Spending two weeks in a pit with 200 poisonous snakes and an alligator sounds like a rough way to earn a living, but that is exactly what Dutch Dunnell did in 1962.
This bizarre plan was an advertising ploy to draw Route 66 travelers to the Silver Star Court west of St. Clair.
Competition for tourist dollars was keen. The highway was dotted with mom-and-pop operations, all of which wanted their share of the pot of gold provided by the tourist industry.
Paul and Cora Smith owned the business. “Little Dutch” told them if they would have a pit built, he would spend two weeks in it with approximately 200 snakes, including diamondback rattlesnakes, cobras, blue indigo snakes, copperheads, a deadly mambo nerve snake, and an alligator.
This stunt would serve as a drawing card of the motel, luring customers off the Mother Road.
In 1992, Don Cox recalled having told Dutch that, “If you’re crazy enough to do it, we’re crazy enough to build it.” A box, 4 feet wide, 7 feet long and 8 feet deep, equipped with a ventilation fan, was built by Elmer Cox and Rolla Parks.
Billboards were made up announcing, “Little Dutch, Buried Alive With Snakes!” and “The 13th Greatest Freak in the World!” Dutch was also capable of placing a 20-penny spike up inside his head through his nose and claimed to be triple-jointed.
Dutch, who was known primarily as “Little Dutch” or “The Snake Man,” spent a week in the pit, having food handed in to him.
Admission was 25 cents. Children liked him and he spent quite a bit of time talking to them. Rain interfered so Dutch was not able to stay in the pit the full two weeks, but he spent at least a week in the pit.
Immune to snakebite, Dutch was unaffected by snakebite or snake venom. Paul Smith recalled that Dutch was bitten three times before breakfast one morning. In fact, Dutch milked the snakes and provided venom to Dr. Crawford from Sullivan and other area doctors for use in treating snakebite victims.
Don Cox helped Dutch take care of the snakes. They were fed hamburger, eggs and some chicken mix.
Dutch spent a year or more in the St. Clair area. A multitalented man, he painted scenic murals on the walls of the Silver Star Motel units as well as numerous billboards.
He came from Oklahoma and Texas where he had caught many snakes. He had set his act up at shopping centers in Louisiana before coming to Missouri. When he left Missouri, he returned to Louisiana to participate in Mardi Gras and later died in Oklahoma.
Silver Star Court was owned by the Smiths from 1957 until 1972. Originally, it was located near Old Route 66 and consisted of a restaurant and separate cabins. Around 1955, the motel was moved back and garages were built between the cabins.
In a later remodeling, the Smiths changed the garages to rooms. Hamburgers were sold in the restaurant for 15 cents each or seven for a dollar.
The business was located on the North Service Road west of Harmony Hills subdivision, described on some postcards and other advertising material, as “eight miles west of St. Clair, Mo.” Before Paul and Cora Smith bought the business, it had been owned by George Wilson and was known as the Midway Café and Motel.
After Interstate 44 was built, the Smiths closed both the motel and the restaurant. The limited-access highway had severely cut into their customer base. The buildings were demolished and a mobile home was placed on the site. John Price later had a garage there.
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