a non-venomous variety. The great hunt finally come to an end when, for at least a few weeks, no snakes were found. It seemed as though the townsfolk could finally take a breath.

As my mom used to say, "Oopsy-daisy." It was eventually pointed out to the well-intentioned acting city manager that cobras were hearing impaired; they were, more succinctly stated, deaf. Thusly, although the music emitted from the loudspeaker was quite charming to those capable of hearing, the sounds would in no way entice the snakes to leave their places of concealment. The rented truck was returned to the owner.

Many of the residents continued to carry an assortment of garden tools when they went for their evening walks and old scrap metal was left unmoved unless a shotgun was loaded and at the ready. Like all of life's adventures, this one came to an end and no more cobras were found. There were no reports of snake bites.

The story garnered national and, yes, even international attention. A reporter for London's BBC asked a question of Springfield newspaper columnist, Hank Billings.

"I say, how have they killed the blighters?"

The answer? "They killed most of them with hoes."

"With a what?" the ill-informed reporter asked. Apparently, the name of that common garden tool was not one used in England.

A song memorializing the events of the two months was written and "The Cobra Blues" became very popular, at least in Springfield. Local bar owners were not to be denied an opportunity to cash in on the snake presence, so a new drink, "The Cobra Cocktail," was served to thirsty patrons.

The city's seal already had the image of a snake on it, but it was redrawn giving the snake a more hooded appearance. As one might expect, stores selling guns, tear gas and garden implements did a robust business.

All, save just two of the once elusive snakes found were disposed of. One live snake found a new home at the Dickerson Park Zoo. Following the passing of that cobra and after the passage of many years if someone was to doubt the authenticity of the story that dubious person needed only to travel to the Drury College Campus. There, in a glass jar resting atop a professor's desk, was one of the cobras.

In 1988 and following the passage of 35 or so odd years, the truth about the snake's presence was learned. Local resident Carl Barnett had a story to tell, and he told it to Springfield reporter, Mike O'Brien.

In 1953, Barnett was a fourteen-year-old boy who loved tropical fish. Barnett said he purchased a fish from Reo Mower and, shortly after putting the new purchase in his fish tank, the fish died. Barnett was, as one might imagine, upset over the death of the fish and loss of money, so he returned to Mower's shop with the then-deceased animal in hand.

After showing the store's owner the fish and after expressing his displeasure to Mr. Mower, he was told that the death was no fault of the shop or Mower himself. Barnett was told a refund would not be forthcoming. The young boy was furious but what if anything was there to do?

Barnett told O'Brien that he left the shop through the rear door, and it was then that he noticed a crate containing snakes. Believing that he in some way had to get even with Mower, he removed the crate's lid. Barnett said he thought the reptiles were just a common non-threatening species.

Once the species of the snakes was learned, Barnett was frightened.

"I've never been so scared in my life, once I realized what I'd caused. For years, I was afraid they'd figure out it had been me and off to jail I'd go. It definitely is the biggest thing I ever was involved in in my life."

So it was that the mystery had finally been solved.

The year was 1953. The Korean War ended, Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine, and a gallon of gas would cost drivers 20 cents. The New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the baseball world series, Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to climb Mt. Everest and, in September of that year, the people of Springfield, Missouri were frightened because of "The Great Cobra Scare."

I went for one of my daily walks the other day and enjoyed all the signs that meant spring had arrived. The grass was turning green, the pink blossoms on my peach tree were beautiful and a snake was sunning itself near a pond. The snake was fat, long, and matt black in color. With raised head, the reptile looked at me and, after a very cursory and remote examination of the reptile, I formed an opinion. It was most likely not a deadly hooded cobra.

Stan Fine is a retired police officer and Verizon Security Department investigator who, after retiring in 2006, moved from Tampa, Fla., to Noel. Stan's connection to Noel can be traced back to his grandparents who lived most of their lives there. Stan began writing after the passing of his wife Robin in 2013. The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Print Headline: Panic in the Ozarks: The Great Cobra Scare

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