Something strange was afoot in Chatham County. On February 4, 1884, The Chatham Record quoted a Raleigh businessman as saying that he could tell a stranger was from the area by his breathy aroma of “fried rabbit and corn whiskey.”
Of course, rabbits existed all over North Carolina, but in Chatham County, they seemed to thrive and multiply at a world-beating pace. One reason, as speculated by the publication Southern Cultures, may have been the area’s abundance of fallow farm fields, left behind by families migrating to the American West in search, literally, of greener pastures. The nose-twitching cottontails apparently took well to the abandoned fields, growing to succulent proportions.
Meantime, another crafty species, Chatham County entrepreneurs, pounced on the opportunity to turn the unruly rabbit horde into a business smorgasbord. They placed a bounty of 3 cents on each floppy-eared head, and locals, especially young’uns, were soon on the hunt, rigging traps, setting loose dogs, and hauling in their daily catches. With rabbit meat cheaper than beef or pork, an exporting boom was born, further nurtured by the opening of a railroad line, which made shipping all the easier. Rabbits invaded eateries in regional metropolises like Greensboro and Raleigh.
Hunters in 1938 sold the rabbits’ soft, warm pelts to be used as blankets and articles of clothing. Photography courtesy of State Archives of North Carolina
Political jokes propagated like … well, you know what. Southern Cultures excavated this verse from a 1904 edition of the Charlotte Daily Observer, relaying the effect of the meat on the state’s leadership class: “From governor down to clerk, It affects them all so funny; With freakish feet, loping up the street, Like a Chatham county bunny.”
Railcars rattled the rabbits north. According to a previous story in this magazine, a Raleigh bank president reported finding the meat on menus in Norfolk, Virginia; Baltimore, Maryland; and New York City. A local doughboy en route to the trenches of World War I even got an unexpected reminder of home when he encountered Chatham rabbits on the menu in an Irish pub.
During the Chatham County rabbit boom, entrepreneurs took out newspaper ads begging kids to bring them their bunnies. Photography courtesy of WILSON LIBRARY, UNC CHAPEL HILL VIA DIGITALNC.ORG
The opening price per head rose from 5 to 8 cents to 25 to 30 cents. In 1920, Siler City store owner Capt. W.S. Durham raked in $65,000 on rabbits — equivalent to just under $970,000 in today’s coin. But all good things must end — hare today, gone tomorrow. Relentless hunts, evolving land trends, and changing tastes took the legs out of the rabbit economy. Still, the legend lives on.
In Siler City, Captain Durham’s shop is no more, but The Chatham Rabbit coffee shop is there to help make your mornings bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. And in Pittsboro’s Chatham Historical Museum, children can pet a rabbit skin and examine the kind of trap — called a “rabbit gum” — used by past generations of kids to catch the critters.
As consummate audience pleasers, Sarah and Austin McCombie — aka the Americana band Chatham Rabbits — are happy to do their part, too. “People ask us a lot about where the name comes from,” Sarah says. “But they never suspect what we’re about to say.”