Owen Historical Society News: Hunting was part of youth

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By Bonnie Strassell

Every morning before school, the young boy would check his rabbit traps. The woods and fields around Owen County were filled with a variety of game and for a youngster in the 1920s, rabbits were not only a source of food for the family, but could also provide money if the hides were sold. Rabbit hides would be stretched out on a board and after they dried, the hides would be stacked and delivered to a buyer. Even a small amount of change jingling in a little boy’s pocket would elicit a spring in his step and a jack-o-lantern smile to his face.
After milking cows and finishing chores, Harry Clark Karsner of Monterey would scramble to check his traps before he walked to school on Clark’s Ridge in the early 1900s. Trapping rabbits gave a young fellow a sense of accomplishment since the wily cottontail can be suspicious and is quick to dart away at the first sign of danger. Of course, it was quite possible that if the trapping device happened to be a box trap it might entice an opossum or a skunk. The latter definitely required to be released with great care lest the skunk decide to leave his calling card – that unmistakable pungent odor which would permeate every inch of a great hunter and announce his arrival long before he reached home.
The Eastern cottontail is common not only in Owen County but throughout Kentucky. The small stocky animal sports large hind feet, big ears, and a fluffy white tail – thus the name “cottontail.” The female has numerous litters each year and the over abundance of these cute little critters can wreck havoc on gardens in a very short time.
The best time to hunt rabbit is after the first frost. By this time any parasites such as fleas or ticks have long disappeared and the rabbit is as healthy as it will be all season. Probably the most popular trap for Owen County boys was the dead-fall trap. All one needed was a heavy rock or board with a stick placed underneath to hold it up. When the rabbit investigated the bait, it would bump the stick, causing the rock or board to fall.
Many young Owen countians in the early part of the 20th century did their part in keeping the rabbit population in check; and besides as one old timer put it: “They were pretty darn tasty.”
Recently, a truly informative website www.nkyviews.com posted an article from the November 19, 1886 issue of the “Owenton Democrat.” The article stated that “Gratz citizens shipped 300 rabbits to market aboard the steamship Blue Wing, and a week later they shipped 1,000.”
Rabbit has been on the dinner table since the first Europeans reached this country. Owen County has always been a rabbit paradise and from all evidence they continue to make their presence known in great numbers.
The squirrel is also an Owen County favorite.
In the 19th century, a .36 caliber squirrel rifle was common in Kentucky. Many an Owen countian recalls the time of his boyhood when he took his first squirrel. The challenge was to shoot the squirrel in the head so as not to ruin the meat with a lead ball. To many there’s nothing as tasty as squirrel stew, and early settlers would often decorate their hats with a bushy red or gray squirrel tail.
Historical society member Darrel Baker relates a squirrel stew story which involved his grandfather.
In the early 20th century, Kentucky farmers would cut logs in the winter and roll them to the river where they would be tied together in a raft. Come spring, these men would ride the rafts on the Kentucky to the nearest sawmill where they would be purchased and cut into boards. Many times on the trip the weary men would tie up the raft near the shore and stop at inns along the way for a meal and a place to rest for the night. Darrel’s grandfather and his friend were rafting to a mill near Beattyville and decided to stop and spend the night at a tavern near the river. When asked if a hearty meal could be had, the innkeeper replied that he had just prepared a pot of delicious squirrel stew and dumplings. With relish the men each devoured a plateful of the thick aromatic fare. It wasn’t until later that night that Darrel’s grandfather was made aware of the true ingredients of the “squirrel” stew. Going outside to relieve himself,  he discovered a huge cache of cat skins on the side of the hill. Obviously, the “squirrel” stew did not contain squirrel as its main ingredient.
Owen County youngsters continue the tradition of hunting. That first squirrel or rabbit or deer give rise to opportunities to recall family stories and relate the history of our first settlers whose very existence depended on the abundant game roaming the area.
The Owen County Historical Society has many plans for 2013. We have been blessed by so many of you who have supported our efforts to preserve Owen County history and traditions. May the New Year be a time of historic significance for all of us as we continue to work together toward the common goal of passing on the treasure of our history to our children, grandchildren and future generations.