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By Chris Dunmire | Posted June 1, 2010 | Updated October 1, 2019
John and Sandy Weber left the 9-5 work-a-day world for a simpler life in the desert and created a crafty souvenir shop and outdoor museum just down the road a piece from the ghost town of Gleeson, Arizona. Visitors to Rattlesnake Crafts can enjoy an assortment of handmade items and experience a unique look into the past.
I first learned about John and Sandy Weber's Rattlesnake Crafts & Rocks in Gleeson, Arizona, while visiting my family in Tombstone in the fall of '08. My parents had relocated to the Southwest a decade earlier from outside of Chicago, a contrasting change from flatlands rowed with cornfields to brushy desert bumped with mountains and prickly pears. Not to mention the scorpions and, well, rattlesnakes.
"There's a man who makes wallets and jewelry out of rattlesnakes and sells them in a trailer in the middle of the desert," my sister, who was staying with my parents, delightedly informed me one day. "It's an unusual place. Nobody waits on you in the gift shop you just shop and leave your money in a wooden box."
A souvenir gift shop with a payment honor system? I was skeptical, but intrigued. How can that possibly work out without the man getting cleaned out by thieves?
Days later I learned first-hand how his operation worked. Mom and I visited Rattlesnake Crafts and Rocks after driving through the ghost town of Gleeson, Arizona, about 15 miles from Tombstone. We followed several painted signs on dusty, primitive roads, and finally pulled into the landmark's driveway on a mid-Sunday afternoon.
At first I was overwhelmed by the immense outdoor museum collection of historic western town artifacts. Baking in the hot desert sun were hordes of antique glass bottles, metal sculptures, boots, shoes, signs, phones, and tools surrounding a small travel trailer full of homemade rattlesnake crafts. Outside the trailer stood tables and shelves lined with gemstones and rocks for sale. An unseen radio played classic 60s and 70s rock faintly in the background. My sister was right nobody manned the store. Instead, a weathered wooden box hung on the outside of the trailer to collect payments with an instructional sign that read:
If you like anything
that's priced, leave money
or check payable to
"Well, you wanted to make some new memories," Mom smiled as she noticed my curiosity at full peak. This was a few years before everyone carried camera-ready smartphones and posted every picture worthy moment on social media.
"Here, take some pictures with my camera." And so I did. The kind of photos you take all the while knowing the place you're standing is the only one of its kind in the world. Nobody could ever appreciate it without photos, or better yet in full immersion, without visiting it themselves. Not even social media can explain all the stillness and beauty I felt in those few fresh moments.
As Mom and I browsed the shop, I noticed a small residence around the corner not too far off from the trailer. My suspicions of it being the owner's home was confirmed when a friendly woman in blue jeans and a pink oxford shirt emerged and meandered over.
"Hello," Sandy introduced herself. "Where are you from?"
After sharing I was visiting from the stateline area in Northern Illinois, Sandy said she and her husband John were originally from the neighboring town of Rockford, Illinois, in which they left in 1979 for Arizona, "trading the work-a-day world for the laid-back and somewhat lazy lifestyle of rattlesnake hunters."
Sandy scooted off after some small talk, and I rejoined Mom in the gift shop. "Which necklace do you like better?" Mom asked pointing to two different styles. She always loved wearing unique, chunky necklaces and jewelry, so this place really was her cup of tea. When she was satisfied with her selections, she wrote out a check and left it in the weathered box on top of a stack of money bills and other checks, a self-checkout system of trusting proportions. I smiled at her comfort with doing this; she's assuredly done it before.
As we pulled away, I thought, Wow, what an interesting life they lead. It certainly was a day-trip I'll never forget. Days later, Mom received a "thank you" postcard in the mail good for $5 off her next purchase at Rattlesnake Crafts and Rocks. And great customer service with a twist of marketing genius, too!. An avid coupon clipper, Mom would surely return to claim her discount.
Despite its remote location, John and Sandy's Rattlesnake Crafts continues to get its share of tourists, many coming from Tombstone (December through April is their busy season). It's been written about in various publications and featured on NBC TV's Today Show.
After reflecting on John and Sandy's unique story, and especially their decision to leave behind the 9 to 5 working world to pursue a less-stressed, simple life some 30-years earlier, I asked if I might interview them for Creativity Portal's Creative Careers in the Arts series. I wondered, among many things, if they had any regrets about their decision, and what advice they might have for others wishing to follow an unconventional life path in pursuit of a creative dream. The following is what they shared with me.
Q: John, it's been 30 years (1979) since you and your wife Sandy left Rockford, Illinois, and headed for Arizona, "trading the work-a-day world for the laid-back and somewhat lazy lifestyle of rattlesnake hunters." Do you have any regrets? Would you have done anything differently?
