Organized about 1891, the Knobel Club was one of the largest and most famous of all St. Louis sporting clubs. St. Louis businessmen pledged themselves to establish a clubhouse, to preserve and to protect game and fish under the laws of Missouri, and “to establish a library of books, prints, and pamphlets relating to field sports.” From the beginning they envisioned a large membership “not to exceed two hundred and fifty,” but their ethic did exclude market hunters and market fishermen. Annual assessments for club maintenance were not to exceed twenty-five dollars, a good monthly wage for most rural Missourians who viewed the city sports as a rich man’s pastime.1
The guiding light of the Knobel was Alex Smith (1833–1922). Smith was a pioneer miller who learned the trade as a youth in southeast Iowa and migrated to St. Louis in the 1850s. He was one of the oldest members of the Merchants’ Exchange and an original director of the board following its reorganization after the Civil War. He had served as a captain in the enrolled Missouri Militia under commission of Gov. Hamilton Gamble. Enjoying a prosperous career, in 1880 he became president of the Merchants’ Exchange. He and his associates manufactured grain and managed boats on the Mississippi River. During the progressive era he was “Uncle Alex,” and when he died, the Merchants’ Exchange draped the rostrum in mourning for thirty days in his memory.2
The Knobel Club followed a tradition of St. Louisans who had journeyed to Arkansas for great sport. During the 1870s, tourist-sportsmen found excellent fishing around Corning, Arkansas, and Black River. In its advertising, the Iron Mountain Railway stated, “the fame of Corning Lake surpasses that of other Arkansas waters, because it is oftener fished by parties living outside the State.” Boats were readily available, and small rental houses dotted the banks of nearby Black River.3
In the 1890s when conditions became even better, the Knobels invested in their own clubhouse, canoes, and boats located at Corning and Long Lakes. At the new facility, the Iron Mountain Railway offered special rates to clubmen and stopped its trains right at the clubhouse. Guests enjoyed the rustic setting where cows and mules wandered the grounds unhindered (although reportedly the animals unnerved some of the ladies). The club built a boathouse on Black River and constructed a road direct from Corning to the water. Visitors reported that the resort, commanding $1 to $1.50 daily for board and including a ladies’ annex, was a model of comfort. To complement this luxury, James Dillon, club superintendent, installed mosquito nets over all beds.4
The club’s prosperity would be their best advertising. Knobel Club members became known for their ability to bag enormous Arkansas gar, often shot with rifles. President Alex Smith mounted monster gars at the local clubhouse and in downtown St. Louis business windows. Members hooked large quantities of game fish, too. They announced shipments to predetermined destinations in downtown St. Louis, where their friends lined up at designated sites on Mondays to receive the bounty. The club seined trash fish (non-game fish) from Corning Lake. If fishing was poor, members mailed postcards with black borders to indicate “dead fishing.” Other cards arrived in St. Louis with the “pale pink of hope scrawled upon their amber faces.” The club committed themselves to shipping fish in tanks on the Iron Mountain for fish displays at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Back at Corning, fireworks lit up the sky on Independence Day, as club festivities and the season’s events were regular copy in Rod and Gun. In gratitude for the club’s great success, members elected Smith as their perennial president at the January banquets in St. Louis. Smith advertised for prospective members to see him at his office in the merchants’ Exchange building, and apparently many did, as the numbers grew during the progressive era.5
The club’s trip to bountiful wasn’t always on a smooth path. The Knobel Club and the state of Arkansas developed a bittersweet relationship, since widespread promotion for game laws existed in Arkansas as elsewhere. Most legislation in the states began as local laws, applicable to counties instead of statewide regulations, although Arkansas had experimented since the 1870s with the passage and repeal of several protective statutes. In 1901 legislators approved special exemptions for Mississippi and Crittenden Counties in the northeast corner of the state, home to spectacular duck hunting and easily accessible to Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee sportsmen. In February 1903, the Arkansas General Assembly announced a bill of “radical and sweeping change toward non-resident” sportsmen and their clubhouses. Rod and Gun proclaimed that “St. Louis and Memphis [Tenn.] were upset” and that the bill “would startle civilization.” Nevertheless, by spring, the General Assembly enacted the proposal outlining seasons for several wildlife species and, even more momentous, making it illegal for nonresidents to engage in Arkansas sport. The county sheriff and his deputies, or the local constable, became ex-officio game wardens.6
