Robert Ripley was a pussy and his exhibit sucked compared to local legend Rattlesnake Pete and his museum. His history with our city can be defined as either a sophisticated conman or a charming eccentric.
Born Pete Gruber, Rattlesnake Pete learned to catch snaked from local Indians in Oil City Pennsylvania. Pete was renowned for his handling of snakes of all kinds, particularly poisonous rattlesnakes and copperheads, and for his knowledge of the medicinal properties of snake venom. He also claimed that he could cure a goiter by wrapping a live snake around an afflicted person’s throat.
His true dream however was opening up a saloon that continued a large snake exhibit. Oddly enough Rochester was the only city in the north east that allowed a bar to contain live snakes. When his doors opened in 1890 on Mill St, it was an instant success.
People from around the corner and throughout the nation came to see such curios and oddities including—but certainly not limited to—Pete’s Indian exhibit with 500 arrowheads, a two-headed calf, a 3,000-pound stuffed Percheron horse, tanks filled with writhing snakes, jars of pickled brains, Pete’s 100+-year-old harpsichord (believed to have been the first one in Rochester), a pipe said to have been smoked by John Wilkes Booth, the weight used in the last hanging in the city, the battle flag of Custer’s last stand, an Egyptian mummy, a shingle from the Johnstown flood, stuffed animals and snakes of all kinds, and even an ax used by a wife murderer. Then there was the skull of the horse of Civil War General Philip H. Sheridan and the electrical trick machine that shot out a padded fist when a coin was dropped in the slot.
Many worried that his saloon wouldn’t last because of the gangs that roamed Mill St. Rattlesnake Pete managed to keep good relations with the neighborhood, with a mixture of diplomacy and charisma. That fact that he was a large man (he grew up a blacksmith apprentice) and his renown fearlessness didn’t hurt relationships with the gangs either.
Rattlesnake Pete lived his role as a oddity owner and snake charmer. He often wore a vest made of rattlesnake skins, and carried around a cane with a gold rattlesnake head. When people would call on him to hunt down poisonous snakes on their property, he would jump into his red Rambler automobile, which was ornamented in front with two large brass snakes.
Pete died on October 11, 1932, at his home at 687 Averill Avenue at the age of 75. The bricks of his museum now make up the now abandoned Bullwinkle’s Cafe front in Rochester.