A: I worked for Sundstrand Aviation as a contract administrator for over 20 years, and Sandy worked as a secretary for a cable TV company in Rockford.
We met some 30 years ago and almost immediately decided that we'd quit our jobs and move to Arizona. It was the second marriage for both of us, and we had 7 pretty well grown "kids" at the time. We gave our notices at work, and proceeded to make firm plans to leave. Sandy gave her car and most of her belongings to her "kids", and after a great "good-bye" party given by Sundstrand and old high-school friends, we departed, not knowing just what we'd do in Arizona.
I had attended college in Gainesville, Florida, and while there had done some snake-hunting in Payne's Prairie, so Arizona's rattlesnakes were interesting to me. One of our first stops in Arizona was a shop that sold Rattlesnake hat bands for $50 each. We both decided that maybe that was the way to make a modest living, and to have fun at the same time.
Our initial attempts to make things from the rattlesnakes that we caught were almost comical, but we were successful selling hat bands, buckles and belts at local flea markets where customers were not too particular.
Everything was new and exciting for us as we bought a small trailer and settled in to learning how to work with leather and snakeskins.
As we look back at the beginning of our new lives, we have no regrets. The Arizona sunshine and warm weather suited us just fine, and the fact that we had no bosses, and lots of freedom while in our mid-40's was just what we wanted. We were fortunate to not have any health issues for so many years, and no insurance to cover them, if we did.
We both kept in close contact with all of our old friends from Rockford, and many of them have visited us over the years...curious as to what we were doing and how we were making it together.
Q: How many nights a week during the summer months do you hunt rattlesnakes? What time of the night do you start and finish? And how many snakes do you typically bring home?
A: We began a routine of hunting rattlers by driving many old country and blacktop roads at night between about 6PM and 9PM. Just a regular Arizona hunting license was required and we could catch as many as 4 Diamondbacks and 4 Mojaves per night. We decided that we would not "play" with them or keep them alive for any length of time. We felt that if we did, sooner or later we'd get bitten. A bite from a rattler would put you in intensive care and cost upwards of $10,000, so that was something to be avoided at all costs. We kept records one year and it took us an average of 9 and 1/2 hours of hunting, for each rattler we caught. We quickly learned how to skin and gut the snakes and tan the hides so that they became supple and would last indefinitely.
Q: Do you hunt and use other types of snakes besides rattlers? What do you do during the rest of the year?
A: We did not kill any harmless snakes, but if we found them recently killed on the road, we could take their hides and use them for our crafts. Arizona has about 15 different species of rattler, but by far the most common are Western Diamondbacks and Mojaves. We did find a few Arizona Coral snakes over the years, and we had those mounted professionally.
We catch the bulk of the rattlers in June, July and August, and make our crafts from them the rest of the year. We use the vertebrae to make earrings, necklaces, and bracelets, and the fangs to make necklaces and rings and earrings. We also use the rattles to make key chains, necklaces, earrings and hat tacks. The heads are dried and used with fangs extended, to make rearview mirror decorations, tie tacks, and plaques. The skins are used for making check book covers, wallets, purses, bracelets, hat bands, credit card holders, knife cases and sheaths, coasters, buckles and barrettes.
Q: Surrounding your shop is an outdoor museum, "an acre of over 5000 primitive and western collectibles on display that aren't for sale." Where did all of those artifacts come from, and how long do you think they'll last being openly exposed to the elements? Will you ever sell them, or just let them 'return to the earth?'
We moved from the Phoenix area to a small ghost town in Southeastern Arizona named Gleeson. From our tiny trailer there, we'd sell our crafts to tourists, out of a suitcase. Eventually we sold out of a shed, as our products and business grew.
As a sideline, we would go out into the desert in search of artifacts left behind by Apaches or cowboys. We would bring those small items back and display them outside the shed that held the rattler crafts. We found quickly that many of the tourists were more interested in those relics than in our rattler crafts, so we began trading our crafts to the ranchers in the area.
They would give us the old items that they had in their barns and had no use for, and would accept our rattler crafts for gifts for their grandkids. We began to display all of those items outside, but would not offer them for sale. Just the rattler crafts were for sale. We learned that the weather did terrible things to any of the wood or leather items we displayed, like saddles or stirrups, or barrels. But iron things like branding irons, old rifles & pistols, hatchets, axes, picks, and blacksmith tools, would just rust, but last forever outside. Slowly, but surely those items have increased to where we now have over 5,000 different interesting things on display outside. Someday we may have a huge auction...we're getting pretty long in the tooth to be hunting rattlers, but it's still fun for us.
Q: Are you two the only ones running the business, or do others help? Do you enjoy working together?
