The Story of Arthur Woody And His Deer

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The story of how a forest service ranger used his own money and determined vision to bring deer back to the north Georgia mountains.

Arthur Woody was the most famous forest ranger ever to refuse to wear a uniform.

Born in 1884 near Suches, in the heart of Georgia’s “high country,” legend tells us that he witnessed his father kill the last living deer in Fannin County around 1895, when Arthur was 10 years old.

In 1912, Arthur was hired by the government to help survey the first tract of land in the north Georgia mountains purchased by the newly formed U.S. Forest Service. This 31,000-acre parcel would eventually become the historic and highly popular Blue Ridge WMA inside the sprawling Chattahoochee National Forest. Due to Arthur Woody’s hard work, persistence and vision, the refuge (known locally as Rock Creek Refuge), became the nation’s first official “wildlife management area.” Many more followed. (For the full story of Blue Ridge WMA’s formation, see the August, 2017 issue of GON).

During his historic 33-year career with the U.S. Forest Service, Ranger Woody restored and protected thousands of acres of cutover forestland in north Georgia; he fought forest fires; and he introduced rainbow and brown trout to the mountains. He also did much to improve the lives of his fellow mountaineers during the tough times of the Great Depression. But the thing he is known best for is bringing deer back to the mountain region.

Today’s 21st century deer hunters owe Arthur Woody’s 20th century insight a deep debt of gratitude. Ranger Woody started a small deer herd in an area where whitetails had been absent for several decades because they had been hunted for food by hungry settlers down to the last animal. Interestingly, Georgia was the only eastern state where this occurred during the late 19th century. Farther north, along the eastern seaboard, deer numbers had been drastically reduced because of intensive market hunting, but in Georgia, by 1900, there were no deer left in the mountains.

From a young age, Arthur Woody was cut from a different cloth. He might easily have followed in the footsteps of most mountain boys by farming, raising livestock and trying to eke a living off the land. But fate had a different plan for him.

He was destined to become one of the most visionary conservationists in Georgia history.

Fannin County, 1895: The Last Deer

Watching his father shoot what was said to be the last deer in the mountains was a life-altering event for young Arthur. He never got over it. Years later, after he had grown up and gained a reasonable amount of notoriety in his own right, he would immortalize the story by telling a number of people, including Charlie Elliott, that he wholeheartedly believed it was the last deer ever taken in the north Georgia region. The story soon became a local folk legend, fueled by the fact that as the young mountain boy grew older, he began to nurture a dream: to one day bring back the beautiful and majestic white-tailed deer that had once been so plentiful in his beloved mountain region.

Certainly the deer that Abe Woody killed had to be one of the last deer ever seen in the area during the 19th century. Ironically, Ranger Woody probably saw few if any deer running wild in the mountains from 1895 to 1927. He might have stolen a rare glimpse of a surviving straggler from time to time during his extensive wanderings, but for the most part, there were no deer left to see.

Serving as district ranger in his later life over many thousands of acres of north Georgia forestland was no easy job. It required long hours of hard work, and the pay was minimal. But the job did carry a certain amount of prestige. Fortunately, by most pre-Depression standards, Ranger Woody was fairly well off financially. By 1927, he had done well buying and selling land, and this success gave him a certain amount of financial security. Now he was about to embark on one of the greatest adventures of his life. He aimed to go headlong into the deer-raising business.

“Do what needs to be done and get permission later.”

That was the Ranger’s modus operandi.

The Five Friendly Fiends Of Suches

The below paragraphs were taken from an article titled, “How Deer Came Back to Georgia,” which appeared in the Sunday magazine section of the Atlanta Constitution in the mid-1940s.

The article was written by W.W. Huber and R.M. Conarro, of the U.S. Forest Service, two assistant rangers who had worked under Ranger Woody in the 1930s. Both men had become very close to their mentor.

“Twenty years ago the ranger loaded his family into the new 1926 Dodge he had just bought and set out for the Pisgah National game preserve in North Carolina for some deer. He managed to get five fawns with the understanding he would care for them. Fawns, or baby deer, are very delicate creatures, and require as much attention as human babies. Naturally, caring for five babies at one time was quite a problem. The fawns had to be fed every six hours, and their milk had to be warm. One needed a stronger formula than the others, and the ranger carefully mixed canned milk with boiled water to see that the proper diet was obtained. It was also necessary to provide bedding and cover for the young deer, as well as pens to keep them in, as a protection against dogs.

