When I was growing up and visiting my mother’s family near Union Grove Church on the border between Moore and Randolph counties, I sometimes would stumble across one of these odd contraptions set up in the edge of one of the distant fields: “Rabbit Gums” my uncles and Grandfather set out to catch dinner. I never developed a taste for bunny, but I was fascinated with their traps.
The Chriscoe rabbit gums were wooden rectangular boxes made of thick sawmill plank, with the far end closed and a trap door at the other that slid down like a guillotine. The top of the door was tied to a stick balanced on one end; a notched trigger clipped into the box and held the door open. Rabbit food (apples/ carrots/ turnips/ etc.) was put inside the closed back end; when an animal (not always a rabbit- I remember hearing stories about angry possums and skunks caught in rabbit gums) crawled in the box and nibbled on the food, the trigger would pop loose and slap the trap door down to catch the rabbit. Most of the time.
The “gum” part of the name Rabbit Gum is a holdover from farther back in history, when black gum trees were burned to hollow out the center, making natural boxes for bee hives, chicken nests, rabbit traps and etc. “Gum” became a generic term for whatever served the same purpose as that original hollow block of Gum wood. This internet hunting forum page has pictures of a natural black gum rabbit trap. [Here’s the link unembedded- http://www.huntingenthusiast.net/viewtopic.php?t=2917&sid=9a46a54fca77896678c6bbcef9df44cb ]
Local historian Frank L. FitzSimons of Henderson County, NC, wrote here of rabbit gums-
“In early days the fall of the year was the season to set rabbit gums. 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 …
“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. In addition to placing a large slice in the trap behind the trigger, he also placed tiny bits of apple in a pathway leading to the entrance.
“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…. When a boy caught a wild rabbit, skinned and dressed it for sale, [and] the fur was… left on one of the hind feet… the purchaser could know the animal being sold was actually a rabbit.”
I discovered these homemade rabbit gums in a former parking lot next to a textile mill in Salisbury that was being torn down. They gently reminded me of the 1950s in rural Randolph. But an April 2007 Craigslist post from Morehead City announced a bigger business:
“I HAVE JUST FINISHED BUILDING OUR 2007 STOCK OF RABBIT GUMS….AKA RABBIT TRAPS……ALL HARDWOOD CONSTRUCTION FROM AGED USED PLANKING! WE HAVE 3,652 NOW IN STOCK AT 39.95 EACH PLUS SHIPPING & HANDLING— FIRST COME FIRST SERVE………..”
Obviously rabbit gums haven’t vanished into history quite yet!