Suddenly, disastrously, Arkansas law prohibited several hundred St. Louisans from planning a vacation to shoot, fish, trap, and hunt on their leased property. A number of Arkansans had loudly criticized nonresident Missouri and Tennessee hunters and fishermen, who for years had killed and exported Arkansas wildlife. St. Louis clubmen took umbrage at such criticism leveled toward them; instead, they believed that out-state market hunters and the Chicago buyers were the fundamental problem. But everyone knew that relationships with the local governments, not state law, determined whether a visitor participated in Arkansas sport. The Knobel Club found itself in the middle of opposing views held in Corning. A Corning constable quickly showed his preference and sided with the law in May 1903. He arrested a Knobel Club member and a justice of the peace fined the culprit $50. Startled, Alex Smith traveled to Arkansas to investigate the matter first hand. The club attorney filed an appeal, but Smith held no optimism for the result. He reported that a federal court would have to overturn the Arkansas law.7
The Knobel Club was outraged. In St. Louis at the spring 1903 meeting of the Missouri Sportsmen’s Game and Fish Protective League, organized for the passage of a modern game law in Missouri, Alex Smith and league president Dolph Winkelmeyer put the “Arkansas issue” on the agenda. They urged the establishment of a lawyers’ fund to fight the Arkansas law to the Supreme Court of the United States. The league, however, did not support an official fund, but “quite a sum was raised” by donation. In Arkansas, the Osceola Duck Club, founded in 1882 on the St. Francis River and comprised of many Memphis, Tennessee, businessmen, decided to join the Knobels in their Arkansas fight.8
Osceola Club lawyers presented the plaintiff’s complaint. A third club, the Brookland, another St. Francis River sporting fraternity based in St. Louis, joined the Tennesseeans. In northwest Arkansas, the summer resorts on the Frisco Railroad, particularly Eureka Springs and Monte Ne which were heavily patronized by St. Louisans, had a major stake in the ruling. Judge Allen Hughes of Marion, Crittenden County, Arkansas (just outside of Memphis) heard the case. By July 1903 the court declared the nonresident feature unconstitutional. St. Louisans, of course, cheered Judge Hughes. Charles Meade wrote that the decision rippled throughout St. Louis in discussions at hotels and taverns. Rod and Gun urged readers to write the judge or the Arkansas secretary of state to obtain their own certified copy of the decision. With sighs of relief, St. Louisans planned return trips down the Iron Mountain Railway.9
But Arkansas opinions divided over the ruling, and local enforcement varied from place to place. Attorneys who represented a dissenting opinion from St. Louisans began the judicial appeal process. Hughes was overruled. Resigned to defeat, some Missouri clubs moved out of Arkansas, and others discontinued negotiations to purchase or lease game and fish preserves. By late winter 1904 the Osceola and Knobel clubs, who appealed their case to the Arkansas Supreme Court, still waited for a hearing. Fishermen grew uneasy as the spring season approached. In May, Charles Meade wrote that members could only go down to Corning and stand at the “beautiful clubhouse, gaze out over the placid waters, and weep.” The situation was especially disconcerting for St. Louis businessmen who expected to take associates to Corning during the great St. Louis World’s Fair.10
After foregoing trips to Arkansas for nearly a year, St. Louis club members received news from Corning. The state Supreme Court did not relax the ruling on nonresidents, but it did render a sporting loophole for nonresidents who owned and/or leased land in Arkansas. The Leader newspaper in Corning rushed to press. Town leaders asked the Rod and Gun editor to publish an official notice in the Globe-Democrat. Corning citizens addressed Alex Smith and the Knobel Club, saying that the recent court decision should allow the resumption of fishing privileges on Corning and Long Lakes. Moreover, the village elders hoped cordial relations between the town and the club could resume right away. At the Knobels’ annual meeting in January 1905, President Smith gave a glowing account of their “Arkansas paradise” and made plans for spring journeys via the Iron Mountain Railway.11
