Advance Praise for
Rattlesnake Under His Hat
State tourism icon with a snake under his hat remembered with new biography - Rapid City Journal
Earl Brockelsby was a fearless showman, an intrepid entrepreneur and an icon of western tourism. In the 1930s, gawking tourists pulled to the side of the road to watch him handle venomous rattlesnakes like they were pets. He built Reptile Gardens into one of the most successful businesses in the Black Hills and became a powerful figure in South Dakota politics and business, all the while struggling with his own demons. This is a powerful biography.
- Tom Daschle, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader
As Americans began to travel, and our romance with tourism grew, the Snake King of South Dakota displayed ingenuity, showmanship, and persistence in creating legendary attractions for the roving public. Sam Hurst has written a mesmerizing account that not only describes Earl Brockelsby’s resourcefulness and love of compulsive risk-taking, but provides an intimate look at mental illness that would have destroyed a lesser man.
As a kid Earl Brockelsby began prowling the dusty Badlands as a loner in search of minerals, rattlesnakes and the restorative powers of solitude. He went on to open Reptile Gardens in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Sam Hurst helps the reader understand how Brockelsby, a strong-willed, life-long student of life and nature, became an exceptional mentor, who could hire equally strong-willed staffers and give them enormous freedom without losing that essential synchrony that is so critical to long-term success.
- Ray L. Pawley, former curator of herpetology, Brookfield Zoo
I can’t remember when I have read a book that gave me such enjoyment as Rattlesnake Under His Hat, a biography of Earl Brockelsby deftly written by journalist Sam Hurst. I loved the book not only because Earl was a great friend of mine over the years, and not only because Earl married a woman from my hometown of Wood, South Dakota, but because Hurst is a writer of great clarity and intelligence who brings his subject matter to life.
Telling the story of Earl’s life was, I hope, as enjoyable as reading the story. Earl was a character that Indiana Jones emulated in the series of movies made by Hollywood about the adventurer.
Earl was a guy who was forever searching for reptiles, animals and adventure in real life exotic settings. The difference between Earl and Indiana Jones was reality. Earl was doing it to make a living in a hard scrabble area of the United States forcing him to travel far and wide to collect them, and Harrison Ford did it to make a series of movies, which, I suppose, could be counted as making a living.
Sam Hurst apparently didn’t miss a beat in the telling of Earl’s story. He included narratives that even I didn’t know existed—narratives which added juice to the overall story.
Not only would people from South Dakota learn about Earl Brockelsby from Hurst’s book, but my guess is that people all over the country would benefit by reading it.
- Former U.S. Senator James Abourezk
Sam Hurst has successfully confronted a legend with his biography of Earl Brockelsby, Rattlesnake Under His Hat. Hurst’s story of how Brockelsby built one of America’s most unique and successful attractions, the world-renowned Reptile Gardens in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is more than a standard recitation of fascinating facts and anecdotes meant to reveal the inner complexities that formed his subject. It’s about a lifespan that took Brockelsby from a hard-scrabble boyhood in a remote prairie town suffering through the double calamities of the Depression and the Dust Bowl to a conclusion that ended triumphantly. In Hurst’s well-paced and steadily advancing narrative, Earl Brockelsby emerges as one of the heroes of a great American tradition—the saga of the self-made entrepreneur. The young man who was scratching around for a way to make a buck off the steadily growing tourism industry in the Black Hills—driven by the development of Mt. Rushmore—fell on to the commercial possibilities of satisfying a universal human fascination with snakes. That account alone makes the book an engaging and enjoyable read. Much to our good fortune, though, Hurst takes this endeavor to another level: His fondness for the natural beauty and the grand scheme of history embedded in the development of the American prairie comes across with the kind of insight and affection that would draw approving nods from the likes of Willa Cather and Wallace Stegner. Sam Hurst shows himself to be a fine writer, likely of some consequence, as Rattlesnake Under His Hat repeatedly affirms, page after page.
- John Tsitrian, writer & publisher, The Constant Commoner
In Rattlesnake Under His Hat, Sam Hurst has written a poignant story about the quintessential twentieth century American promoter, Earl Brockelsby. Hurst captures the expansionism of the age, when dirt roads were turned into superhighways to the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota, and when the marvels of the world—natural and man-made, from exotic snakes to carved faces on Mount Rushmore—helped sculpt the mysterious region's modern tourism industry. Beyond vividly showing the inspirational, troubled Brockelsby's role in twentieth century tourism's blend of natural grandeur and human hype, Hurst delves into the cruelty of mental illness and one family's journey through the ever-shifting tides of America from the 1960s and 1970s to today.
- Chuck Raasch, author of the soon-to-be-released book Imperfect Union, the story of a Civil War newspaper correspondent at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Just when you thought you knew everything there is to know about Reptile Gardens, here comes a book which describes how hard patriarch Earl Brockelsby fought to create, sustain and then accomplish making it a tourism icon in South Dakota’s Black Hills! Excellent research brings to life a young boy raised in a poor and emotionless household, follows him to Europe and the ugliness of WWII and expertly describes the trials and tribulations of keeping a tourist attraction relevant for over 75 years. The loving influence of wife Maude, mother to his four spirited and independent children, sister Reta Mae and nephew, Joe, cannot be emphasized enough. Sam Hurst tells a compelling story about a man, his demons, his family and the world class Reptile Gardens. Read it now.
- Julie Jensen, Executive Director/Vice President, Rapid City Convention & Visitors Bureau