Another Arkansas duck season comes to an end Sunday. Each winter, I enjoy researching and writing about storied Arkansas duck clubs. They're an important part of this state's heritage.
Two names stand above the rest as far as being legendary -- Claypool's near Weiner and Wingmead near Stuttgart. Both are on my bucket list of places to visit. I don't need to hunt. I just want to soak in the history.
Wallace Claypool of Memphis bought land in 1941 as a sanctuary for ducks. He built a reservoir that would become internationally famous in 1956. That's when NBC broadcast live as three blocks of TNT were fired off, causing an estimated 350,000 ducks to lift off the water. The black-and-white photo of those ducks has become a classic in the history of Arkansas hunting.
Claypool, an automobile dealer, sold his land in 1966 to friends from Memphis. In the November 2000 issue of Gourmet magazine, Eugenia Bone wrote about a hunt there on a Thanksgiving weekend with her husband Kevin and an uncle from Memphis named Norfleet Turner. The cast of characters included men with colorful names such as Skeets Boyle ("vivacious and grumpy"), Toof Brown and Bayard Boyle Jr. (a gentle loner who hunts by himself").
John Riley -- "a giant of a man and the terror of local poachers" -- had run the place for 32 years by that point.
"Green rubber waders hang on pegs along one wall," Bone wrote. "Guns, primarily 12-gauge, rest on a tall rack. Masks, camouflage jackets and boxes of neat orange and yellow shells sit on a long bench. There's a dead mouse in the toe of one seldom-worn wader. The shed is dingy and gloriously atmospheric, smelling of leather and wet wool and dogs held in high esteem."
Bone wrote lovingly of waiting for shooting time in the flooded timber: "Everything stills. And we wait. Very quietly. So concentrated is the quiet that the slow zigzag of a leaf falling from the canopy captures everyone's attention. This is the true character of hunting: a zen-like state of simultaneous excitement and calm that allows for acute observation of nature. It's why I don't have to kill anything in order to experience a good hunt.
"Overhead, ducks fly by in flocks and pairs, and higher up, geese travel in tremendous, fluttering ribbons. Riley begins calling -- a wonderful, lonely quack. ... As the sky turns orange and pink, we shoot mallards and tiny, zippy teal for their sweet, tender meat. With every bird that falls like a feathery stone, the dogs leap off the blinds and lope through the water to retrieve it in soft jaws, their tails wagging fiercely."
Bone also wrote about people who have visited Claypool's such as "Jimmy Carter, Wernher von Braun, various DuPonts and baseball great Preacher Roe, but not Bill Clinton. ('Skeets don't like Bill Clinton,' says John Riley.)"
Breakfast after the hunt sounded as good as the hunt itself. Bone wrote: "Settling down to this breakfast is a true reward. The table, by a picture window that looks out on a duck-resting pond, is set with thick, dinner-style ceramic, matching in spirit only. Pitchers of orange juice and milk are set out, as well as bowls of jelly, jam and marmalade. It may be country, but nothing is ever served in its original container.
"Then Mary comes out with the goods: a platter of scrambled eggs and another of fried country eggs, a basket of steaming homemade biscuits, a mound of curly bacon and a bowl of white gravy with the handle of a ladle sticking out of it. Everyone is pretty quiet for the first few minutes of furious piling on plates, and then the stories start -- about the hunt, the dark water, the red sunrise."
Wingmead, meanwhile, has the reputation of being an elegant place, a reputation promoted by its founder, Edgar Queeny. Wingmead, which is just off Arkansas 33 in Prairie County, was built in 1933 by Queeny when he was chairman of Monsanto at St. Louis. Nearby Peckerwood Lake was created in 1942.
When the Wingmead estate was added to the National Register of Historic Places, the nomination narrative from the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program noted: "Construction on Wingmead took place shortly after the land was acquired, and the complex that Queeny built was unlike any other duck hunting camp in the state. Designed in the colonial revival style, the main house encompassed approximately 10,000 square feet.
"In addition to the main house, the estate included several farm buildings, a kennel and a small cabin one mile south of the main house that Queeny used as his personal retreat to do much of his writing. Queeny named the estate Wingmead, a word of Scottish origin that means 'meadow
Queeny had once stayed in a trailer when he visited Arkansas to hunt ducks. His wife finally gave him an ultimatum: If she were to accompany him in the future, he would need to get rid of the trailer. Queeny consulted with Stuttgart businessman Roger Crowe to find land. Crowe found property on LaGrue Bayou, northwest of Roe and south of DeValls Bluff. Queeny formed an irrigation company and used eminent domain to acquire 11,000 acres.
Queeny died July 7, 1968. His wife Ethel maintained the property until her death in 1975, when it was donated to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. Barnes announced that the estate would be sold by sealed bid in January 1976.
Rumors as to who would buy Wingmead ranged from Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley. In the end, the Frank Lyon family of Little Rock was the buyer with the intent of using the property as a hunting retreat and farming operation.
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.