However, the controversy between Corning and the Knobels was not over. Morgan Peterson was a Knobel club member well-known in both St. Louis and Corning. He was a mainstay in Rod and Guncolumns. A native of Denmark, Peterson came to St. Louis in 1866. He established a successful wholesale house that imported human hair from Europe. His company made wigs, toiletries, cosmetics, powder, and all necessary grooming articles. His emporium was a favorite resort for fashionable St. Louis women who received skilled styling from his dozens of employees. Looking for further gain, Peterson invested in Arkansas mineral lands, owning considerable shares of stock. His old group of Pohlman Club fishing friends traveled to Arkansas for sport, while inspecting the Dane’s “gilded dreams” that never paid off. During one trip, the clubmen, considering Peterson’s extensive ownership of Arkansas stock, ceremonially elected him to be “governor of Arkansas.” The title stuck, and Peterson was thereafter referred to affectionately as “Gov.” Peterson.12 The new trouble began when Gov. Peterson and his pals left from Union Station to chase the bass and crappie at Corning. They caught more than they could use and gave the extra to Corning residents. On Sunday, at their scheduled departure time, the train was late. The jolly trio of fishermen sipped bottles of beer while waiting and, upon a request, refused to give one to a local lad. Meanwhile, the men, having to wait a few hours, decided to play pinochle. Before long, “a man having a club and a star swooped down” upon the St. Louis fishermen. He was the town marshal and father of the disappointed boy who had asked for a beer. “The innocents abroad” were taken to a hastily convened municipal court and fined $29.15 each for playing a “harmless little German game” of cards on Sunday.
Corning folks, however, laughed throughout Sunday evening as they learned that St. Louisans, especially “one who gloried in the title of governor of Arkansas,” had been fined. Local editor Meade concluded the Knobels’ tale of woe by writing that the three fishermen were so homesick over the affair that they almost chartered a handcar to run on the rails to Neeleyville to get back to Missouri. But the sufferingRod and Gun storytellers did not quit without a rebuttal. Everyone knew that the Globe-Democrat was widely read in Arkansas. The outdoor column condescendingly reminded readers that this insult to St. Louis sportsmen took place in a town that had lynched several Negroes only a few years before. It appeared that St. Louisans wanted to impugn the character of those responsible for placing a damper on their recreation.13
The Knobel Club and the town of Corning once again patched up their difficulties, and the locals invited St. Louisans to return. Town merchants missed the tourist dollar and offered to protect the nonresidents while they stayed in Clay County. So, the Knobels boarded the Iron Mountain for Arkansas sport. They barreled up the bass at Corning and shipped it on ice to St. Louis. Occasionally, they sent a box to the Globe-Democrat offices for distribution among the staff. In St. Louis, the Knobels reveled in their wintertime “camp dinners” at banquets in downtown meeting halls, featuring Arkansas bass and mallard duck. The trips to Corning continued unabated, as members enjoyed recreation and spent money around the county seat town. But the urban sports and the natives never seemed to entirely get along. Corning law enforcement indicted club officer F. E. Jacobs and fellow members. Meade headed his next column with a poem, “Just Leave It (Arkansas) Alone.”
When you’re longing for fishing or killing choice game,
Don’t let stories of Arkansas set you aflame.
Her lakes are alluring and her rivers are grand,
But the squires and their minions are always on hand.
To pounce on an alien, with rod, reel, or gun;
And the way they do “soak” you, can’t well be called fun.
Down there in Arkansas you’re everyone known;
I advise every sportsman to let it alone.
Just let it alone.14
A frustrated Alex Smith contacted a realtor in Little Rock to list the Knobel property for sale in September 1907. He included their buildings and all furnishings, the old streetcar at the railroad depot that members used as a shelter, the garden, and the boats. The club president bragged that it was the “most complete club in Arkansas” and could not be purchased in Missouri for less than $10,000, but “in Arkansas will be sacrificed.” An immediate buyer would have to accept the upcoming annual lease payment of $200 in October that covered Corning and Long Lakes, and sixty feet of easement around them. The lease had seven years until maturity, but no buyers rushed to Smith’s offer.15
The Knobel Club’s troubles in Arkansas encouraged members to establish a resort in Missouri. They negotiated with James Dinnell in Pemiscot County and built “an annex” to the club on Cushion Lake, six miles east of Portageville in what sportsmen called the Little River District. The lake had a fourteen-mile open bay for superb duck hunting. Hunters killed hundreds of frogs and caught hundreds of pounds of fish, just as they did in Arkansas. In July 1906, one group reeled in over 500 bass, crappie, and goggle-eye.
