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Another Arkansas duck season began Saturday. As is always the case on opening weekend, the airport at Stuttgart is crowded with private jets as people from across the country visit the Grand Prairie, the mecca of the sport.

"It is not too lyrical, I hope, to say that the Stuttgart region has become one of the wonders of America," Ralph Coghlan wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in December 1949. "No place else can the wild duck be seen and heard in such profusion. To go into a marsh before daybreak, listen to the chatter of great rafts of ducks on the water, watch them as they soar gracefully in the sky with whistling wings and see the morning sun bring out the brilliant colors of their heads, wings and breasts--that's living."

There was a strong tie between St. Louis and the Grand Prairie in those days. The state's most famous duck club, Wingmead, was established south of DeValls Bluff in 1937 by Edgar Monsanto Queeny, the son of the founder of Monsanto Chemical Co. at St. Louis. By the time Queeny retired from Monsanto in 1960, it had become the third-largest chemical company in the country and the fifth-largest such company in the world.

Queeny's passion was duck hunting. He began hunting in Arkansas in the early 1930s on Mill Bayou near DeWitt with a man named Elmer "Tippy" LaCotts. It was LaCotts who introduced Queeny to Jess Wilson, reputed to be the state's best duck caller and hunting guide. Queeny later found land to buy on LaGrue Bayou, formed an irrigation district and used the power of eminent domain to acquire almost 11,000 acres.

Plans for the home at Wingmead were drawn in 1937 by a prominent St. Louis architect. The house was built two years later. Queeny and his wife would come to the Grand Prairie each October and often stay until March. Guests--including the likes of Walt Disney and Nash Buckingham--would arrive on Friday in time for a black-tie dinner. They would hunt ducks on Saturday and Sunday mornings, hunt quail on Saturday afternoon and depart on Sunday afternoon.

What I wouldn't give to be able to go back in time and experience those Wingmead weekends. My mother hailed from Des Arc. My grandfather had once been the Prairie County judge and would treat us to stories of the formal dinners at Wingmead.

Someone who shares my love of and fascination with the Grand Prairie is Brent Birch, who heads the Little Rock Technology Park as his day job. Just in time for duck season, Birch has released a beautiful book titled The Grand Prairie: A History of Duck Hunting's Hallowed Ground. He has written his own stories, collected the stories of others and filled the book with photos and artwork.

"Duck hunting in Arkansas is nothing short of a phenomenon," Birch writes. "There are places where one can hunt mallards in flooded timber. But not like in the Big Ditch Bottoms. There are places you can shop for waterfowling gear. But not like Mack's Prairie Wings. There are places you can hunt ducks on public land. But not like Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. I don't know of a place anywhere else where anybody pays $6,000 an acre for property worthless for anything other than hunting ducks. There is no question the Chesapeake Bay has a storied duck hunting history. As does the Central Valley of California, the southern coast of Louisiana, the plains of the Dakotas and a handful of other regions. But the Grand Prairie of Arkansas holds a special place in the memories of those who have been here and in the dreams of those who haven't."

Bill Hope planted a plot of rice as an experiment near Stuttgart in 1902. The result was good enough that other farmers followed his lead. The Stuttgart Rice Mill Co. was incorporated in March 1907 and completed in October of that year. In 1921, the farmers' cooperative that's now industry giant Riceland Foods Inc. was formed. By 1926, the University of Arkansas had located its Rice Research and Extension Center at Stuttgart.

With rice came ducks--millions of ducks. The championship duck calling contest that's now a part of Stuttgart's Wings Over the Prairie Festival began in 1936. In 1943, Producers Rice Mill was established at Stuttgart. As rice farming continued to expand, more ducks spent the winter on the Grand Prairie.

"A few visionary men--or lucky, depending on how you look at it--realized the potential symbiotic relationship between agriculture and hunting to create an economic boon for the state," Birch writes. "The result has been a diverse economy. . . . What if W.H. Fuller never got that rice crop to take off near Carlisle? What if the Tindall brothers never built that first reservoir? What if every tree on the Grand Prairie had fallen prey to the saw? What if a long line of hunters and conservationists didn't realize that for duck hunting to survive there would have to be more give than take on the part of the hunters?"

In December 2013, Birch visited some of the state's historic duck clubs to research an article for Greenhead magazine. One of those clubs was Screaming Wings. Formerly Russell McCollum's Wildlife Acres, Screaming Wings is owned by Witt Stephens Jr. of Little Rock. Several years later, Stephens reached out to Birch and asked him to drop by his office to talk about duck hunting.

"After some small talk about the upcoming season and other various topics, Witt threw the notion out on the table of doing a book on the history of duck hunting on the Grand Prairie," Birch says. "Our ideals about the sport, its value to our state and the Grand Prairie region aligned perfectly, making what route to take with the book an easy choice. Our goal is to capture the history like never before, taking the reader on a deep dive into this region and this region only, detailing the entire ecosystem that makes up waterfowling on the Grand Prairie. We as Arkansans have an authentic treasure, and it's unfortunate some of the true pioneers who helped uplift the Grand Prairie were gone before we could capture what they knew and experienced. Our hope is this book educates today's and future generations about what waterfowling on the Grand Prairie is all about."

Birch notes that duck hunting on the Grand Prairie is about more than "overly modified fast boats or how fast you can shoot a limit to post on social media." It should be about the experience, from the stores where hunters buy supplies to the restaurants where they eat breakfast after the hunt. Birch and his contributors have captured that experience well.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 11/18/2018

Print Headline: Duck hunting's mecca

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