Friday, April 14, 2017

Eaten Any Rabbit Lately? Rabbit Hunts and Rabbit Suppers in Early Grinnell

In early March I was browsing that day's edition of the New York Times when I ran across an article about rabbit, and how rarely Americans, compared to the French, eat rabbit. The recipes outlined by the author sounded tempting, but my mind focused upon something else: the frequency with which I had found announcements about "rabbit suppers" in newspapers of the early twentieth century. Many fraternal organizations—for example, the Knights of Pythias, the Odd Fellows, Eagles—and many churches and other organizations throughout the Midwest sponsored rabbit suppers, often at holidays or special organization anniversaries. In other words, despite current disinterest in putting rabbit on the menu, apparently there was a time when rabbit was often served at dinner—in early Grinnell no less than elsewhere in mid-America. What was up with that? I decided to look into it, and what I found is the subject of today's story—a kind of anti-Easter bunny story.
Unattributed photograph of a rabbit hunt in Hoxie, Kansas (undated but thought to be from 1905-1915)
(Photo from Kansas Historical Society:
Most suburban Americans today hold fairly tolerant views of rabbits—unless, like Beatrix Potter's Mr. McGregor, they are trying to protect their gardens from rabbits' own dining preferences. However, out on the plains of the Midwest where small towns like Grinnell had grown up in the last half of the nineteenth century, rabbits were less loved; indeed, rabbit populations—protected by and feeding on the prairie's bounty—were huge, making them an inviting target for sport. To many early Iowans, rabbits seemed to be everywhere, and, following the same attitudes that led them to hunt down wolves and other wild animals, settlers on the plains organized rabbit hunts whose sometimes tremendous yields decorated many early twentieth-century photographs (like the Hoxie, Kansas photograph above).

So long as the prairie offered cover, rabbits remained plentiful, explaining at least in part how rabbit hunts became part of Grinnell's social life. As early as 1890 Grinnell College President George Gates went rabbit-hunting with friends, and succeeded in taking down eighteen rabbits.
The Unit, vol. 1 (1890):99
College students also found time to catch and cook rabbit. An article in the December, 1922 Scarlet & Black reported that several students had caught fifteen rabbits that they served at a dinner for the men of Dibble Hall. But collegians might also encounter rabbit on the menu while traveling, as happened in 1924 when the College Glee Club visited Huron, South Dakota. According to an S&B report, the local alumni invited the singers to join in a "real Dakota rabbit hunt," whose yield was then made the central dish of a banquet in the Glee Club's honor.
Scarlet & Black, December 17, 1924
For reasons I don't understand, rabbit seems to have been especially important to the Knights of Pythias, not only in Grinnell but all across the country. One of many announcements of a rabbit supper came in a January, 1919 issue of the Grinnell Herald. According to this report, several Knights had bagged 57 rabbits who were served up to some 250 guests. Unlike most writings about rabbit suppers, this one detailed the preparation to which the bunnies were put. "The main article on the menu," the newspaper said, "was broiled or roasted rabbit altho[ugh] veal loaf was served to those who couldn't eat rabbit meat without being reminded of the fuzz on the outside. The rare rabbit steaks were served hot and juicy, cooked to a turn with plenty of rabbit gravy for the thoroughly mashed potatoes."
Grinnell Herald January 21, 1919
The Pythian Knights made their rabbit feed in Grinnell an annual event, for the most part without stimulating any commentary. But news of the January, 1925 rabbit supper provoked some wonder from editors at the Davenport Democrat and Leader:
We are wondering what kind of taste Grinnell folks have that they will deliberately and without compulsion eat rabbits?...Rabbits were not made to eat. They were made for the fur to be used by hat makers.
Grinnell Register January 8, 1925
Complaints like this were few, however, and were not enough to alter practice. A 1930 announcement for yet another Knights of Pythias dinner declared that hunters had killed three times as many rabbits as had fed the 1919 banquet. Perhaps each diner received a bigger plate, since the newspaper said that about the same number of guests—250—had joined in the gastronomical fun.
Grinnell Herald, January 17, 1930
The Pythians elsewhere—in Columbus and Fort Wayne, Indiana, as well as in Marion, Mansfield, and Wauseon, Ohio, as a Google search confirms—regularly held rabbit suppers which were often opened to the community. In many places it was the Eagles who served rabbit, and in other places it was the Odd Fellows; in Gilbert, Iowa it was the local gun club; in Webster City, even the Boy Scouts got into the act.
Webster City Freeman February 2, 1920
Churches also hosted rabbit suppers. For example, in January 1923 the United Brethren church in Greene, Iowa organized a rabbit banquet. In Des Moines in 1909, Rev. J. W. Abel of Wesley Methodist organized what became an annual rabbit hunt for parishioners. The Iowa Humane society protested that "the plan would foster inhumane tendencies in church members," but Abel carried on. African American churches also sponsored rabbit hunts. Davenport's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal church sponsored a rabbit hunt as early as 1901, and an October, 14, 1920 issue of the Iowa Bystander confirmed that churchmen were still hunting rabbits.

