Friday, October 29, 2021

Legendary Ben Smith and the allure of Rattlesnake Mountain

By Ernest H. Knight

One of the early settlers in Raymond on Raymond Hill was Ben Smith, who came to the area from Dover, New Hampshire as a runaway boy in 1787.

On a trip to explore a nearby mountain, Smith found it infested with timber and common rattlesnakes and gave that spot its present familiar name.

Ben Smith, who came to Raymond Hill as a 
runaway boy in 1787, is credited with naming
Rattlesnake Mountain shown here. On a trip to explore
the mountain, Smith found it infested with timber and 
common rattlesnakes and later turned selling the snake's
venom into a liniment business. FILE PHOTO
The mountain was about five miles from his farm and Smith became famous in Maine for his business of peddling Rattlesnake Oil for rheumatic and neuralgic pains. 

As a sideline to farming, Smith’s business involved catching rattlesnakes, extracting their oil and venom, and then selling it locally and the Portland area for its therapeutic value as a liniment for rheumatism and anything else needing a sure cure.

To prove his product genuine, he carried live snakes with him on his travels and attracted attention by putting a live snake inside his shirt and letting it crawl around his body.

Smith was bitten at least once, and it was reported by his friends that he ultimately took on one of the characteristics of rattlesnakes in that his tongue constantly darted in and out of his mouth.

He had experimented to eliminate the hazards of his act by pulling out the snake’s fangs with the pincers he used in repairing his boots and apparently his research paid off as he lived to the age of 82, expiring in bed surrounded by a few of his reptilian pets.

Through overkill and forest fires, the rattlers eventually became extinct on the mountain and the last known capture of a rattlesnake in Raymond was reported at Webbs Mills about 1870.

Rattlesnake Mountain with its rocky terrain and once massive oak forests were a source of knee, stem, keel and other pieces required for building Maine sailing vessels. Rather than haul heavy and awkward timbers, forks and roots to the waterfront shipyards, patterns for needed shapes were brought to the mountain for the hewers to use in removing the excess material.

With a limited supply of suitable trees which nature could only make by 100 or more years of growth, it is fitting that the building of wooden ships was abdicated when the use of iron became popular for shipbuilding.

Another product of never-ending supply but of diminished demand is split granite building foundation for stones and walls. It was once an active business as it was split from boulders and ledges by hand with a hammer, rock drill and wedges.

The Berry Brothers, John, Charles, and George, who lived on Plains Road, were practitioners of this craft and who from their outcropping on Rattlesnake Mountain split all the stone wall surrounding Riverside Cemetery near their home. Split stone has since given way understandably to concrete, brick, and cement blocks though the glamour has been lost. <

This article was written by the late Ernest H. Knight, one of the founders of the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and contained in his book “Historical Gems of Raymond and Casco.” It was submitted by the Raymond-Casco Historical Society and articles about Raymond history from the historical society will appear regularly in The Windham Eagle newspaper. To find out more about the Raymond-Casco Historical Society, call Frank McDermott at 207-655-4646.  

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