“These five bottle-fed babies, named Nimble, Billy, Nancy, Bessie and Bunny-Girl, are the ancestors of the deer we have today. But in their youth they were known as the five friendly ‘fiends.’ They were taken in by the Woody family to such an extent that they soon learned how to unlatch the screen door and enter the house. Dick Woody, the ranger’s grandson, was then a sturdy lad of three, and as he would feed the deer, he soon became a favorite pal of the five ‘fiends.’ Many a noonday nap was interrupted by his four-legged friends, who could not understand why Dick wasn’t playing with them, and they would walk in his bedroom and lick his face to wake him.”

Ranger Woody reportedly paid $20 apiece for the five fawns. Nimble and Billy were probably buck fawns, while Nancy, Bessie and Bunny Girl were does. A small pen was built next to the Woody home to house what became fondly known as the “five friendly fiends of Suches.” The tiny deer may have entered the house once in a while, but they spent most of their time in the protective pen until they were older. They were released inside Rock Creek Refuge (later to become Blue Ridge WMA) at approximately one year of age. Once they were free-roaming, Ranger Woody let it be known to one and all that there would be a steep price to pay if anything happened to any of his deer.

Ranger Woody made several more trips to North Carolina in the late 1920s to purchase additional deer. Eventually, a large pen was built inside the refuge near the game warden’s house to protect the newest arrivals. By the early 1930s, the Forest Service began to put its resources into the program. Although the “official” deer stocking records are sketchy at best, it’s probably safe to say that in total, less than 70 deer were released into the Rock Creek/Blue Ridge Refuge during the late 1920s and early ’30s. By 1940, due to excellent protection, the number of deer had mushroomed to an estimated 2,000 animals.

Nearly all of the deer came from the Pisgah National Forest in North Carolina. A few random animals reportedly were picked up from traveling carnivals in Dahlonega and Cleveland. Arthur Woody vigorously protected his growing deer herd throughout the decade of the ’30s. He planted what might have been the very first food plots ever planted for whitetails in Georgia.

Because the deer in the refuge were healthy and thriving, it was inevitable that wildlife officials would eventually plan a managed hunt to help control numbers and to satisfy the sportsmen who wanted to hunt them. Even though the concept of whitetail management was in its infancy, wildlife officials clearly understood that deer herds with no natural predators had to be kept in check through controlled hunting. Ranger Woody understood this principle better than most, although he wasn’t ready to accept it. As the herd continued to expand, the idea of a controlled hunt made good sense, and sportsmen began to put pressure on the state. The state in turn put pressure on the Forest Service and on Ranger Woody.

After having raised those first five fawns in 1927, and dozens more in the late 1920s and early ’30s, Ranger Woody developed a special love and kinship with these beautiful animals. They quickly captured his heart. He couldn’t kill one if his life depended on it. He named most of them, and many came to him when he called their names. For this reason, he did everything within his power to put off the inevitable for as long as he could. But he knew it was coming sooner or later. Thirteen years of taking care of these amazing animals had caused the strong-willed and tough-as-leather mountain man to grow soft. Ranger Woody’s deer had touched his soul, and now he could not bear to see them killed. He grappled with this emotion from 1940 until his death in 1946.

The 1940 Hunt: Historic Event at Rock Creek/Blue Ridge WMA

Georgia’s first official deer hunt of the 20th century in a WMA was scheduled to be held in late October and early November of 1940. A five-day archery hunt in late October would kick off the event. This would be followed by two three-day firearms hunts in November.

Ranger Woody and his Blue Ridge Refuge were about to make history.

The hunt was a media sensation. Charlie Elliott, a close friend of Ranger Woody’s, who by this time headed up the Georgia Division of Wildlife (later to become the Game and Fish Commission and more recently the Wildlife Resources Division), attended both the archery and the firearms hunt.

Charlie wrote a number of stories about the hunts. Interestingly, he missed a shot at a buck during the firearms hunt and had his shirttail cut off in a much-publicized ceremony. Predictably, no deer were taken during the archery hunt. But the rifle hunts were a different story. Twenty-two bucks were taken. Because many of the deer were old, mature bucks, some carried exceptional racks.

