Who is your outdoor hero? Many years ago, I was asked this question. I never did answer, but the faces of many flashed through my mind.
My Uncle James opened many doors of outdoor pursuits for me, such as my first trips for bedding bluegill, watching rabbits and beagles, looking for river-bottom squirrels and most important of all, fishing in the Okefenokee Swamp.
Perhaps hometown legends, such as Bird Dog Walker, who always bagged his game and loaded the boat, are your hometown heroes. Maybe old-school professional outdoorsmen like Chuck Adams, Knight & Hale, Bill Dance, Rick Clunn and Georgia’s own Michael Waddell, are your heroes.
My personal hero is my son, Corey. He pursues game and fish for me while I am away on work travel, succeeding on many adventures afield and on the water. Through his eyes I live, so to speak.
Outside of family, I still ask myself who would be my outdoor hero that represented the many hunting circles I’ve been part of, who had a hand in the crossing of paths with endless other hunters. I’ve covered a lot of ground in this state, hunting more than 4-dozen of its public lands, been a member of several large clubs and been a lessee, as well.
There’s also all the “sit a spell’’ hang-outs for those respective areas. In those spit-and-whittle spots, talk was mostly of hunting and fishing, not politics and smartphone games. Lots of hunting memories were exchanged. Memories are all we really leave behind in this world. They say memories are not tangible things, like a boat or a gun, but they are real things that come from the heart.
The primary reason I started outdoor writing was to store memories for my family to read in the future. I soon discovered another cause. Hopefully my writings create some excitement and enthusiasm for Georgia’s outdoors. We all need to somehow play a part in promoting our outdoor heritage.
In saying all this, I know a someone who has made a huge impact for our hunting heritage, stretching over a period of 30 years right here in Georgia. Assuredly, this person was the catalyst for creating thousands of positive individual hunting memories. All this took place from a large hunting camp which surrounded a little field in Wilkinson County. The landowner and the person whom I consider to be my hero is Mrs. Jean Butler. If there was an equivalent of a Nobel Peace Prize for Georgia hunting, she should be a nominee.
To explain why Mrs. Jean was the catalyst for endless memories, consider these variables: During the 80s and 90s (the heyday hunting years), Mrs. Jean managed more than 80 different small- to medium-sized hunting club entities. Each club would average a lease or two with many having as high as six separate leases. Some leases had a clubhouse built on site, or they would have campers. However, most of the these club members stayed at her camp in that little field in Wilkinson County.
Most leases would range from more than 100 acres upward to 1,200 acres or more. That’s a lot of land and a lot of folks. I spent most of four seasons hunting there and actually lived there nearly two years. So, I had more good times than I can remember. On a busy weekend I have seen more than 200 people there, especially during events such as opening weekend, Thanksgiving and Mrs. Jean’s camp birthday party.
Mrs. Jean rarely ever had to fix supper on the weekends, as there was always someone inviting her down for a cookout. This had to be one of the most thriving hunting camps in the entire United States. I will never forget the camaraderie, friendships made, kids playing, hunters telling tales, laughing, snoring, crackling campfires and taste buds always watering from the delicious smells that wafted endlessly around camp from the dozens of grills and cookers.
Back then gas was cheap and folks came nearly every weekend of deer and turkey seasons. This was also the era game cameras and timed feeders really took off, which made even more trips during the off season. Add trips for hogs, food plots, feeders, camera checking, etc. Wow! Lots of memories and tales culminated during those trips for sure.
Not only did Mrs. Jean operate the hunting camp (for the miniscule amount of $85/year, including water during the time frame I was there), she was the leasing liaison for practically all of Wilkinson County. That included land from private landowners and timber companies. If someone needed money for land taxes and their land was conducive for hunting, Mrs. Jean was the woman to see. Her reputation along with her paying up front for many of the leases ensured she had first dibs.
I call her a liaison, and not an agent, because I know not of her profiting from huge bonuses or markups as some agents or lease-flippers will do. If she did, it was merely rounding numbers. At times, she paid for some leases that hunters didn’t renew for whatever reason. Those were the ones she would let me lease or hunt for free.
My little cabin was by the road going down to the main camp at the field. Everyone had to pass me. A few views at the cleaning rack and some of those leases would be back in demand. Anyhow, I like to remain nomadic.
“Gimme another one Mrs. Jean,” I’d tell her. It always led to a little guiding or proper set-up pointers for the new members when I released one. Helping her with lessees by showing land and guiding and occasional help on the farm, she in return supplied us with some good groceries, garden vegetables and farm-raised pork.
I learned how to heat a syrup kettle, add a little lime and scrape a hog. I also learned how to butcher it and not hardly throw anything away. Mrs. Jean was sure quick with that butcher knife. We’d use the hog lard for cooking redbreasts from the nearby creek and taters from the garden. Also, she taught my son good work ethics at a young age by stretching miles of fence. Just recently, Corey said, “She was the only person I ever really enjoyed working with, never got mad at you or said anything bad. Always made you feel good. She was the same at the dinner table as she was working. I will always remember her laugh.’’
