Hunting is the oldest sport known and is the oldest occupation, for before it became a sport it was the only means of livelihood. Although it took centuries for the Biblical Nimrods and the mythological Dianas to create their own legends, Moses, the earliest inspired writer on this subject, says in his rod and gun department of the Genesis page of the pioneer publication the Pentateuch that Nimrod “began to be a mighty one in the earth” (Gen. 10:8). This was some 4,000 years b.c. and ever since that time every son of a gun who blew through a reed tube, threw a javelin, sighted a blow gun or stretched the rubbers on a gumsling has been known in his day as a Nimrod . . . along with Ike Walton, Bwano Tumbo [a safari companion with TR in Africa] and Teddy Roosevelt we can celebrate these ancient and revered names.1
Urban sportsmen loved analogies to the antiquity and manliness of hunting. Great sport in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas was a constant feature of nineteenth and early twentieth‑century railroad advertisements. The weekly “Rod and Gun” column in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat regularly described the exploits of St. Louis outdoorsmen, as part of a self‑conscious literary celebration of the swamps and backwoods of the Trans‑Mississippi West. A modern outdoor writer in January 2000 reported more than 100,000 duck hunters traveled to Arkansas, “where more mallard ducks are killed annually than anywhere else in the world.” Stuttgart, Arkansas sponsors the World Championship Duck Calling Contest and hunters funnel $55 million into the state economy, supporting 1,700 jobs. This regulated arena of sport, however, came generations after hundreds of struggles among mostly urban sportsmen, who shot for fun and to give away their bag to friends back home, and traditional market hunters, who sold their kill to merchants and commission houses in the city. The story of the founding of Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Arkansas’ first federally‑protected migratory fowl preserve, illustrates the contentiousness and commitment of hunters on both sides of a natural resources issue and traditional economy.2
After the Civil War, the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railway expanded south from Pilot Knob, Missouri, to Poplar Bluff, across Butler County’s delta, and into Arkansas’ broad expanse of lowlands and eventually into Texas. Railroad executives commonly held memberships in several sporting clubs. Civil engineers, contractors for roadbed and bridges, and managers of timber camps became avid hunters and informants for destinations in the outdoors. In the swamplands of Delta hardwoods, railroad managers hired hunters to supply daily game and fowl to workers. Corporate executives arranged passage on tramlines, small gauge rail extensions from the main track, to conduct clients and political friends into the backcountry. As construction continued at the turn of the century on connecting rail routes, the Globe-Democrat’s “Rod and Gun” column encouraged businessmen to keep looking down the southwestern railroads in Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma for good sport and locations for clubs.3
The Iron Mountain Railway published pamphlets to encourage travel on its line. The instant success of Hot Springs as a spa for affluent Victorians prompted publications such as Pleasure Resorts of St. Louis Vicinity in 1881 that touted recreation and sport from the Arcadia Valley in Missouri to Hot Springs.4Access by rail to both upland and lowland sporting spawned such clubs in Arkansas as the Shooting Association and Sportsman’s Club (1875), Big Lake Club of Little Rock (1886), Jonesboro Fishing and Hunting Club (1893), and Grassy Lake Hunting Club (1894).5 The railway corporation hoped to attract traveling investors to timber, minerals, fruits, cattle, corn, and cotton, and by 1893 their booklet, “Ideal Hunting and Fishing Grounds” was a guide for their leisure avocations. The line advertised special rates, good for thirty days, and 150 pounds of free baggage, “including guns and dogs.” Groups chartered a car that had a kitchen and cook, and the outers sidetracked the car at a designated point to serve as temporary quarters. “A sportsman residing in St. Louis can leave his office at the close of business hours, and after a leisurely discussed supper, seek refreshing slumber in the luxurious berth of a Pullman coach, to awaken next morning in the hunting grounds of Arkansas,” said the Iron Mountain. Railroad directories led dozens of clubs into the Southwestern outdoors every season.6
