AppLit Home Appalachian Tall Tales Tina L. Hanlon

"The Snake-Bit Hoe Handle"


Note: This is the type of tall tale that is not about a hero of superhuman size or strength, but describes a highly exaggerated incident about objects and animals, told in a deadpan way as if it really happened in the daily lives of ordinary people.

"The Snake-Bit Hoe Handle." Told by Tennessee storyteller Doc McConnell. In Peck, Catherine, ed. QPB Treasury of North American Folktales. Illus. Charles Blake. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998, pp. 72-73. In the section Tall Tales, Brags, and Other Lies. Reprinted from Homespun: Tales from America's Favorite Storytellers, ed. Jimmy Neil Smith, 1988. Peck calls this "one of the many fantastic stories settlers told to exaggerate the size and scope of the American land and the creatures who inhabited it." This is a fairly lengthy version of the tale in which the narrator is accused by his father of trying to get out of hoeing corn when he sees a big copperhead snake. The hoe handle swells so big from the snake bite that they cut it up for 22 wagonloads of lumber. They build a chicken house, but after the narrator puts turpentine in his paint, it makes the swollen lumber shrink until "it wasn't no bigger than a shoe box." Luckily, their chickens were not inside and thus were not killed. Also in this book: "Tall Hunting Tale" from Leonard Roberts' South from Hell-fer-Sartin, "John Henry," Maud Long's "Jack and the Giants' Newground," "The Three Sillies," "David Crockett Meets a Bear," and other Appalachian tales. (Also published as A Treasury of North American Folktales, Norton, 1999.)

"The Swollen Hoe Handle." In Leonard Roberts, South From Hell-fer-Sartin': Kentucky Mountain Folk Tales. U of KY Press, 1955. Rpt. Berea, KY: The Council of the Southern Mountains, 1964, p. 153. In the section Jokes and Anecdotes, this is a one-paragraph version. The narrator is chopping cotton when the hoe handle is bit by a rattlesnake and swells so big he gets lumber to build a hog-pen. Later the wood shrinks and "chokes all my hogs to death." "The Swollen Tree" is another short anecdote (pp. 153-54) about a rattlesnake biting a tree which swells so large that the hunter who sees it builds a five-room house out of it. Later his son spills some turpentine off the mantel. "And his house drawed up small enough to make a birdhouse out of it." Roberts identifies these as tale type 1962, The Poisoned Timber, and Motif X 929, Timber bitten by snake swells to great size.

"The Snakebit Hoehandle." In Richard Chase, American Folk Tales and Songs, and Other Examples of English-American Tradition as Preserved in the Appalachian Mountains and Elsewhere in the United States. Illus. Joshua Tolford. 1956. Rpt. New York: Dover, 1971, p. 105. "From many sources in the Southern Appalachians." This short version is almost the same as Doc McConnell's above, without so much detail about the amount of wood obtained and with no father in the tale.

Justus, May. Eben and the Rattlesnake. Illus. Carol Wilde. Champaign, IL: Garrard Publishing, 1969. Click on thumbnail at right for larger illustration. This 48-page picture book weaves the tall tale into a realistic story about Eben Holder and his farming parents in No-End Hollow. While helping his father hoe, Eben kills a rattlesnake with his hoe handle, which swells big enough that they make a corn crib from it. When it attracts so much attention that "the stream of visitors coming from far and near" becomes "a nuisance," they start to tell people that they've been taken in by a tall tale. The story describes details of rural life such as making a new suit in the fall. It also pokes fun at the well-meaning but somewhat confused old circuit rider, Brother Ray, "on his aged horse Gospel." Thinking Eben is goofing off, Brother Ray gives him a didactic leaflet with the story "The Three Lazy Sons." Ironically, Eben ruins his mother's simmering dye while reading the story. To avoid waste, Eben and his father paint the corn crib with the dye, but it draws out the snake poison and the wood shrinks. Their hound pup takes it for his new doghouse. The tale is told often after that, with some declaring it is a tall tale and some calling it "the gospel truth." Eben sings "The Rattlesnake Song" early in the story. Some regional dialect is used in the dialogue. The two-color drawings are by a native of Roanoke, VA. The book contains notes on American Folk Tales and Justus' note on family storytelling and singing in the Great Smoky Mountains in her childhood. See also AppLit Essay on May Justus as Popular Educator.

