Conway Springs: ‘Wire hunts’ bagged hundreds of rabbits

Conway Springs’ 15th annual rabbit hunt was held on Dec. 15, 1908. Rabbit hunts were popular events in the early 1900s. Many people supported the hunts because of problems the rabbits caused for farmers.

Editor’s Note: This article, now in the public domain, describes the hugely successful rabbit hunts Conway Springs men conducted in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It was published in the September 1900 issue of “Recreation” magazine. Alva Clapp owned a hardware store in Conway Springs from 1891 to 1900, according to Sheffield Ingalls’ 1916 “History of Atchison County.”

By Alva Clapp
Recreation Magazine

So numerous have rabbits become in this locality that many large fields of wheat are destroyed yearly by them. In the winter, when other food is scarce, they eat the tender wheat as fast as it appears above ground, and so close to the germ that a sudden freeze kills it.

Many counties in the state pay a bounty of 3 cents for each rabbit killed, and most farmers own guns and spend their leisure killing rabbits. Organized hunts are conducted, and new methods of slaughter are in vain devised to offset bunny’s progenitiveness.

Nowhere are rabbits more plentiful than in Sumner County. This county paid in 1897 over $5,000 for rabbit scalps. In no other place in the state has the manner of hunting become so systematized as at Conway Springs. There it has for years been the custom to have an annual rabbit hunt.

The hunters, nine or 10 on each side, are selected by two captains chosen at a meeting called for the purpose, and the losing team is expected to provide dinner for all concerned.

Citizens of the town who do not enjoy hunting, or who, for various reasons, cannot take part in the chase, pair off and agree to stand by the fortunes of the respective sides. Thus the whole town becomes interested, and the gathering-in at the banquet is limited only by the size of the dining hall.

For days before these hunts, interest is at fever heat, and everyone is speculating on the outcome. The rival leaders display great generalship in planning the campaign, sending scouts to locate the enemy and contriving new ways for his annihilation.

At first, the hunters went out as they pleased at dawn and returned when it was too dark to shoot, often going in twos and fours from the same or opposing sides. Then each team hunted in a body, under command of its captain.

Last of all was evolved the great “wire hunt” of 1898. Each captain had eight men and exactly 55 pounds (about 60 rods) of No. 9 smooth fence wire. The wire is securely fastened at each end to the rear axle of a farm wagon, and the wagons are driven as far apart as the wire will permit.

The hunters, stationed at regular distances, follow behind the wire. Back of the hunters come the “pickers,” usually boys, with a horse and wagon to carry the game. Having shot a rabbit, the hunter leaves it for the pickers, reloads his gun and follows the wire, which is being drawn slowly over the ground, flushing everything in cover.

In an 1898 hunt, the two parties left the main street in Conway Springs at 9 a.m. Captain Beal’s men killed 352 rabbits, and Captain Clapp’s 276, making a total of 628. Of that number, about 450 were jack rabbits, and the remainder cottontails. They weighed almost two tons; were shipped to Chicago and brought about $60.

This seems a big kill, and was so considered at the time, but many of the hunters were selected because they wanted to go and not because of their marksmanship.

To see what could be done by picked men, another hunt was arranged for Dec. 27. We took with us teams to draw the wire, and boys to gather the rabbits; and were followed by many buggies loaded with sightseers. We hunted behind the wire from 11 until noon and from 1:30 p.m. until 4 – less than 3-1/2 hours – and returned with 386 rabbits.

In one month, more than 1,700 rabbits were killed by wire hunting within seven miles of this town, to say nothing of those killed by farmers and solitary hunters. Of course, hunting with a wire is possible only in a country of large, treeless stretches and where there are few fences.