What a community paper is all about

Published 10:16 pm Wednesday, August 1, 2001

American Cancer Society
We called it the "snake in the dewberry patch" story.
I was working at a weekly newspaper, The Brewton Standard, in the summer of 1981. We were between Little League and high school football, it was miserably hot, and things were dull.
The story is recounted here:
Man drives by car in wooded area and sees children therein. Much later he returns and notes children still in car. Asks if they are alone and they tell him "Mama's gone dewberry picking." He calls out for her and hearing no response, begins to investigate. Off by some dewberry vines, in a ditch, he finds the woman dead, the victim of a venomous bite. Woman has death grip on rattlesnake, which she has also killed.
End of story.
As we investigated the horrible tale, which everyone told us really happened, we found many variations with locales and persons changing. For example:
Discovery was made by a state trooper.
Discovery was made by an Escambia (or Conecuh, Covington, Baldwin, Monroe and Clarke) County sheriff's deputy.
Discovery was made by a pulpwood worker on his way to work.
Other versions had the children sitting in the car for two hours, three hours, or from the time someone went to work and discovered them still there after his day's shift. In some of the accounts we were given, the rattlesnake became a moccasin.
It happened in Atmore, in Pollard. It happened in Castleberry. It was "down around Baldwin County." It took place "over around Bermuda."
Community editor Doris Bruner of our staff made local and long-distance calls to law enforcement agencies, hospitals, rescue squads and funeral homes, but was never able to substantiate the story. It just didn't happen.
Doris wrote a story anyway, reporting that the "snake in the dewberry patch" wasn't true.
Several years later, when I was working at The Andalusia Star-News, I came across an almost identical account of the snake in the dewberry patch story while flipping through a 20-year-old file paper. I concluded that these stories are repeated during the dull, hot days of summer when there's not much else to talk about.
Another snake horror story involves water moccasins. It goes like this: A skier accidentally falls in the lake and thinks he is tangled in a barbed wire fence. Turns out the barbed wire fence is a large number of cottonmouth moccasins.
Herpetologist Dr. Bob Mount of Auburn University, a real fan of snakes, contributes a local column to our daily newspaper, The Opelika-Auburn News. In a column titled "The myth of snakes," Mount relates that an often repeated story in Alabama is of some poor soul who falls into a "bed of moccasins" and is bitten numerous times.
Several years ago The Outlook in Alexander City published such a report, with the incident having occurred at Lake Martin.
Mount said he believes he knows the origin of the "bed of moccasins" story. During the first warm weather of spring, some non-poisonous water snakes have a strong tendency to bask on sunny days. The snakes may aggregate in considerable numbers.
The Clayton Record in Barbour County was known for its fantastic rattlesnake stories many years ago when the late William Lee Gammell was editor and publisher. "A rattlesnake story always makes super news," he used to say.
Every farmer who killed or captured a rattlesnake would bring it by Gammell's newspaper office. It is said that quite a collection of snakes and snake yarns were accumulated.
I shivered when I saw a photograph in The Tallassee Tribune in Elmore County several years ago with a cutline that read something like this: "Bud Dean holds a 5 foot, 11-rattle diamondback rattlesnake that he killed last week. Bud said the big rattler attacked his car tire and doggone near punctured it before the snake was done in. (Photo by Jack Venable, from a distance)"
Snake horror stories do make good conversation in the heat of the summer, but I'm about to end on a serious note. In addition to collecting snake horror stories, I'm also an avid reader of community newspapers. It comes from having spent practically all of my newspaper career working on weekly papers.
Small-town newspapers have a role that is much different from the metropolitan dailies. Much of the news in a weekly newspaper would never appear in a daily paper n personals, community news, school menus, big fish, dead snakes and snake horror stories.
A good friend, Sam Harvey, editor of The Advertiser-Gleam in Guntersville, says his paper is known as the big-turnip, four-legged chicken paper. Sam says, "We run more pictures of dead fish, dead rattlesnakes and dead dogs than any other weekly newspaper."
Hometown newspapers ought to, and do, report on the hard news such as county commission, city council, school board, police and fire news, wrecks, and killings.
But weekly newspapers also have an obligation to report on the little things that might not make it in their metropolitan daily counterparts, the school menus, honor rolls and community news.
And even reporting on stories that didn't happen, like the one of the snake in the dewberry patch.

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