However, rabbit suppers did not require a church or any other sort of organization. For example, an Iowa City newspaper told of Mr. W. R. Griffith who ran the local yellow cab company, and in December, 1925 put on a rabbit feed for all his employees and their families. Sometimes rabbit suppers became special features of hotel restaurants, as happened in Green Castle, Indiana in 1924.
Daily Banner (Green Castle, IN),  January 5, 1924
In other places a rabbit supper was joined to holiday feasting, as happened in Alliance, Ohio where the Eagles arranged an annual rabbit supper for Thanksgiving.
Alliance Review & Leader November 24, 1920
Newspaper reports do not often describe the rabbit hunts themselves, but at least sometimes they were organized much like wolf hunts, systematically corralling all rabbits within a shrinking circle. The Webster City Freeman told of such a hunt organized among the men of the local machine-gun regiment. Major Lund dispatched his men
over about a mile of territory and [they] then gradually work[ed] in toward a given center, driving the rabbits in. No firearms were used, the men catching them with their hands or using clubs. Thousands of rabbits were scared up, and as they dashed past the men managed to grab about one out of every twenty-five....Out of the wild mess that looked considerably like a cattle stampede, the soldiers managed to stop about 150 (Webster City Freeman, November 5, 1917).
Among civilian organizations, however, the more common practice was to use guns, and also to create two teams that competed against one another: the side that killed more rabbits got to enjoy the dinner being served them by the losing side. This was how it played out in Hardy, up near Humboldt:
Sides had been chosen...and there were about 100 men on each side. The hunt lasted all day and ranged over many miles of country near Hardy...More than 700 rabbits were killed, about 800 pigeons, thirty jack rabbits and numerous crows. Hanson's side won the day, Earl Saxton was high man with 150 rabbits and a bagful of pigeons (Humboldt Republican, February 14, 1930).
Rabbit hunting became so common in the area that in March, 1931 a little three-year-old boy from Malcom caught the fever. When his parents noticed that the boy was missing, neighbors and friends scoured nearby fields, only discovering the boy in a cornfield after dark. Reunited with his mother, little Jack Eichhorn told her that he had been "hunting rabbits wif Buddy," his dog.
Grinnell Herald, March 24, 1931
At some point—perhaps the early 1930s—either because the supply of rabbits had fallen off or because people were looking for an easier supper, some industrious farmers began to raise domesticated rabbits. A notice in the November 11, 1930 Grinnell Herald, for instance, reported that several Grinnell-area residents were organizing a local chapter of the American Rabbit and Cavy Breeding Association. According to the newspaper, at least one food market in Grinnell—Thompson  Food Store, 918 Main Street—regularly had rabbit for sale, and "many Grinnell people think it is as good as chicken." Moreover, the newspaper asserted conclusively, "In New York City rabbit meat is eaten extensively." By December the paper could claim that "over 400 domesticated rabbits of several breeds" were being raised in Grinnell.
Grinnell Herald December 5, 1930
Despite the development of domesticated rabbit production, Grinnellians still hunted rabbit. In the depths of the Depression, rabbit helped supplement diets that might otherwise have been light on meat. Indeed, when being interviewed about the 1930s and 1940s, Everett Armstrong maintained that out in the country no one with a gun went hungry.
There was a lot of hunting in those days, too. You know, people were hunting for food. You could go out and shoot rabbits at night...we used to eat rabbit all the time because we got tired of beef and pork. Rabbit was kind of a treat for us and we'd go out and we'd—My dad, if he was out on the road somewhere, he always carried a gun with him, and he'd shoot rabbits and bring them home at night and we'd clean them and we'd hang them up on the clothesline and let them freeze. And when you wanted something different than beef and pork, you'd go get a rabbit.
Rabbits are still hunted in Iowa today, and each year the DNR publishes the dates for the rabbit-hunting season. Nevertheless, the huge rabbit hunts of yesteryear—like the 1919 hunt around Killduff which yielded 450 rabbits—will not be seen around Grinnell any time soon, nor are the rabbit suppers that were a regular feature of community life in early Grinnell likely to fill the town's twenty-first-century social calendar.
Kellogg Enterprise December 19, 1919
And for that, Peter Rabbit and friends are no doubt very happy.

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