At the same time, the Iron Mountain Railway offered refrigerated cars for the transport of commercial game and fish. City hotels featured wild game menus, as iced barrels of fresh meat arrived in all seasons. Market hunters and fishermen, often traveling on the same train going to the same backcountry as city sportsmen, earned profits in exporting their kill at depots from Hot Springs to Arcadia Valley, or in selling their catch to hotels and resorts on the railroad. For example, in 1880, Hot Springs’ merchants paid four dollars each for deer, while two years later in January 1882, hunters exported 10,000 pounds of venison at Newport, Arkansas. Individual sportsmen, proving their prowess, competed with each other and reported kills to newspaper reporters. In 1884 a Des Arc hunter killed over 1,000 ducks, and another in Poinsett County shot 3,700 pigeons, and a fisherman in Chicot County reeled in 117 bass, while hunters shipped frogs for profit from Walnut Ridge to St. Louis. Live natural resources were so plentiful that hunters in the late nineteenth century made and lost wagers using game as live targets. By the turn of the century, memberships in the duck-hunting clubs, who had regular contact with the market hunters, included “sportsmen from all parts of the United States.”7
St. Louisans departed regional depots on the Iron Mountain to explore the Black and St. Francis River lowlands in Missouri and Arkansas. Charles Meade wrote that nimrods and anglers had much to be thankful for in the historic New Madrid earthquakes of 1811–12—the impact in the St. Francis and Little River basins created a sunk lands of unparalleled sport, “bass and massing places for the wild fowl and other game.” Meade and his peers marveled at Reelfoot Lake across the Mississippi River in west Tennessee, but claimed that the St. Francis spreads were also “the Mecca of our sportsmen with rod and gun.” Meade wrote that “hundreds of families” made a living as market sportsmen, fishing, trapping, and shooting ducks, as all hunters coexisted in the killing fields.8
The leader of the Indian Hunting and Fishing Club was Dolph Winkelmeyer. The Indians were leading businessmen in St. Louis, and remained a mobile club riding the Iron Mountain and St. Louis and San Francisco (Frisco) railroads; they did not build their own clubhouse. They did, however, have a tradition of patronizing clubs along the Missouri-Arkansas border, especially Swiftwater River south of Hornersville, Missouri, for deer drives, fishing, and duck and frog hunting. They hired inhabitants in the swamps to craft dugout canoes and used local guides to navigate the Little River swamps. Back in St. Louis, Winkelmeyer donned an Indian headdress at formal meetings to emphasize their romantic, pioneering spirit in the backwoods. The Indians were guests of many organizations in what “Rod and Gun” called the “club districts of Arkansas,” where outdoor entrepreneurs had catered to urban sports since the 1870s. The late nineteenth-century clubs from the city were the most recent hunters of centuries‑long seasonal migrations to the Arkansas lowlands.9
The Indian Club encountered skilled market fishermen and hunters. Gunners earned a hundred dollars a day shipping 25,000 ducks daily to Kansas City, St. Louis, Chicago, New York, and Memphis.10Fishermen seined tons of fish. Pickled duck gizzards and livers packed in barrels added to the trade. The Indians from St. Louis witnessed the decline in wildlife populations and voiced their resentment in the press. Meanwhile, Chris Winkelmeyer, Dolph’s brother, spent two weeks along the Swiftwater and rode back to St. Louis with eighty ducks and a barrel of choice fish. In fact, all members in any trip expected to return with a barrel of bass for their friends. Club sportsmen, while indulging themselves, seemed not to notice any likeness between their actions and those of market hunters that they criticized. “Rod and Gun” editor Charles Meade labeled the St. Louis gentlemen as “the greatest band of pale-face Indians that ever trod the forest aisles.”11
