Part 4: The Tortoise and The Billionaire

It was one of those moments that passes almost without a thought. We’ve all done it a thousand times. Like when we are driving along in our car and suddenly we arrive at our destination without any recollection of how we got there. For me, it happened on the first quail hunt of the season with my employer and his family and friends. The mules were behaving nicely on this splendid, warm October morning, so I was driving the wagon along the trail watching where I was going but allowing my mind to wander.

The two-thousand-acre property where we were hunting is a few miles Northeast of Tallahassee, Florida. It was once called Chemonie Plantation. Its history is said to date back to the early 1800s after President Andrew Jackson forced-out the Seminole Indians. Chemonie began as a slave-holding plantation that grew cotton, corn, and sugarcane. It thrived until the Civil War freed the slaves. When the owners went bust, the fields turned back into their natural scrub.

This is when the second wave of owners swept into South Georgia and North Florida, drawn to the huge population of quail in the grasslands of these plantations. They had no interest in having slaves work the cotton fields. They were people of wealth—people who invented things like shoe polish or paint cans or shotgun shells. America was in the midst of the industrial revolution so oil barons, automobile dealers, and company CEOs had plenty of disposable income.

They bought property and turned it into prime hunting lands that soon became highly sought after by bird hunters worldwide. Chemonie has been sold and divided several times and now operates under another name. The current owners of the property are remarkably similar to the people who first started the post-war hunting Plantations nearly 150 years ago. They enjoy being outdoors. They love hunting quail. And they are happy to put their considerable resources to work preserving quail habitat.  It is where my wagon driving career continued after Gillionville Plantation in Albany, Georgia ceased operation and where I finally retired from wagon driving at the end of 2021.

One of the challenges of driving a mule wagon through the woods is “road hazards” like logs, stumps, and gopher holes. They can wreck an expensive, custom-built wagon and ruin a hunt. As I bounced along the path deep in thought I guided the mules to the right with a gentle tug on the reins. I had noticed a gopher tortoise burrow at the edge of the road. It was unmistakable—its flat floor and domed arch perfectly matching the shell of what must have been a large tortoise. The yellow sand that had been excavated out of the hole was spread halfway across the cart-path.  

As we rumbled along, it took me a few minutes to register what I had just witnessed. Nobody on my wagon commented on the obvious and positive sign of gopher tortoise activity and the six people on horseback ahead of me took no notice either. If it had been a deer, a turkey, or even a hog they would have been excited. I was the only person who was pleased to see signs of a tortoise and was left to wonder how many other tortoise burrows were spread around this property.

Two-thousand-acres is a lot of space and I spent most of my wagon-driving days lost in its vastness. There were few signs of the civilization that surrounded us. It was home to countless critters, but the gopher tortoise is special. It was designated Georgia’s State Reptile in 1989 and is now listed as “threatened”. It is considered a keystone species in the rapidly disappearing longleaf pine/wiregrass ecosystem because its burrows provide shelter for hundreds of other species living in their habitat. That is why I was silently disappointed that nobody—including the owners of the property—took notice.

The family I worked for as a wagon driver fit the 21st Century profile of the quail hunting pioneers. I don’t talk about my employers out of respect for their privacy, but their story and contribution to conservation is too important to ignore. Most quail hunting properties utilize jeeps and ATVs to move hunters around the property. It takes deep pockets to hunt with horses, mules, and wagons. My employers wanted an experience that was closer to the land. They hired talented people, built quality facilities for the dogs and hoofed stock, and they began a process of burning the property on a regular basis.

If they had wanted to add to their already considerable wealth, they might have been better served to develop the property. We were fifteen minutes off of I-10, a few miles from downtown Tallahassee. It was prime real estate and much of the surrounding area has already been turned into subdivisions and commercial property. I had seen the process unfold in the woods behind my boyhood home in St. Petersburg, Florida.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the Florida woods where I grew up is called pine flatwoods and it is said to represent the most extensive type of terrestrial ecosystem in Florida. Approximately fifty percent of Central Florida’s natural land area is pine flatwoods—forests that are dominated by Southern slash pine and interspersed with an understory of saw palmetto and mixed grasses. And, like the longleaf pine savanna of South Georgia, regular burning is required to maintain an open plant community. This is probably the habitat that gave Herbert Stoddard the idea to burn the quail hunting plantations. I watched the acres of pine flatwoods where my brothers and I roamed as boys get swallowed up in development until it was one giant subdivision of housing. The deer, fox squirrels, rabbits, tortoises, and quail disappeared.

This is what struck me as we trundled past this lone gopher tortoise burrow on a pleasant October morning—the image of my childhood woods now being covered by a subdivision. Even though the owners of this property can ride past an obvious tortoise burrow without noticing, these plantation owners are preserving that tortoise without realizing it. I don’t mind that the property is owned by rich people who love to shoot birds. I also don’t care that it is private property and not a park that is open to the public. It may even be better this way.

Just before lunchtime, I came to understand just how fortunate the animals on this plantation were. We had just come up a rise and crested a hill. There spread out before us was a large lake nestled in the rolling hills. Its blue waters sparkled in the late morning sun and a bald eagle soared overhead.

We had been passing through beautiful countryside all morning and I had been listening to the conversations on my wagon. I knew what one of my passengers was going to say, because I saw it myself. As we glided to a stop to honor the dogs on-point, the man stood up from his seat behind me, pointed to the lake, and exclaimed to his seatmate, “My God, this would make a beautiful golf hole.”

 Plantations have been preserving irreplaceable wildlife habitat for more than a hundred years and I hope they will continue their stewardship. Thank goodness my employers were hunters and not golfers or property developers!

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