Arkansas' duck season began this morning. That fact will have me reaching for one of the most prized possessions in my personal library.
In 1946, Edgar Monsanto Queeny published "Prairie Wings," which largely consists of pen and camera flight studies of migrating ducks. I occasionally will spend more than I should on an old book. As someone who loves the colorful history of duck hunting in Arkansas, Queeny's book was one I had to have.
Queeny, the son of the founder of the Monsanto Chemical Co. in St. Louis, would spend each winter at his duck club near Roe on the Grand Prairie of Arkansas. Some of the nation's most prominent figures would join him there each winter to hunt migrating mallards. Queeny's home at Wingmead, which still stands, was constructed in 1939.
Queeny would come to the Grand Prairie each October to prepare for the November opening of the season and often stay until March. Guests, including the likes of Walt Disney and famous writer Nash Buckingham, would arrive on Friday in time for a black-tie dinner.
The guests 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 Grand Prairie weekends. There's no place in America quite like the Grand Prairie. It's not only the duck hunting holes but also the rich culture, fascinating geography and wonderful people.
"The Grand Prairie of Arkansas presents a historical paradox," Queeny wrote. "This region, one of the first areas in the United States to come under a white man's eye, remained one of the last whose soil was broken by his plow. Sixty years before the Susan Constance, the Godspeed and the Discovery furled their sails and dropped anchor in the James River, and Chief Powhatan saw the first permanent settlers step onto American soil, Hernandez De Soto sought an El Dorado or the South Sea in the Middle West.
"He started inland from the Gulf Coast with 620 picked men. In the vanguard were his caballeros, wearing shining breastplates, lances in hand, mounted on armored, copper-shod horses. Bright blades of Toledo steel hung at their sides. His infanteria, bearing heavy crossbows, followed afoot. Then came priests and monks to save the Indians' souls."
In the florid writing style of the day, Queeny went on to describe later French expeditions in the region. It's not entirely accurate from a historical standpoint, but it sure reads well.
In describing the Grand Prairie, Queeny included a wider swath of Arkansas than most people do these days. Modern historians define the Grand Prairie as the areas near towns such as Stuttgart, Hazen and Des Arc that were covered by natural prairies. The rest of the Mississippi Alluvial Plain of east Arkansas (commonly known as the Delta) was covered by swamps and bottomland hardwood forests before being cleared and drained in the late 1800s and early 1900s for row-crop agriculture.
Queeny wrote: "The Grand Prairie is an elongated, inverted, trapezoidal area whose narrow base begins below Cape Girardeau, Mo. Nesting between the foothills of the Ozark Mountains on the west and Crowley's Ridge on the east, it reaches south till its apex merges into the floodplain below Arkansas Post, where the Arkansas joins the Mississippi. To one's eye, the Prairie seems to stretch into eternity in all directions. It is broken, however, by the White River as it twists its way to join the Arkansas almost at its junction with the Mississippi. Emptying into the White River are numerous bayous that have cut meandering courses through the Prairie's smooth fields.
"Tall savannas of hickory, sweet gum, water oak and pin oak line the banks of the bayous and spread over the frequent low flatlands, which creep away from the watercourses with an almost imperceptible rise. These flats are usually flooded in spring and fall when heavy rains send the bayous' tawny waters out of their banks to cover the surrounding carpets of leaves. Forty years ago, the Prairie's soil was still unbroken. Arkansas was settled by cotton farmers from Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and other states of the Deep South, but these pioneers found the Prairie unsuited to a cotton crop."
It was, as Queeny realized, rice farmers who made the Grand Prairie a duck-hunting destination.
"The Grand Prairie was left unclaimed; homestead land was still available, practically for the asking, at the turn of the century," he wrote. "The relatively few who settled there used the Prairie as an open cattle range. So it remained an island of virgin country in the center of a rapidly growing agricultural and industrial nation. And by this accident it retained its wildlife.
"Until quite recently, the Prairie teemed with prairie chickens. Deer, bear and wild turkeys abounded in the woods, along the bayous and in the overflow land along the White River."
Queeny, an industrialist by profession and a naturalist at heart, mourned the demise of prairie chickens.
"The knell was sounded in 1904 when a field near Carlisle was planted to rice and a phenomenal harvest was reaped," he wrote. "Rice must be grown in water. Farmers soon learned that a hardpan underlying the topsoil in this area held water like a saucer, and that there was an ample water supply near the surface that could ... flood the fields."
With the growth of rice farming came ducks. This morning--even in the midst of a pandemic--hunters from across the country will be on the Grand Prairie for opening day.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.