I recently picked up Rattlesnake Under His Hat more out of respect for my old friend and fellow Black Hills promoter, Johnny Brockelsby than, say, curiosity about his father, Earl Brockelsby.
Upon opening the book, I immediately became utterly absorbed in this fast moving and fascinating story. I was intrigued by Earl’s genius, his passion for rocks and snakes, his love of adventure, his playing the markets and the dogs, his love for his family, and his struggles as well.
What also fascinated me was the broader history that Sam Hurst weaves into the narration – Life on the prairie in the early 20th century, the dark side of World War II, and the beginning of the tourism industry in western South Dakota.
So, get this book, sit down and read it – take yourself back in time
Businessman and long time South Dakota tourism promoter
Nineteen-year old Earl Brockelsby shocked the families of tourists at the end of his guided tour in 1935 when he lifted his hat to reveal a live, venomous rattlesnake curled on the crown of his head. The startled and delighted faces of the visitors inspired him to found Reptile Gardens, one of the most successful roadside attractions in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Brockelsby’s remarkable biography offers rare insight into the evolution of tourism in the American West in the years after World War II when millions of American families piled into their automobiles and set out on vacation adventures that shaped the national identity and fueled the mythology of the region. At the center of this spirited exploration were tourism entrepreneurs like Brockelsby whose roadside attractions celebrated the Western ethos of the frontier, rugged individualism and the triumph of man over nature. Whether a child was having her picture taken with “a real live Indian” at the foot of Mt. Rushmore or with a python wrapped around her neck at Reptile Gardens, these middle class vacations created lifelong memories that kept the romance of the frontier West alive for generation after generation.
Brockelsby’s giant personality and inventive mind cast its influence over South Dakota for half a century. Born in the railroad depot town of Kadoka, South Dakota, he grew up in the closing days of the American frontier when the traveling circus mesmerized local audiences with the exotic and grotesque. He spent his childhood exploring for fossils and minerals in the box canyons of the badlands, “where the foot of man had never stepped.”
During World War II, Brockelsby walked across Europe as an Army scout and left an intimate journal of the grim face of 20th century warfare that is reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Brockelsby had a dare-devil fascination with rattlesnakes. As an entrepreneur, he built Reptile Gardens on the insight that tourists were more fascinated with touching a snake than listening to long lectures on geology and archeology. Through the Great Depression, the boom times of the 1950s and 60s, and the energy crisis of the 1970s, Brockelsby assembled the largest private collection of reptiles in the world, all the while struggling to control his own manic depression and addiction to tranquilizers.
In Rattlesnake Under His Hat, former NBC News producer, documentary filmmaker and Emmy Award- winning journalist, Sam Hurst, paints a vivid portrait of Earl Brockelsby’s complex life and his influence on the development of western tourism.
Listen to excerpts read by the authorListen