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The Snake Lady

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

You would think an up and coming town like Kewanee, Illinois, could do a bit better than tie its reputation to pigs. But that is what they have done. "Kewanee, Hog Capitol of the World," says the sign on the edge of town.

Of course, that means an annual summer Hog Festival. It means a newspaper, the Hogsmopolitan, inviting readers to "pig out on pork." And it even means that several young women each year must be talked into vying for the title of "Pork Queen."

It could all have been so different, had Kewanee paid more attention to Mrs. Ada Packard back in 1910. That was the year she gained fame as Kewanee's "snake lady."

Mrs. Packard claimed to have the gift of control over reptiles, a gift she recognized even as a baby. "Whenever I was at Sunday school picnics in the woods," she explained, "snakes crawled to me from all directions.

Even as a child, she was as fond of snakes as they were of her. Seeing an injury done to a snake sent her into emotional turmoil. "I collapsed for a few months," she told reporters, "when a snake in front of my home was killed by a stranger."

In 1910, when Mrs. Packard failed to rally from a surgical operation, she became convinced that a pet snake would restore her health. Her husband brought home, much against his wishes, a poisonous copperhead. She began to recover immediately, but three weeks later, the snake took a chill and died. Mrs. Packard had a relapse. She needed another snake. Her husband objected strenuously, but believing it was a case of life or death for his wife, Mr. Packard sent off to New York for an eleven-foot boa constrictor. This time she kept her pet in a tub of warm water to keep away the October chill.

Her health again took a turn for the better, and a new idea occurred to her. "If the companionship of one snake will do me this much good," she said, "it’s probable that another would hasten my recovery."

Had her good husband not finally put his foot down, it is possible that Kewanee would soon have been swimming in snakes. Kewanee could have become "Home of the snake lady," and saved itself the embarrassment of association with pigs.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.