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Rattlesnake Pete

By Jeffrey Calta, Chicora, Pa.

The Western Pennsylvania oil region has produced some interesting characters. One of these was Peter Gruber, aka “Rattlesnake Pete”. (Pictured right) Peter was born in Clarion County in 1858 and moved to Oil City where his parents opened a saloon and restaurant on Elm Street.

When not attending Oil City High School, Pete roamed the countryside around Oil City. It was during one of these hikes that he met an Indian woman dragging a freshly killed rattlesnake. He quickly became friends with the Indian woman who taught Peter about rattlesnakes and other nature lore. In particular, she taught him many Indian cures for various ailments and diseases. This knowledge would increase with time and he was regarded all his life as a bona fide healer and was sought out by many individuals for help with their health issues. Peter’s fascination with serpents grew with time and he often brought snakes home with him.

Peter began to work at his parent’s saloon after high school. He opened a Hall of Wonders in a separate room in the saloon which contained live and preserved snakes from his personal collection. His ever- growing collection plus his healing talent earned him the nickname Rattlesnake Pete.

Peter’s Hall of Wonders quickly grew as artifacts and curiosities were added to the collection. He was a skilled machinist and designed many trick gadgets for customer amusement and was famous for a working diorama of a pumping oil well.

The Flood of 1892 devastated Oil City and Gruber’s Saloon. Peter’s parents sold their interest in the saloon and Peter headed to Pittsburgh to recreate the saloon and museum. Pittsburgh would not issue Peter a license so he moved to Rochester, NY and opened an operation similar to the Oil City tavern.

His Rochester museum/tavern quickly became famous and was a well-known tourist stop. Peter became internationally known thanks to travelers who spread the word about “Rattlesnake Pete”. His picture was spotted on walls in Athens, Greece and Shanghai, China.

Peter’s museum was an eclectic mix of animals and curiosities. In addition to numerous snakes, he had a four- legged chicken, an eight- legged lamb, a 3300 pound stuffed Percheron horse, a battle flag recovered from the Battle of Little Bighorn, a tomahawk used by Sitting Bull, a pipe used by John Wilkes Booth, numerous relics from the James Gang outlaws, and a large wooden chair reputed to be the first electric chair used at New York’s Sing Sing Prison.

Peter’s bar “tricks” also drew customers to his tavern/museum. One trick was a stuffed cobra that Pete could release from above the bar to eye level to quiet a rowdy patron. Another was a promise to see a scantily dressed girl if the customer would look into a glass covered box and deposit a coin. Immediately, a gloved fist shot out and hit them in the jaw. Another trick was to dupe a customer in a challenge to lift a set of dumbbells not knowing that the set was welded to the floor. Upon trying to lift the dumbbells, a stream of water would shoot from the floor up the customer’s pant leg. The bar also had a “blowing machine” to test a person’s lung strength. One puff and your face was covered with flour. Still another trick was a gold coin attached to the bar. Anyone who tried to touch the coin received an electric shock.

All manner of snake items were available for sale at the tavern. Snake skin purses and ties were sold along with jewelry made from snake fangs. Peter also collected snake venom for sale to pharmaceutical companies.

Peter Gruber died in 1932 at age 74. His funeral was attended by thousands of Rochester’s citizens.

(Special thanks to Judith Etzel for help with this article)

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