As a national call for progressive legislation reached lawmakers, state legislatures modified emerging game laws each session, but the future of any predictable regulation was unclear. Arkansas business continued building new clubs to host sportsmen, as exploitation of vast timber tracts continued. Steve Virgilio, an experienced hotel manager, was a well-known host to St. Louisans who resorted at the Buffalo Island Hunting and Fishing Club above Bertig on the St. Francis River. In 1902, the Paragould and Southwestern Railroad extended its line southeast to the Little River swamps, and Mississippi County underwent a population boom. Virgilio built another clubhouse on the banks of Pemiscot Bayou, announced its opening, and looked forward to the completed construction of the local depot, Chickasawba, on the outskirts of Blytheville. By Spring 1903 it was “a mecca for St. Louisans” and touted in “Rod and Gun” as an “Oasis in Arkansas” as Arkansas law exempted the county from a nonresident license law. Among Virgilio’s first customers were Winkelmeyer’s Indian Hunting and Fishing Club and the Knobel Club, situated near Black River on the Iron Mountain Railway. Virgilio himself had appeared before the Arkansas legislature to testify for an unregulated sunk land preserve in Mississippi County much to the delight of local residents and nonresident sportsmen. Virgilio and mercantile colleagues recognized that organized sport represented a lucrative enterprise.12
Rod and Gun confirmed that the former brisk business on St. Francis River, west of Mississippi County, had shifted to the “new Buffalo Island Club” on Pemiscot Bayou. Virgilio spent time in St. Louis calling on his customers and planning backwoods outings on his liquid labyrinth, full of fallen trees and cypress stumps. Business increased so much that in 1904 he planned a third club on Clear Lake, a venture that apparently did not materialize. Virgilio died in the summer of 1906.13
Virgilio’s clients, Winkelmeyer and the Indians, remained enchanted with the Little River swamps. Virgilio’s enterprise had lured them deep into the hardwood forest and its many lakes and bayous. At Virgilio’s demise, the Arkansas nonresident game law had made it difficult for St. Louisans to come and go as they pleased. Charles Meade wrote that many risked it anyway, but suffered through a painful $50 fine. The outdoor writer continued, “Arkansas, sad to say, has shut its doors against any nonresident hunter and angler by arbitrary laws which put us beyond the pale of interstate fraternal reciprocities.” St. Louisans had become dependent upon the great return in Arkansas wildlife and sport, and Arkansas businessmen appreciated the infusion of tourist-sportsmen revenue. Winkelmeyer certainly did not want to end his sport in Arkansas, so he decided to join the prestigious Big Lake Shooting Club, located in Mississippi County, Arkansas, one of the most exclusive fraternities in the Midwest.14
Big Lake was to Arkansas what Reelfoot Lake was to Tennessee—the largest concentration of wildlife in the state. Duck hunting was legendary. The Big Lake Shooting Club had just built a new clubhouse. Market hunters, incensed at the competition from the wealthy shooters, burned their $8,000 building in 1904 and stayed irritated at nonresident interlopers on what they considered as open range. Dolph Winkelmeyer paid his $1,000 club fee and brought his St. Louis pals to Mississippi County, where engineers parked their Pullman car on a sidetrack. “Wink” declared that he had assurances from local authorities that he and his guests would not be bothered if they remained on the Big Lake Shooting Club preserve. His Indians planned for a summer trip in 1907.