Most of the hunters who participated knew they were taking part in something historic. It was an electric atmosphere. WSB Radio in Atlanta broadcast live from the check station. Arthur Woody never set out to make headlines, but a level of celebrity swooped down on him almost immediately. He handled it extraordinarily well. His goal had always been to restore the wildlife that had once been so plentiful in the mountain region. Once that mission had been accomplished, he wanted to share his mountain paradise with the world.

The hunters who came to Blue Ridge adored Ranger Woody, and he didn’t disappoint them. He returned their genuine affection. He attended their late-night campfires and helped them check deer at the check station. He told stories around the campfire and shared his mountain nectar. But deep down inside, it was devastating for him to see bucks he knew being brought to the check station. No one except his immediate family and a few close friends like Charlie Elliott had any idea that the killing of his deer was so emotionally disturbing to him. He got so emotionally worked up during the hunt that he suffered dangerously high blood pressure and several severe nosebleeds.

This condition continued right up until his death in 1946.

Aftermath Of The 1940 Hunt

The archery and firearms hunts that took place in Blue Ridge WMA during the early 1940s were historic in scope and focused considerable attention on the north Georgia mountains. Those first modern deer hunts put Arthur Woody in the spotlight, both on a state level and nationally. Previously, he had been quietly doing his job of building and protecting the deer herd, protecting the forests, restocking fish and getting roads and fire towers built at key places like Brasstown Bald. He was known locally as “Kingfish,” but most of his notoriety had remained pretty much close to home. Now all of that was changing.

The archery hunts alone brought in non-resident hunters from multiple states and received a lot of national interest and publicity. People were beginning to realize what an amazing job Ranger Woody had done with his deer program at Blue Ridge. In just 13 short years, he had essentially turned a small handful of deer into a sizable herd. He had started the program by himself, even though he later had much help and support from the Forest Service during the decade of the 1930s. Now the man who later became known as the “Barefoot Ranger” was being recognized as a much-loved celebrity.

By the early 1940s, many conservation successes had taken place with the U.S. Forest Service and with the state of Georgia. Many talented and hard-working individuals were involved in making those successes a reality. The cooperative and unprecedented experiment between the state of Georgia (to manage the wildlife resources on federal land) and the U.S. Forest Service had been highly successful. Black bears had been reintroduced to several areas in the mountains, the deer were thriving, and the streams and lakes were once again full of fish waiting to be caught by sportsmen. Tens of thousands of acres of eroded, burned over and clearcut wasteland had been saved just in the nick of time. Within a few short years, that wasteland had been converted into new growth and scenic forests that would produce millions of board feet of timber in the future. Lakes and highways had been built, and state parks enjoyed by untold thousands of people had been established.

Equally as important, at a time in history when jobs were so critical, thousands of jobs had been established within the Chattahoochee National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service and the state of Georgia. And unlike today, these “government” jobs for the most part were real jobs that utilized the services of very talented and dedicated people. In other words, the foresters, wildlife rangers, biologists, surveyors and dozens of others who worked at these jobs received a good day’s pay for a good day’s work. There were no government handouts.

It was a win-win situation all the way around. Ranger Arthur Woody had been there on the ground floor. To a large extent, he had initiated much of what had been accomplished.

Ranger Woody’s health began to fail in the early 1940s. He died from heart and kidney disease in 1946. He left behind a legacy in conservation that lives on today.

Truly, Arthur Woody was an American original!

First Mountain Deer Hunts
1940: First modern deer hunt held at a Georgia WMA was conducted at Blue Ridge. Most of the 22 bucks brought to the check station were deer Ranger Woody personally recognized. Some were deer he had raised and released. Although it was a “buck-only” hunt, several does were shot by mistake, and the hunters were ticketed and fined accordingly.
1941-1942: Repeat of managed hunt in Blue Ridge WMA.
1943: The mountain counties as a whole were opened up to deer hunting. The use of dogs was allowed, and at least 200 bucks were known to have been taken, far more than game managers had anticipated, because dog-hunting was so efficient. The following summer, dog hunting in the mountain counties was outlawed once and for all.

Editor’s Note: Autographed copies of “Arthur Woody and the Legend of the Barefoot Ranger” may be ordered by sending $35 (this includes tax and shipping) to Duncan Dobie, 3371 Meadowind Ct., Marietta, GA 30062. The hardback book is 512 pages featuring more than 180 vintage black-and-white photos.

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