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  • "Boomtown Rabbits":The Rabbit Market in Chatham County, North Carolina, 1880-1920
  • Will Sexton (bio)

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Although rabbits flourished across the region, in the years between 1880 and 1920, Chatham County turned its rabbits into something like a regional brand, recognized throughout the South and along the eastern seaboard. By the end of the nineteenth century, the railroad district of the county's newest and biggest town, Siler City, had become the de facto rabbit capital of the Southeast. Photograph by Lewis Hine, courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

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The Eastern cottontail rabbit thrived in the edges that ran all across the North Carolina Piedmont in the late nineteenth century. Perennial rabbit dynasties filled the fields, meadows, and hedgerows over the spring and summer mating cycles. In September of 1896, they ran in such numbers that reports came of trains hitting them by the score. On November 1 of that year, Chatham County, the "happy hunting ground for Mr. Rabbit," opened what promised to be a banner season. The morning of December 2, snow began falling in the region, and continued throughout the day. Nine inches fell on the county seat of Pittsboro and brought out the children for snowballs and sledding in town. Out in the countryside, the snow forced the rabbits into the open. Tireless boys chased them in the fields and caught them without dogs, guns, or traps.1

Some of the rabbits graced the dinner table fried or in a stew, but local produce dealers bought most. That week, resellers in Siler City bought more than 1,700 from hunters, and in Harper's Crossroads, about 800. The Chatham railway depot known as Richmond reported shipping 2,400. On the morning of December 9, 7,250 pounds of rabbits, hunted, trapped, dressed, and packed in Chatham, departed the town of Moncure on a northbound express train. Within the day, wagons loaded with them saturated the state capital, Raleigh, where diners were always open about their love for Chatham rabbit.2

Although the same cottontails flourished across the region, in the years between 1880 and 1920, Chatham County turned its rabbits into something like a regional brand, recognized throughout the South and along the eastern seaboard. By the end of the nineteenth century, the railroad district of the county's newest and biggest town, Siler City, had become the de facto rabbit capital of the Southeast. Jokes linking politics and Chatham rabbit entered the repertoire of statewide humor, as did the idealized rusticity of the county's people. This account draws mostly on newspaper sources to trace the stages in the career of a foodway: its birth in the old fields, the early development that separated it from peers in neighboring counties, its introduction to society (polite and otherwise) in the state capital, its weird turn to politics, its prime-of-life endeavors in industry, and its demise on the shifting ground of modernity.

Ways of eating rabbit: A jugged hare

CUT it into little pieces, lard them here and there with little slips of bacon, season them with a very little pepper and salt, put them into an earthen jugg, with a blade or two of mace, an onion stuck with cloves, and a bundle of sweet-herbs; cover the jugg or jar you do it in so close that nothing can get in, then set it in a pot of boiling water, keep the water boiling, and three hours will do it; then [End Page 75] turn it out into the dish, and take out the onion and sweet-herbs, and sent it to the table hot. If you don't like it larded, leave it out.3

The Old Fields

If a market begins with supply, a game market by necessity begins with a wildlife habitat. A century after the rabbit's heyday in the Piedmont, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) advised farmers who sought to restore the teeming populations of the past. The NCWRC characterized the rabbit's prime habitat with three aspects: 1) a low predator population; 2) "extensive areas of uniformly good escape cover," including "large abandoned...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 74-95
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-29
Open Access
No
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