Rabbit gums and cold, windy mornings

While perusing the shelves in a used bookstore recently, I spotted a title that was irresistible: From the Banks of the Oklawaha — Facts and Legends of the North Carolina Mountains. Pulling it out for further examination, I discovered that the book was the third and final volume in a series self-published between 1975 and 1979 by Frank L. FitzSimons of Henderson County.  


I learned from the information on the dust wrapper, that, in addition to a career as a school teacher and banker, FitzSimons had for years broadcast over WHKP-AM in Hendersonville a series of historical stories and remembrances. The three volumes in the Oklawaha series represented the ones he considered worthy of being gathered for book publication. They are very good stories, portraying in 151 short chapters the people, places, and ways of the author’s immediate region.

Chapter 59 is my favorite. It’s titled “Rabbit Gums,” and is, of course, about rabbit traps.

“In early days the fall of the year was the season to set rabbit gums,” FitzSimons noted. “This was before rabbits were protected by stringent game laws and wild rabbits supplied a sizeable portion of the fresh meat eaten during the winter months. At that time, it was not against the law to sell wild game in our stores and meat markets. It is rarely done now but in the days of another generation practically, every boy on a farm in Henderson County had a string of rabbit gums … A rabbit gum is a simple trap made from a portion of hollow log or made by nailing four boards together in the shape of a rectangular box. The opening of the trap or gum was a door held by a trigger. When a curious rabbit went into the gum, the trigger was tripped, dropping the door, and the rabbit was caught.”         

I can add some details in regard to the use of the word “gum” in this context. Almost every other mature blackgum tree is hollow because the species is highly susceptible to heart rot fungi. This is an infection that occurs after spores from various decay fungi are deposited on wounds, fire scars, or dead branch stubs. The fungi that invades blackgum attacks only the tree’s central column of inactive heartwood. An infected tree retains its outer vascular tissues for support and nutrient transport, but internally it becomes hollow. Bee gums represent the best-known use of hollow blackgum, but a small hollowed section could also be closed at one end, fitted with a triggered sliding door at the other end, baited, and used as a trap.

“Many a boy on a cold, gloomy winter morning has been surprised to find a possum, a small dog, cat or other animal in his gum instead of a rabbit,” FitzSimons continued. “And it was a sad boy who found some morning a skunk in the trap instead of a rabbit.”

I never found a small dog, cat, or skunk in one of my gums, but I often trapped possums. After being bitten several times by those sharp-toothed critters, I learned to turn the trap up on the hind end and shake it until the possum was discombobulated. You then quickly grab the possum by the tail, pull it out, and drop it into a burlap sack. My grandmother paid me 25 cents per possum, which she then placed in a holding cage and “fatted up” for a couple of weeks on vegetables before baking it along with sweet potatoes.   

“When a boy caught a wild rabbit, skinned and dressed it for sale, the fur was always left on one of the hind feet,” FitzSimons continued. “This was required so that the purchaser could know the animal being sold was actually a rabbit. At the beginning of one winter, a rumor spread through town that some boys were killing and skinning cats for rabbits. The market for rabbits was completely wiped out until some wise person came up with the idea of leaving the fur on one hind foot for identification. The rabbit market immediately revived.

“Every farm boy used his own favorite bait in the traps … Some held to apples. Others claimed that onions were better than apples. Some boys baited their gums with salt. Then there were those who argued that the best bait of all was a combination of cabbage leaves, onions and salt.”

My uncle taught me to bait traps with apple slices.  This was his preference because apples were readily available that time of the year and would keep in the trap for a long while. 

“The times when a mountain boy set rabbit gums are gone,” FitzSimons concluded. “In these days of consolidated schools and school buses and television, a boy misses something in life as he goes through his boyhood days and never sets and tends a string of rabbit gums, even if he did have to visit them every day before daylight on a cold, windy, snowy morning.”

Yes, that’s precisely what I most vividly remember from my rabbit trapping days: those “cold, windy, snowy” mornings, and the keen anticipation as to what might be in the next gum down the line.

Editor’s note: This Back Then column first appeared in The Smoky Mountain News in August 2004.

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