Plantation ‘carpetbaggers’ became pioneers in game management

We called them “carpetbaggers”—people from the North who came south after the Civil War to profit from Reconstruction. The rest of the nation knew them as “Robber Barons”, but I doubt anyone said that to their faces. Folks probably just called them by their names—Goodyear, Vanderbilt, and Firestone. In the late 1800s, when the railroad reached Thomasville, Georgia, these well-to-do pleasure seekers from up north flocked there to breathe the healing, pine-scented air and enjoy the traditional southern pastimes of hunting, fishing, and active socializing. They purchased thousands of acres of property—mostly failed cotton plantations—and began the transition of plantation culture from slave-supported agriculture to hunting and land management.

One of the first northerners to purchase a plantation specifically for hunting purposes was Dr. John T. Metcalfe, a New York physician. He purchased a property near Thomasville, Georgia known as Seward Plantation in January 1883. Metcalfe eventually sold this property and purchased Susina Plantation in 1887. Metcalfe was an early booster of the new southern plantation culture. He wrote a letter published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal which praised the hunting and fishing saying, “to the angler and the sportsman, Thomas County is paradise . . . I wish more northern doctors knew what I know. I have just bought me a ranch of some 1,600 acres on account of the excellent shooting and fishing obtainable from it. “

The hunting that Dr. Metcalfe so enthusiastically enjoyed had become possible in the 1870s and 1880s, because of two significant developments. First, the breech-loading, hammerless, self-ejecting, choke-bored shotgun came into use. Also during this period, sporting dogs were developed as a breed. According to the American Kennel Club, America’s first bird dog field trial was held in 1874 near Memphis, Tennessee. These early trials included English pointers and a variety of setters including English, Gordon, and Irish. Those who could afford fine guns and well-trained bird dogs were ready to take to the woods in search of bobwhite quail, and the piney woods of Southwest Georgia were the perfect spot to do so.

In 1891, Dr. Metcalfe sold Susina Plantation, then 3,200 acres, to Alfred H. Mason, the wealthy son of the man who had founded a successful shoe polish business in Philadelphia. A few years later, John W. Masury—a New Yorker who is reported to have developed paint cans—purchased approximately 1,500 acres and named his property Cleveland Park. This was a telling name because it was people from Cleveland, Ohio with Standard Oil connections who eventually came to own most of the plantation properties in the Thomasville-Tallahassee region.

Howard Hanna and Mark Hanna, for example, had made large fortunes as early members of the Standard Oil Trust. The Hannas and their friends, relatives, and descendants were among the first plantation owners in the Thomasville area. They purchased Elsoma Plantation in 1891, Melrose Plantation in 1891, and Pebble Hill Plantation in 1896. From these beginnings, the Hanna family holdings expanded until they owned nearly two dozen plantations encompassing over 70,000 acres of land. Another nineteen plantations encompassing an additional 78,000 acres were owned by Cleveland area friends and business associates of the Hannas.

Northerners did not begin to acquire quail plantations in Albany, Georgia and surrounding areas until the 1920s—four decades after they had descended on the Thomasville-Tallahassee region. That was because landowners in Thomasville were not about to part with any of their land. Instead, they steered their friends, family, and business associates to the failed cotton plantations farther north.

Walter C. White, for example, was the owner of the White Motor company of Cleveland, Ohio. White Motors had provided trucks to the U. S. Army during World War I and had grown into one of the nation’s largest manufacturers of trucks and buses. White and his company vice president, Robert W. Woodruff—who was vice president of White Motors before becoming president of Coca Cola—were both members of a hunting club which owned the large Norias Plantation near Tallahassee, Florida.  In 1929, they sold their interest in Norias and purchased nearly 30,000 acres of property in Baker County, Georgia called Ichauway Plantation. They were avid outdoorsmen who recognized the unique natural characteristics of the land and intended to preserve one of the most extensive tracts of longleaf pine and wiregrass in the United States for quail hunting.

A few miles up Highway 91 near Albany, John M. Olin was developing Nilo (Olin spelled backward) Plantation. Olin had joined his father’s business when he graduated from Cornell University as a chemical engineer in 1913. The Olins owned the Equitable Powder Company in East Alton, Illinois, which became Western Cartridge. They purchased Winchester when that company went bankrupt in 1931 and John Olin went on to develop many new firearms-related products for Winchester. One of his best known—the Super-X shotgun shell—is in my gun cabinet today.

But Olin’s most significant legacy may be his conservation work at Nilo Plantation. Olin is said to have inspired author and conservationist Aldo Leopold—best known for his 1949 classic, A Sand County Almanac—to write his 1933 book, Game Management, the gold standard used by modern conservationists. And he also hired Herbert Stoddard, the famous Georgia quail biologist, to advise him on quail management practices on Nilo.

I saw first-hand from my perch on the wagon how wealthy northerners like John Olin have shaped the land in Southwest Georgia and North Florida. Their passion for hunting and conservation has helped preserve thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. Perhaps carpetbagger is not the right name for people who converted failed cotton plantations into quail hunting plantations. And perhaps the word plantation needs to revert to its original meaning as a property where crops are grown, crops like the longleaf pine trees that are sprouting at Robert Woodruff’s Ichauway Plantation.

The legacy of quail plantation pioneers like Olin and Woodruff continues today at places like the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center at Ichauway Plantation. Jones Center research scientists study forest and wildlife management. It is where I had my introduction to the South Georgia quail hunt in 2004. We’ll take a closer look at the work they do next time.

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