But Corning still held pleasant memories for club veterans who returned time and again. F. E. Jacobs could not stay away. He came with Alex Smith, and longtime secretary-treasurer William Kennett to relax on a ten-day fishing trip at the old resort. Events in the festive late summer gathering of old friends included shooting frogs, shipping fish to Missouri, and drinking cold beer. One Sunday a logjam blocked their passage on Black River. Jacobs, seeing what he thought was a lumberman, offered him a beer to open a path for the boat. Instead, the supposed woodsman was a local deputy sheriff, and the officers of the Knobel Club found themselves indicted on five charges by the local justice. Jacobs was once again in an Arkansas court.
That brought the expense of sport in Arkansas back on to the official meeting agenda of the Knobel Club. At their October 1907 session in St. Louis, Jacobs and other officers moved the official headquarters of the Knobels to their annex in Pemiscot County, Missouri. Sportsmen outside the Knobel soon learned that club legal expenses for 1906 in Arkansas had been over $360, while the indictments of 1907 remained unsettled.16
However, the grip of nostalgia never left the Knobels. Many members returned to their leased clubhouses for great sport at Corning, Long, and Taylor Lakes and memorable fishing in Black River. For those with families, the Arkansas facilities were superior and better organized than the annex in Missouri. Visitors arriving on the railroad walked on wooden sidewalks to the grounds and to the boat dock, where the club maintained twenty-five boats. Women and children had their own dormitory, a model kitchen, hot and cold baths, first-class beds, and the main clubhouse had sweeping porches for shaded repose. Outbuildings housed lockers, tools, refrigerators, and camp gear. Families loved the seasonable vegetable garden.
Finally, hope and persistence received its reward. In 1909 the Arkansas General Assembly enacted a new set of wildlife laws, related to specific counties, and opened western Clay County and the Corning area to nonresident sportsmen. St. Louisans could purchase a five-dollar fishing license and ship their fish home or take advantage of a fifteen-dollar hunting license. The thrilled Knobels celebrated in Rod and Gun and published a long list of their loyal roster.17
The new sporting freedom in Arkansas, upon payment of fees, reinvigorated the Knobel Club, and regional Arkansas politicians joined the Knobels for sport in Corning. One observer commented that the absence of Missourians had probably led to a population boom of fish in the lakes. St. Louisan Med Johnson seemed to confirm that speculation as his foursome of fishermen caught over 200 game fish in three days. In April 1909, club members caught so many that they furnished the entire roster with fish in a shipment back to St. Louis. A downtown businessman at the Pierce Building displayed several large bass in the window that resulted in “many applicants for membership in the Knobel Club.” Perhaps most pleasing to all was the announcement from the Iron Mountain Railway that the new roundtrip fare for sportsmen going to Corning was lowered to $6.18
Alex Smith made his club even more attractive. He succeeded in reducing the twenty-five dollar dues to ten-dollars to attract and keep an active membership well over a hundred. The Knobel Club fared well as a sporting fraternity and social club, as Uncle Alex devoted his retirement to preside over the annual calendar and arrange urban banquets and festive parties. All the while, he encouraged regular travel to their three clubs located at Corning, Arkansas, and in Missouri. Smith continued to receive fellow sportsmen and new applicants at the Merchants Exchange and published an annual booklet that listed a roster and rules. He made the Rod and Gun editor an honorary member with an open invitation to visit any of their resorts.19
Club business was so good in 1911 that Smith and the officers purchased a fourth resort. It was seven acres and centered in a grove of trees along Black River, three miles southwest of their romantic Corning. They built a frame clubhouse on pier foundations. It had a screened-in porch, heating stoves, and an American flag waved in the breeze above the front door. The peaceful house was only a few steps from the railroad depot and the Iron Mountain was “on call” to pick up members traveling in both directions.
© Lynn Morrow