A: We spend just about 98% of our time together, and enjoy the solitude of the remote location we're in. Our shop now is in the middle of a 10,000 acre ranch and the nearest towns are about 15 miles away. We get about 600 to 700 visitors per month during the tourist season of from December to May, and that total drops off quite a bit during the other months where we just get locals and their visitors. Being located just 15 miles from Tombstone makes it a convenient stop for folks who are looking for something different, and the local shop owners always suggest our place to visitors.
Q: Taking a day-trip to your store and museum through the Arizona desert is definitely a treat to experience first-hand, although not one everyone can make. Do you sell your rattlesnake crafts and rocks on your Web site or through other online outlets? Do store owners in souvenir towns like Tombstone buy and resell your products?
A: We have a web site now, but have decided at least for the time being, not to sell through our web site. It's a 35 mile round trip to a post office, and we're not ready for beginning a shipping business. We do sell to some of the Tombstone shops, but our items get pretty expensive when marked up by 100% or more.
Q: Since you've walked this path with seeming success, what advice would you give to others thinking about leaving their day-job to pursue an unconventional life or creative dream?
A: It's hard for us to give any advice to people considering doing something like we did. For us, it has worked out well, and we've been modestly successful, but we think every once in a while of what would have happened if either of us had a major health problem, after we left our good company health insurance behind.
Q: Sandy, you do most of the harvesting and prep work on the snakes after catching them. Since most of us run the other way when snakes slither towards us, how long did it take you to embrace doing this work? Did you and John easily agree on "snakes" early on?
A: John showed me how he processed the first snake we caught in Arizona 30 years ago, and I thought that was something I could do to contribute to our new adventure. It's become so automatic now that I don't even think much about the skinning and tanning while I'm doing it.
Q: Is the work ever more challenging than you'd prefer? Have you dreamed of trading your dry desert day-job back for the air-conditioned office work-a-day life?
A: Sometimes a particular item we make is a real challenge to sew or craft, but never enough to make me think of returning to office work. For an outdoor person, as I am, it's great.
Q: Do you design or make any of the jewelry or crafts you sell?
A: Sometimes I offer suggestions, or come up with an idea for a particular item, but John is the creative one.
Q: Do you enjoy any other passions or creative pursuits?
A: I knit, read, do crosswords and play my keyboard. I enjoy our trips to flea markets and to shop, but I'm always ready to leave the city and head for home when we're finished.
Q: John, you use every part of the rattlesnake the rattle, fangs, vertebrae, skin, and ribs to make over 150 different kinds of rattlesnake craft items, from knives, wallets, belts, and cell phone cases to hatbands, jewelry, and jerky from the meat. What are your 10 most popular items, and did you have a creative longing towards making things like this while in the work-a-day world?
A: Out of the 150 or so different items we make, the most popular with our customers are the wallets, the credit card cases, earrings, bracelets, belts, and necklaces. We use the ribs, the vertebrae, the fangs and the rattles in our different jewelry items, and decorate them with semi-precious stones such as turquoise. We've found women to be the most active when it comes to buying our items...many men are OK with their 5 year old wallets and 10 year old belts.
Q: Is this 'just a job' or do you truly find personal fulfillment in what you do?
A: While working in an office for over 20 years, I never did have much of an interest in making things with my hands, but once I left the work-a-day job, it became a necessity. And now, I do get a large degree of satisfaction from creating things out of the snakeskins, leather and bones.
Q: Do you take custom requests from people who want something special made?
A: We decided at the onset not to accept "custom" jobs. Due to our remote location, the communication between prospective buyers and us can be a problem, and we'd rather sell something where the customer saw the finished product, prior to buying it.
Q: What else would you like to share about yourself or Rattlesnake Crafts and Rocks?
A: About 5 years ago we both became very interested in rocks and minerals after going to the world-famous rock show in Quartzsite, Arizona. Since then, we've created quite a display area of pretty rocks, and we sell some of the smaller rocks and minerals. They have become very popular with our younger visitors.
We have an "Honor" system for our customers. No one waits on them as in the standard gift shop...we have a wooden box outside the door where they write down what they purchased and leave the money in the box. Over the years, it's worked out well for us, but of course you couldn't get by with this in the city.
When people pay by check, we use their address to send them a post card that is good for $5 toward any purchase on a return trip. Our record for a visitor saving that post card and returning for the $5 off, is a period of 8 years.
It has been an interesting life for us and we've had over 150 old friends and relatives from the Rockford area visit us over the past 30 years...that wouldn't have happened had we not chosen such a unique way of making a living.
©2010 Chris Dunmire. All rights reserved.
Connect with John and Sandy Weber
Rattlesnake Crafts and Rocks
10630 N. Double U Ranch Road
Gleeson, Arizona, 85610
Open daily from dawn to dusk
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