Unfortunately, complications lay ahead. The Big Lake Club claimed access to hunting rights on tens of thousands of acres; two Illinois lumber companies retained rights to the timber. But the title was in dispute, and Mississippi County local government considered Winkelmeyer and his Indians as nonresidents and arrested them. The justice of the peace fine and court costs were $66 each and the St. Louisans filed an appeal bond for a hearing at a later date. On this infamous trip, Wink’s bosom friend, Dr. Jules Baron, carried a new camera. Winkelmeyer did not have his “great headdress and buckram suit,” but he donned a blanket around his shoulders while posing with the Indians for a souvenir photograph. The friendly county sheriff snapped the memorable picture. Meade headed his next column, “Indians Scalped in Arkansas,” but wrote that the natives, law enforcement, and everyone treated the sportsmen well. “Rod and Gun” printed one of Baron’s photographs, captioned, “Coming in Like Lambs to be Arrested at Big Lake, Arkansas.”15
The future of St. Louisans’ legal troubles in Arkansas subsided with the news that sportsmen could shoot on grounds owned by a sporting club. The Big Lake Shooting Club had succeeded in proving title to its lands. Editor Meade said this was a salvation for the few that belonged to organizations with a game preserve. Even though Arkansas was a refuge for these privileged urban sports, the tenderfoot among them remained fair game for sporting humor in the press. Although Winkelmeyer and Jules Baron were the common source for news from the Big Lake Shooting Club, “Rod and Gun” did not hesitate to print not-so-flattering anecdotes along with boosterism for outdoor sport. In one tale, Baron discovered “deer tracks” in the Mississippi County woods and placed Wink on a “deer stand” so the shooter could wait for passing animals. Instead, several hours passed before Wink decided to investigate the spoor by the tracks—it seemed suspicious. The “Cracker King” followed the trail until it led to a drove of pigs. Meade concluded that “both deerslayers are devoting time to a study of footprints of game animals native to Missouri and Arkansas.”16
Winkelmeyer and Baron fared much better fishing. They reeled in Big Lake bass by the hundreds and shipped them back to St. Louis. In the fanfare given to the glory of Big Lake in the Globe-Democrat, writer Tell Grether declared the waters nationally significant in 1908. Grether wrote that its future should be as a game fowl refuge. So rich in resources, Big Lake attracted the Midwest’s leading sportsmen and nonresident market fishermen and hunters from around the United States. The commercial harvesters invested heavily in their own equipment. One fisherman from July 1 to August 6, 1908, took 90,000 pounds of bass. He worked with seventy-five nets, with lengths of 300 yards, and employed three gasoline launches for the seining.17
The Big Lake Shooting Club had members from several American cities. Their primary spokesman was lawyer Joseph H. Acklen, Tennessee’s first state game warden, serving since 1903. Dozens more came from Louisville, Kentucky; Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; Chicago, Illinois; and a few from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati, Ohio; and New York. The contemporary market fishermen and shooters worked as they always had—tramping and boating through a traditional wildlife commons to earn their living. Their illegal trespass on Big Lake Shooting Club’s land caused conflict between the clubmen and marketers, and fierce competition also erupted between nonresident market men and native net and pole fishermen. The Big Lake Club employed a resident staff of ten, including gamekeepers who patrolled the lake to search for poachers—the club issued their own permits for fishing or hunting on their preserve. For years the club had prohibited trappers from killing muskrats that destroyed the dense growth of flags (plants with long leaves) around the lake, an irritation to many Arkansas locals. Conflict led the club to appeal to the courts for help. U.S. marshals came to support a temporary federal injunction against trespassing issued by a federal judge in Little Rock. Nevertheless, gamekeepers and trespassers exchanged gunfire on several occasions. Authorities made arrests and issued fines to the trespassers, and one received a six‑month jail term at Helena.18
By fall 1908, Grether reported that 150 market hunters descended upon Big Lake. The money to be made in killing and shipping ducks was so fantastic, aided by low water that year, that he compared it to the slaughter of pigeons in the previous generation. However, railroad and transportation companies between Jonesboro and Blytheville, Arkansas, issued orders for strict inspections of freight. Their employees opened trunks, boxes, packages, and checked shippers’ names. The result was arrests of twenty-five market hunters and one Mississippi County justice of the peace. Warrants for more came from the federal court for violations of the court’s injunction against 150 hunters trespassing on club property—authorities arrested about half. The Big Lake Shooting Club, comprised of lawyers and businessmen, had launched an offensive to implement the letter of the law.19
An uneasy co-existence developed around Big Lake. The very numbers of poachers, however, circumvented the resources of law enforcement. Commercial extraction of wildlife continued, as practitioners tried to stay out of the way of the absentee landholders. Nevertheless, frustration in the ranks of market hunters led to gunfire with a gamekeeper in November 1910 and arson of the $20,000 clubhouse, boats and boat docks. Winkelmeyer, Baron, Hernan Stifel, and other St. Louisans lost boots, tents, camp gear, guns, ammunition, and clothing. Once again, the commercial hunters had directly attacked the city sportsmen.20
The conflict over Big Lake brought outside attention to the great water land. In December 1910, Charles Brewster, game expert with the U.S. Biological Survey, accompanied Missouri deputy game warden H. R. Melton for an on-site inspection in nearby Dunklin County, Missouri, where rail‑transported hunters boarded boats at Hornersville to enter Big Lake. Brewster wanted to see why so much contraband game still found its way out to Eastern markets. Wardens in Missouri’s Game and Fish Department began monitoring the rail depot at Cardwell, Missouri, in southwest Dunklin County. Tell Grether, now deputy game and fish commissioner in addition to being editor for “Rod and Gun,” wrote that illegal duck shipments from Cardwell slowed. But the largest shoreline for Big Lake, by far, lay across the state line in Mississippi County. Arkansas law, however, still allowed shipments from Big Lake, properly identified, to leave the state via the Jonesboro and Lake City Railroad.