Justus, May. The same tall tale with a doghouse at the end is woven into the realistic story The Right House for Rowdy. See details at AppLit's Books by May Justus for details.

"The Hoe Handle, Snake, and Barn." Told by Tennessee storyteller Dianne Hackworth in Mountain Tales. "This video includes 2 hours of tales from the Appalachian Region," by Hackworth, Orville Hicks, and Charlotte Ross. Watauga County Library and High Country Yarnspinners Storytelling Guild, 1998.

Ramsey, Gwynn. Telling Six Tall Tales from the Southern Appalachians. 199?   VHS  videocassette.  30 min. color. 1. The Split Dog. 2. The Norther and the Frogs. 3. Pat and the Mule Eggs. 4. Pat and the City Billies. 5. The Snake Bit Hoe Handle. 6. The Big Toe. Told by Gwynn Ramsey, Professor of Biology Emeritus at Lynchburg College. This information is from the Randolph Macon Women's College Video List.

See also:

Appalachian Picture Books: Tall Tales

AppLit's Tall Tales and Jack Tales: Literature and Writing Activities

Harley's Lonesome Pine Knives, Bristol Tennessee, sells real knives but the web site offers a free story about a battle axe with an incredible history going back to the Vikings (under the battle axe photo). The handle is a splinter off a hoe handle the owner's grandfather was using, when it was bitten by the world's deadliest snake, the "Broadviperlancetcottonmouthrattlemoccasin." The wood started to swell so much that the owner started a saw mill that his sons still run.

Compare with:

"Hoopsnakes." Beartown News, August 1, 2000. Edited by Claude Dern, a Vermont author who claims this paper reports only area news, but it is full of humorous stories and jokes. This story says hoopsnakes were different colors depending on what the storyteller had been drinking, that their bite could kill an oak tree, and that they would roll in a hoop chasing people. Then it tells about the farmer hoeing corn who sees a snake die after all its poison drains out into a tree. He makes a house from the swollen tree but later a huge rain washes out the poison and the house shrinks.

Nothing But the Truth . . . page in Dave's Garden, a web site for gardeners. Submitted by a subscriber, Bud, from Batchelor, Iowa, Jan. 19, 2001. Bud's version tells of an old couple hoeing their cotton field, who build a chicken house out of wood from their snake-bit hoe handle. They are drinking before and after they find their flock of chickens killed because the swelling in the wood subsides. "Unfortunately, there are no witnesses."

Rexroad, William. "Snake-Bit Hoe Handle." A Kansas storyteller tells the tale in the Audio Stories section of

Carver, Renee. The Snake-Bit Rake Handle. Illus. Elizabeth O. Dulemba. Houghton Mifflin, forthcoming.

Graham, Jack. Pennsylvania Jack. No date. "The Snakebit Hoe Handle" is identified as a classic American tall tale. This storyteller's web site gives his version of a number of tales, with no specific details on sources.

Miller, Bobbi. One Fine Trade. Illus. Will Hillenbrand. New York: Holiday House, 2009. Georgy Piney Woods, "the best peddler One Fine Trade cover who ever lived," sets out at his daughter's request to trade her "rail-skinny horse" for "a shiny silver dollar" to buy a wedding dress." He makes a series of foolish trades (similar to "Foolish Jack,") but in the end a woman pays him the silver dollar his daughter needs for the dress. A quite dramatic part of the peddler's adventures resembles "The Snake-Bit Hoe Handle." In the deep woods, he meets a gigantic rattlesnake that threatens to take his stick for no money, but the peddler swings the snake around on the stick and throws it so far it's never seen in the woods again. The cyprus stick with the snake's venom in it grows as tall as three trees, depicted reaching into the clouds on a vertical double-page spread. A railroad man buys the wood and makes rail ties. When he returns after a hard rain with the dollar, the venom has been washed out and the wooden ties are small as toothpicks. The railroad man's wife needs toothpicks and pays a dollar for them. School Library Journal called this picture book, based on an old folk song, "A traditional tale, freshly fashioned."

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