As late as Halloween in 1917, Isaac London advised that some “progressive Siler City citizen, with a keen business acumen and a surplus of cash, would do well to open up a rabbit canning factory.” It would be “a splendid war measure, in the conservation of food.” But the statement would be one of his last promoting the native product of his home county. Two weeks later, he bought two newspapers in Rockingham, with plans to combine them into one, the Post-Dispatch. He and his family immediately moved to Rockingham.40
Winter came, another cold one. In early January of 1918, Henry London reported the “coldest spell since February, 1899, and the coldest December weather we have ever had.” Within a few weeks, he would contract pneumonia and die. That month, H. E. C. Bryant, who had reported on the Chatham rabbit’s takeover of Raleigh in 1904, wrote to the Charlotte Observer from Washington, D.C. He said Chatham would rejoice when it learned that an official in the Department of Agriculture “recommended as a war service a more general utilization of rabbits’ for food.” Bryant reported rabbits selling for 50 cents in Washington, when twenty-five years previous they “were killed by the thousand for their skins which sold for two or three cents a piece.” Toward the end of the year, rabbits were selling in Washington for a dollar each, though many had been “condemned by health authorities on account of spoilage through improper packing for shipment.”41
Following Isaac London’s departure from the Siler City Grit, the documentary trail falls off considerably. Boys still chased rabbits, to be sure. The December 30, 1921, issue of the Chatham Record noted an incident where a “rabbit left his nest near the Confederate monument at midday on Tuesday and was caught by a crowd of boys before he gained a block.” But reporting on the market in Siler City no longer appeared with any frequency.42
That previous spring, “The Chatham Rabbit,” a play by the student and budding journalist/writer LeGette Blythe was produced at the University of North Carolina Playmakers Repertory Theater. Its titular character was a star football player from Chatham County who ran fast and amazed his brothers at the “I Tappa Keg” fraternity with his ability to attract visiting women students, despite his plain, rustic reserve and debilitating shyness. In the 1920s, sportswriters in the state would on occasion refer to a baseball pitcher’s lack of control by saying he was “wild as a Chatham rabbit.”43
Several oral histories from the mill town of Bynum in the 1970s highlighted the sense of Chatham’s past as the “rabbit county.” John Wesley Snipes, born in 1901, recalled rabbit hunting as a boy, killing “thirty or forty rabbits a day.” They would hang the dressed rabbits in the smokehouse in cold weather and use them for “rabbit hash.” Frank Durham, born in 1905, played in a string band called the Chatham Rabbits that made appearances on the radio station WPTF in Raleigh. Tellingly, each man had a different explanation for the demise of the rabbit market. Snipes said, “But the foxes got so they destroyed them, and we don’t have that many rabbits now, very few.” Durham said, “They was everywhere, but there come a disease in here and killed them out, and there never have been none.”44
By the time these men shared their reminiscences, the great rabbit market of Chatham County had retreated into legend. The sweep of world war, government regulation, and economic forces, as well as broad changes in agricultural practice, transportation modes, and demographics, surely all contributed to its decline and demise. The rabbit harvest was a phenomenon of that time between Reconstruction and the encroachment of the modern age, and for a brief four decades it all but defined the place. Then it disappeared into the hedgerows.
Rabbit Recipes from the Archives
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 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
Bacon fat, 2 tablespoons.
Flour, 1/2 cup.
Water, 1 cup.
Onion, 1 medium size.
Tomato juice, 1 cup.
Butter, 1 tablespoon.
Salt and pepper, to taste.
Cook the onion to a golden brown in the butter, add tomato juice, salt and pepper. Dredge the rabbit with flour and brown in the bacon fat, as soon as the meat is a rich brown, add the tomato sauce and cook very slowly until tender, on the back of the stove or a fireless cooker.10
In gravy, and stewed, with dumplings
I am glad the election is over and I am going on getting gladder for the rabbit season is now on with all the joy that comes to boy[s] that trap them together with all the great happiness it will give to thousands of children who sop their bread in rabbit gravy[.] Chatham is said to be the banner county for rabbits . . . .
I gave an old colored woman a rabbit yesterday and it was the best deed I have done since the election. I said, “how are you to cook it?” “oh,” she said, “I will stew it an put dumplings in, too.”17
[W]ait till the first killing frost comes next fall, when the rabbits are fat, and then have one that has been caught in an old-fashioned gum log, prepared by the following recipe: Par boil until thoroughly done, then suspend by a strong cord attached to the mantel, before an old-fashioned hickory wood fire in an old-fashioned open fireplace. Prepare a dressing of butter, vinegar, salt and pepper, . . . take a sharp-pronged fork and stooping down, punch holes in the rabbit, turning him round and round. Then pour the dressing over the rabbit, as he turns, having a basin underneath to catch what doesn’t soak in. Continue this treatment until the meat is thoroughly saturated, and has been browned, slightly, by the fire. While this is going, let there be also a turn-over corn pone in course of construction, and a pot of strong coffee in “process.” When everything is ready, draw your chair up to the table, set close before a cheerful wood fire on a chilly evening, when you are feeling well and hearty, and “layto.”24
Rabbit is the principal diet of Chatham’s connoisseurs and epicures. No rabbits are shipped from Pittsboro because the fastidious people of that county seat get their beauty and many other good qualities from a diet of rabbits. The best cooks have ninety-seven different ways of cooking the rabbit, and the animal is so good in each way that when Pittsboro folks go away from home they carry enough rabbits to give them at least one a day while they are gone. They have been known also to carry a broiler and to be found by their hosts broiling a rabbit in their room after they thought everybody else had retired.33
This essay first appeared in our 2012 Food issue (vol. 18, no. 2), guest edited by Marcie Cohen Ferris.
Will Sexton once managed the kitchen at Crook’s Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill and holds Master’s degrees in English-Creative Writing from Hollins University and Information and Library Science from the University of North Carolina.