Vile accusations between market hunters and the Big Lake Shooting Club did not abate. In 1910, Winkelmeyer and Baron’s hunting party were enjoying their usual fall hunt, made even more pleasurable by the gift of six bottles of whiskey and 100 cigars from a business acquaintance. In the field, they bagged six deer and four turkeys, when interrupted by the local sheriff. Again, local government arrested the St. Louisans, but this time the arrest included ten other club members and two U.S. marshals, who were at Big Lake to monitor the federal court order. The market hunters swore complaints charging them as nonresidents due to a continuing legal dispute over clear title to portions of land in the “Chickasawba district.” Officials eventually arrested some out-of-state sportsmen several times. Local law enforcement, sympathetic to the plaintiffs, carried out the warrants, as many market hunters were natives.21
A legal battle for greater control of Big Lake headed to the courts again. In all, recent arrests included forty‑six members of the Big Lake Shooting Club. Winkelmeyer’s attorney litigated the first case, and once again the court vindicated the rights of Big Lake Club members. Then the club took the opportunity to enact a public relations effort, hoping to buy peace and quiet with “the best people in the community.” They purchased a new organ and built a new church in Manila. Then they announced that contractors would build yet another clubhouse—this time out of steel and concrete, in part, as protection for the hired staff. Instead, the clubhouse became frame, included twenty-four bedrooms, but the owners hired six Pinkerton detectives to guard the property. The projected cost was $50,000. The price for hunting migratory waterfowl in Arkansas had measurably increased.22
Local market hunters were stubborn. They tried once again to burn the new clubhouse, but without success. Unfortunately, in the attack on the new building, they shot and wounded the night watchman. Local staff identified the offending parties, arrests were made, and authorities set a trial date in the Eastern district federal court at Helena. In March 1912, Judge Jacob Trieber delivered “an oration of biting invective” against the defendants. Recent press surrounding market hunters and corporate interests across the Mississippi River at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, had reported vigilante violence between the two opposing Tennessee groups. The Arkansas federal judge proclaimed that he did not intend to have a repeat performance of the Reelfoot outrages in Arkansas. Further allegations said that Missouri and Arkansas commercial fishermen and hunters regularly laundered their catch from outside Big Lake into Mississippi County and then out again to northern markets. A Helena newspaper published the judge’s sentiment that “Arkansas was adequately filled with residents of a criminal nature without appealing to other states for more.” He concluded his speech with jail sentences for two defendants.23
While St. Louisans and the Big Lake Shooting Club prosecuted litigation in Arkansas, the Globe-Democrat announced that a national movement to save the ducks had begun. Conservation, as a political theme, had matured to bring major regional issues into national debate. By 1912, the preservation of the nation’s migratory game fowl and prime duck hunting waters received priority concern among outdoor editors, urban sportsmen, and the courts, as the Big Lake and Reelfoot Lake examples showed. William Hornaday, a militant but effective conservationist in New York, criticized Arkansas for its lack of effective game laws. He lauded the northeast Arkansas sunk lands as “the greatest wild-fowl refuge anywhere in the Mississippi Valley between the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and the breeding-ground of Minnesota.” Hornaday, in his influential 1913 book, Our Vanishing Wild Life, pleaded with Arkansas government to end the “duck and goose shambles in Mississippi County” and to end the flow of dead ducks to northern markets.24
