Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup Slithers Into Its 60th Year

An enduring tradition for a small Texas town brings revenue into the local economy.

By Michael MarksMarch 9, 2018 1:09 pm

The Lone Star State is home to annual festivals of all kinds. There’s the annual goat barbecue in Electra every April, the Luling Watermelon Thump in June, and of course, the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup.

If you are unfamiliar with the event, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Thousands of unlucky rattlers get snatched up and thrown in a pit in the Nolan County Coliseum. It’s an enduring tradition and one that tells us about the history of the place.

Rob McCann is the public relations director for the group that puts on the festival, the Sweetwater Jaycees. They’re holding the 60th annual Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup this weekend.

The Rattlesnake Roundup started back in 1957 when a group of farmers and ranchers got together to help local law enforcement with Sweetwater’s rattlesnake population. The police department was overwhelmed with nuisance calls related to the reptile – so much so that they were having a hard time keeping up with their other duties.

“They just rounded the snakes up and they killed them and buried them in a pit,” McCann says. “That was the humble beginnings of the roundup.”

The next year, the Jaycees took over the Rattlesnake Roundup and molded it into the citywide event it is today.

“It takes 11,000 people to put this roundup on, which is roughly the population of our town,” McCann says. “That’s what’s made our roundup last 60 years.”

Two years ago the Sweetwater Chamber of Commerce did an economic impact study and found the event brings in about $8.4 million for the local economy over the course of one weekend. The events include a scholarship pageant, which replaced the beauty pageant, and a huge cookoff. Cooks compete with brisket, chili, beans and the tie breaking category – which is snake.

“It has a very unique taste, especially the way our cooks dredge it and soak it and fry it,” McCann says. “It tastes good to me. The texture is a whole lot like calamari.”

So far, the biggest year for the roundup was 1982 when the event brought in 18,000 pounds of rattlesnake. A rattlesnake averages around three pounds. This means around 6,000 snakes were caught within one month of the event.

When the snakes are caught they first go to the research pit where they’re individually measured, sexed and weighed. This data is shared with various departments on the state and national level. Once a snake is measured it then goes to the milking pit where the venom is extracted. The final stop is the killing pit. The snakes’ heads are cut off, they’re gutted, they’re skinned and the meat is cooked.

The venom that is extracted is usually freeze dried and is sold to various pharmaceutical companies. The Jaycees, a nonprofit organization, takes all the money they raise over the  weekend and put it back into the community.

Recently the roundup has had to compete with the growing entertainment options available to young people. McCann isn’t too concerned about these digital distractions.

“We’ve been very, very blessed with some awesome parents and an awesome community,” he says. “What we have is called a Jay-teen organization. We have over 60 kids who basically are the teenage version of our organization. They want to make a difference in their community and they’re doing it here.”

McCann is confident the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup is in good hands for the foreseeable future.