Snake Farm

from: Tony Zavaleta

While growing up in Texas’ southernmost bordertown, Brownsville anthropologist Tony Zavaleta liked to swim in the city’s resacas, the landlocked channels that once were part of the meandering Rio Grande. Until, that is, he witnessed the stirring of the serpent.

“Nobody believes me,” Tony says, “but this is a true story.” One day in the 1960s, Tony hopped in the water as usual. “Then some distance away, I saw it. I thought it was a tire at first, but then it moved. I think it might have been a python--nobody believed me at the time or since, but I will tell you this, I never swam in a resaca again.”

Iguanas, tropical parrots, pythons--exotic critters of all stripes once thrived in Brownsville’s urban wilds. Back in 1933, a hurricane liberated many of the creatures from a wild animal outpost in the Rio Grande Valley called Snakeville. For that story, and for the story of Snakeville’s owner, a dimunitive Brooklyn native named William Lieberman--better known as Snake King--we go back to 1893 and the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

There, 15 year-old Willie Lieberman took a job as the “wild man” in a cage of live snakes for a midway show. Something about the slithering reptiles caught his fancy, and over the next few years, Lieberman worked for or met nearly every snake exhibitor in the country. Called “geek shows” at the time, the serpentine entertainments had a constant need for fresh snakes. Sizing up the opportunity, young Willie envisioned a vast snake farm providing live specimens to showmen all over the country.

Texas seemed a likely place for snakes to flourish, so Lieberman headed for the silvery Rio Grande. In 1907, he settled in Brownsville and established Snakeville, a name that would soon become known from coast to coast, border to border, and beyond.



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