By Louie Stout
Our rattlesnake column a few weeks ago has triggered some interesting conversations.
If you missed that story, it noted how the 2000-plus acre Ed Lowe Foundation property east of Cassopolis harbors one of the Midwest’s largest populations of Massasauga rattlesnakes.
More than 800 have been documented on the property over the past seven years. The Massasauga is the only poisonous snake in Michigan and northern Indiana. However, populations have dwindled rapidly due to habitat loss and the snake may be placed on the national endangered species list.
After that story ran, reader Ken Price of Granger dropped us a note pointing out that rattlesnakes were once prominent around South Bend.
In fact, a large population living on the city’s southwest side some 60 years ago created quite a stir and led to a public demonstration demanding the city eradicate the snakes.
Price recalls a huge rattler colony in a large field adjacent to a trailer park once located on the south side of the old Lincoln Way near the Michiana airport. The field ran all the way to the edge of Mayflower Road.
“There was quite a bit of talk about it on the news back then,” recalled Price. “Whenever my family drove by there on our way to Michigan City I used to look out there and think about all of those snakes.”
Another area said to have them was in Rum Village and where Walker Field Softball Park now sits. Oddly enough, another softball complex in the Belleville area was another area known to have numerous rattlesnakes.
It turned out that Price’s memory is pretty good. The South Bend History Facebook Page provides proof.
In July, 1956, a Tribune newspaper clipping reported that 15 snakes had been killed in a field along Meadow Lane and that South Bend Health Officials ordered an exterminator to spread 75-arsenic treated eggs along the edge of the field with hopes the snakes would eat them and die.
However, that led to a neighborhood protest over concerns that the kids playing nearby would ingest the eggs and die. They wanted the snakes gone but not with poison.
In early September of that same year, the newspaper ran a picture of a hospital nurse assisting 4-year-old Ricky Miller with a snake bite he apparently incurred while playing in his yard in the Bellville area. The clipping noted he was one of several people who had been bitten by snakes in that area.
On Sept. 16, the newspaper ran a clipping of Mayor Edward Voorde addressing Belleville women protesting in South Bend. One of the women carried a sign stating “One Child Bitten…must there be a death before action is taken?”
Another sign said, “ColPaert…Love Our Kids get Rid of the Rattlesnakes. Promises-Promises!”
Colpaert Realty Corp. owned the field.
There were no other clippings to indicate how the problem was resolved but it’s safe to assume the property was later developed and destroyed the snake habitat.
Nor was there any evidence the snakes were rattlers, although one story referred to them as Prairie Rattlesnakes “a smaller and more common snake in this area than the Timber rattlesnake.”
In all likelihood, that was a Massasauga, according to Nate Engbrecht, Indiana DNR Herpetologist and Bremen native.
“It’s highly unlikely they were timber rattlers that far north,” he said. “Indiana’s only known population resides in Brown, Morgan and Monroe counties of southern Indiana.”
Nor were they Prairie Rattlers that thrive in western states.
“Given the description and their location, they probably were Massasaugas,” Engbrecht added.
Price noted that the southwest side of South Bend once was the headwaters of the Kankakee River system and was very marshy at the time. That is precisely the kind of habitat that the Massasauga requires.