In October 1912, a Big Lake club member brought a news clipping to Grether for summary in “Rod and Gun.” Philanthropists had donated a 15,000-acre tract at Marsh Island, Louisiana, for a state game preserve. Tell Grether wrote that the next step was to secure a tract in Arkansas as the next protected game bird retreat. Discussions occurred over the following months until “Rod and Gun” issued a long column titled, “A Very Attractive Preserve.” The story outlined the years of conflict and violent history that led the Big Lake Shooting Club to propose Big Lake as a federal preserve. A federal expert encouraged a bold move by these early Midwestern conservationists. Charles Brewster of the Biological Survey was in St. Louis again and told sportsmen that the recent closing of the New York game market had already decreased illegal duck and geese shipments from around the country. The “legal pendulum” in the East gave hope to urban shooters who feared for the future of their favorite sport in the Mississippi flyway.25
Leadership for reform to actively regulate game and fowl had traditionally come from members of sporting clubs. St. Louisans lucky enough to have hunted at Big Lake felt that Mississippi County was as important as Marsh Island and Winkelmeyer had led their local court fights. But it was Tennessean J. H. Acklen, a charter member of the Big Lake Shooting Club in 1900, who led the ultimate fight against the market hunters. In 1913, he emerged to become the first federal game warden for the U.S. Biological Survey, as Congress passed the famous Migratory Bird Act in 1913. Conservation of migratory fowl was a priority and the Survey began to set regulations. Club members now had federal power on their side. Acklen, veteran duck hunter at Big Lake, convinced President Woodrow Wilson to sign an executive order to protect the famous waters in a move that was part of transforming the wild lands of America. The Big Lake Shooting Club joined sportsmen throughout the Mississippi Valley to celebrate the milestone and welcome Big Lake as Arkansas’ first national wildlife refuge.26
In the 1870s, a Mr. Crews added a commercial clubhouse to his home at Tim’s Point, Big Lake. It expanded to thirty‑two rooms by 1911, when Kid Wright operated the business. Further description is in Gen. James W. Preston, “History of Big Lake,” typescript, 1911, National Wildlife Refuge, Manila, Ark. Preston lived in Chicago and spent several seasons at Big Lake.
The Indian band is staying home,
Home to dodge the trolley cars,
Home to blow the froth and foam,
Home to practice at the bars—
The Indian band’s at home.
Dr. Jules Baron (1859–?) was orphaned at age six and reared by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Zoeller. After an education in St. Louis, he studied medicine in European universities, 1881–84, and returned to St. Louis for his practice. A staunch Republican, he was the first physician elected to three consecutive terms as St. Louis city coroner in 1904, 1906, and 1908. He invested and became president of the Banner Clay Works, located in East St. Louis, where he had his own fishponds that he stocked regularly. See St. Louis: The Fourth City, Vol. 2 (St. Louis: S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1912), 104244, and St. Louisans with Records: City Builders, edited by Harry J. Boswell (St. Louis, Missouri, 1911), 16–17.
By 1907, Big Lake Shooting Club and market hunters had argued in federal court over access to the lake since 1903. In Little Rock, Judge Jacob Trieber issued a temporary injunction against market hunters for trespassing and made it perpetual in 1904. Market hunters appealed to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, St. Paul, Minnesota, hoping to get a ruling that the Little River waters were navigable, and, thus, gain rights to be on them. In October 1906 the Minnesota court upheld Judge Trieber. Nevertheless, commercial interests continued to dispute the issue in Mississippi County. See Preston, “History of Big Lake,” 1911.
The two timber companies were the Chicago Mill and Lumber Company and Paepcke-Leicht Lumber Company that deeded the Big Lake Club a ten‑foot easement around the lake. Bowman and Wright, Arkansas Duck Hunter’s Almanac, 45.
© Lynn Morrow