Opinion

OPINION | Curtis Varnell: ‘Old Sam’ slithered into history even if he never existed

No one knows how Sam came to be, but the most logical explanation is that a traveling circus show passed through the Roseville community and, while traversing the less than ideal roads, a wagon overturned, spilling out their large snake.

(Courtesy Photo)
No one knows how Sam came to be, but the most logical explanation is that a traveling circus show passed through the Roseville community and, while traversing the less than ideal roads, a wagon overturned, spilling out their large snake. (Courtesy Photo)

During my lifetime, I have heard many stories of large snakes and the fear that they engender in many people. There are stories of mean copperheads, fishermen surrounded by cottonmouths, and even unlucky passersby falling into pits of rattlesnakes, but never have I heard any story that compared to the legend of Old Sam.

No one knows how Sam came to be, but the most logical explanation is that a traveling circus show passed through the Roseville community and, while traversing the less than ideal roads, a wagon overturned, spilling out their large snake. Not able to capture the reptile and not willing to face the possible consequences of turning it loose on the public, the circus left the county. What is known for sure is that, on a nice spring day the following year, Sam Webb was preparing his cotton field near Tanyard Mountain. His mule suddenly balked and began backing up in the traces, braying at the top of its lungs. Alarmed, Sam stepped sideways and saw the largest snake ever lying diagonally across several cotton rows. Choosing discretion over valor, Sam decided to vacate the field, striding over three rows at a time in his rush to outrun his mule back to safety. Webb told the story around the community, marking off the length in the dirt and describing the snake as rounder than a big stovepipe. His story circulated through the community of unbelievers, who felt Sam liked to exaggerate or had too much to drink. In derision, they dubbed the snake "Old Sam."

Webb's story became more credible in July. During a pie supper at the Zion Baptist Church, several of the kids wandered off to the nearby Deep Bayou. Hearing the squealing of a pig, they ventured near the water and saw a huge snake crushing a half-grown pig to death. The children and adults quickly forgot all about the pie supper and vacated the premises. Sam was somewhat vindicated by this second sighting, but there were still many who doubted the existence of the monster snake.

That all changed as classes started back at the Big Sandy School in McLean Bottoms. The school building was a conventional small school, consisting of a rectangular wooden frame structure with double doors on one end and the teacher desk, stove, and blackboard on the opposite. It was a typical hot, humid, end-of-summer day and about time for recess. Valentine Byrd was busy teaching at the front of the room when the double doors slowly opened. To his astonished eyes, a huge reptile with a head as large as a dinner bucket slithered into the aisle, forked tongue flickering from its large maw. "Walls of Jericho," he screamed, "Run, children, run!" Needing no encouragement, kids exited through doors and windows, breaking door hinges and glass as they left, accompanied by their young teacher in hot pursuit.

The entire countryside was aroused, doors were barred, and some families even prepared to move. A mass meeting was hurriedly called at the general store on Roseville's main street. Sheriff Clark Wood instructed every man to go home and get their weapons; a snake posse was needed. Scouring the entire region with blood hounds, the men finally spotted what they thought was Old Sam sinuously swimming in Deep Bayou. Shotguns and rifles exploded, loosing enough ammunition to start a small war. Old Sam sank from sight.

A hundred years have passed, but the story of Old Sam is still told, and the people of Big Sandy still pray, "Lord, please make sure that Old Sam was not able to pass on any progeny."

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