If you wanted land to hunt in Wilkinson County, you would call Mrs. Jean and tell her what you were looking for. When she found it, she made sure you had a nice campsite, even if she had to clear more woods near the field. I’ll never forget the time that Mrs. Jean, in her 60s by then, and I were making a clearing for some new campers, and she took a chainsaw from me and showed me how to really use it.
Then there was the time she was digging more fence-post holes than I was in some hard, rocky ground. Every time she would go down with those post-hole diggers, sparks would fly. I figured she would give up before I did. Wrong!
Being a widow for many years, she learned to work harder than most. Her main source of income was from being the Water Department Superintendent in Irwinton and a school bus driver for Wilkinson County. Along with her daughter, Bonnie, Mrs. Jean also had the shared weight of tending the farm that was full of all kinds of livestock and fowl. Schools would bus their students out for tours. She had crop fields to plant and hay to gather, and there was always some kind of tractor work going on.
For a little side money on the weekends and holidays, she put up fence and gates for the county and also individuals. For a little pocket money and at times just enough for the tractor gas, she put in food plots for her hunters. She left it up to you what was in your heart or could afford to pay. Seems to me she was more into making friends than money.
Real cold weather would mean water pipes bursting. Being a water superintendent in a small town, she actually did most of the repairs. She would have an assistant at times, but after three or four sleepless nights in a row in below freezing weather, they didn’t last long. While heading out to hunt in the early morning hours, I’ve seen her many times arriving home from standing all night in icy water fixing pipes. I can still remember her standing there constantly rubbing her hands to warm them up. I said, “You gonna go lay down, I know you’re wore out?’’ She replied, “I got to hurry and clean up, get on the school bus, and then I got some more pipes to fix.’’ Mrs. Jean was one tough lady!
Once, when she trained coon dogs for folks, she got lost at night in bad weather, and for cover, she slept in a culvert with the dog for warmth. She was amazing, as I have never had an elderly woman throw a tree climber on her back, walk with me a half mile back in the woods and shimmy up a pine 40 feet high just as fast as me.
Mrs. Jean was one of the toughest working folks I have ever met in my life. I do not know of two people combined who would’ve covered the ground she did in a day’s time. Also, I can’t fail to mention she had one of the most tender hearts I’ve ever seen. For example, at any time, if a hunter decided he didn’t like his lease, or if she overheard one merely make a grumble about not having success, she would be quick to offer them a full refund of their money or get them another lease. Back then, it would be their fault, not hers, that they couldn’t see or kill deer, as Wilkinson was really loaded with game back then.
If I was familiar with the tract, she would enlist me to help them succeed by actually guiding them to the stand or giving pointers. She treated everyone at camp like family and would strive to make sure they stayed happy.
There’s so many memories of good times, laughs and smiles, and now, sadness and tears. I wish all the readers could meet her. Sadly, they can’t. With great remorse, I hate to tell everyone that Mrs. Jean recently passed away. I didn’t mention it at the onset because I wanted to share good memories rather than someone thinking they were reading just another prepared eulogy. Anyway, no one could ever write a eulogy well enough to appropriate her status as an icon in Georgia’s hunting heritage.
Before her passing, one of the largest kaolin deposits in Wilkinson County had been discovered in and around camp. Mineral rights resulted in the hunting camp closing last year. With the passing of Mrs. Jean this past January and the closing of possibly the largest of Georgia’s hunting camps in history, indeed marks the end of an era in middle Georgia. I am so glad God allowed me to see her one last time when I visited from squirrel hunting at nearby Beaverdam WMA. I was again interested in a possible lease there. Not now, it won’t be the same. There’s more to hunting than chasing game. Importantly, I still have my memories to cherish.
In closing, I, too, remember her laugh. To leave her family and mine a little humor in a dark time: Remember when the cow got stuck in the big mud hole below Jenna’s house? All of us were either pushing or pulling with a rope to no avail. Mrs. Jean went and got the tractor to apply tension. When we had the old cow’s neck stretched to the point of breaking, Mrs. Jean’s muddy boot slipped off the clutch, the tractor lurched forward popping the cow out like the cork out of a wine bottle. I never knew that a cow’s neck could stretch that far. She panicked a little and again patted hard for the clutch and brakes, but her muddy boots kept slipping off, looking as if she was stomping out a fire. By the time she stopped, she’d dragged the cow out in the pasture several yards. The cow lived, but it broke Mrs. Jean’s heart at the time. Later, when we would share that tale with others describing that ol’ cow’s neck, she, too, would laugh with us. I can hear her now.
God bless her family and many friends.
RIP Mrs. Jean Butler,
Oct. 3, 1937-Jan. 7, 2016.
Editor’s Note: If any readers were part of Mrs. Jean’s camp, Glen Solomon would enjoy hearing about your favorite memories. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.