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In Praise of Bird Dogs, Field Trials, & Gentlemen

Steve Patterson and Chicken Steve Patterson and Chicken in front of the fireplace at Patterson Pointe Lodge.

Editor’s Note:  When arriving at Patterson Pointe Lodge, Steve Patterson’s home a couple of hundred yards up the hill from Sardis Lake in Panola County, you know immediately that the man loves bird dogs.  Two bird dog statues stand watch over the drive leading to the breezeway between the main house and stables/bunk house. The interior decor of the house — which was built mainly with materials recovered from old buildings around Mississippi and Tennessee: beams from an old building in Jackson, paneling from old barns, a two-story fireplace built of slave-made brick, etc. — reflects Patterson’s love of bird dogs, bird hunting, and bird dog people: paintings of bird dogs, old photographs of dog trainers, taxidermy displaying all the game birds of the American South.

 

“In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train him to be semi-human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.”           – Ed Hoagland

“There are many things in life that will catch your eye, but only a few will catch your heart…pursue those.”           – Anonymous

 

I am a man burdened by many passions.  Some good.  Some, maybe not so good.  Politics, faithful Presbyterians, fine cigars, good Kentucky Bourbon, Ole Miss football and basketball, Creole cooking, well written literature, historical biographies, the blues, southern gospel music, race horses, bird dogs, an assortment of colorful characters that I proudly count as my friends, pocket watches, cracklin’ cornbread and buttermilk, and mustard greens are just a few of the passions that consume me.

Perhaps, as always seems the case for me, Winston Churchill said it best: “My tastes are simple.  I am easily satisfied with the best.”

Bird dogs are, and have always been, a particular passion.  I have been enamored of their companionship for longer than I can remember.  My grandparents and their grandparents before them were all pointer bird dog people, with an occasional spattering of setters thrown in for good measure.  So, like the canines I adore, it’s always been in our genes.

I love bird dogs, and I love bird dog people. They are among the “bests” that satisfy me and bring beauty to my days.

Beauty can be found in many things.  Ann-Margaret, Raquel Welch, and Bo Derek — beautiful creatures, outstanding specimens of the female form.  No one can deny their beauty.  Sunrise seen from a Delta duck blind tucked deep in hardwood timber is, indeed, a beautiful sight.  The colorfully splotched patterns that adorn a rainbow trout struggling for freedom at the end of a fly rod glitter with glamour.  A big, shiny, sweating thoroughbred, heart pounding, gasping for air, thundering toward the finish line is one of the most graceful and handsome happenings ever witnessed.  God gave us a beautiful world with many exquisite experiences to satisfy our sensory needs.

This painting by Nashville artist Helen Nash is titled "Training Day at Cotton Plant." It hung for several years at the national bird dog museum in Grand Junction, TN before coming to Patterson Pointe Lodge. The dogs are, left to right, Fiddlers Pride Iris, Crude Rooster Vail, and Bad Jazz. Patterson is in the upper right corner with his horse Banjo.

This painting by Nashville artist Helen Nash is titled “Training Day at Cotton Plant.” It hung for several years at the national bird dog museum in Grand Junction, TN before coming to Patterson Pointe Lodge. The dogs are, left to right, Fiddlers Pride Iris, Crude Rooster Vail, and Bad Jazz. Patterson is in the upper right corner with his horse Banjo.

As for me, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – more deeply satisfying than following along on horseback with a well-bred, well-conditioned, well-mannered bird dog as it eagerly goes in search of the elusive Bob White Quail.  To see a dog stiffen at the first smell of the feathered treasure, to watch it tremble with intensity, then slam to point with a twelve o’clock tail pointed straight toward heaven, and to experience the prey flushed only after the dog is freed to do so, and to gaze into the dog’s opaque watery eyes that say, “Ok, boss man.  How was that? — I got him, didn’t I boss. — I love you. — Let’s do it again.”  That is pure beauty!

The 117th running of the National Bird Dog Field Trial Championship begins February 8th at the Ames Plantation near Grand Junction, Tennessee.  If anyone is interested in meeting about forty of the best and most highly skilled professional athletes from all over the world, you won’t find them at the FedEx Forum, the Pavilion at Ole Miss, or Dudy Noble Field.  Rather, you can find them at the Ames Plantation.  They will be competing for their sport’s most prestigious title: “Grand National Bird Dog Champion.”  These are royally bred bird dogs; and if you wish to be in the company of the finest dogs and some of the best men God ever put to earth, come to Grand Junction.

For a dog to compete for the national championship, it must first have two first-place wins in its lifetime at one of the eighty plus qualifying trials, most of which are one-hour runnings.  The national championship takes about three hours to run.

The Ames Plantation has two field trial courses – a morning course and an evening course – each eleven and a half miles in length.  That’s the distance of the course, but these remarkable athletes run somewhere between twenty-three and twenty-five miles in each competition.

Believe me: having a dog qualify to run in the championship is no easy task.  I know because I had dogs compete for well over thirty years and was blessed to have several dogs compete for the title.  No bragging.  Just fact.

My only encounter with famed Alabama football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant came at one of these qualifying trials, at a place known as the “Cattle Ranch” in deep south Alabama.  It was bitterly cold, and sleet had fallen earlier in the morning when Coach Bryant came ambling up to the fifty-five gallon drum where we had built a fire to stay warm.  We had run one brace of dogs and were about to cut the second brace loose.  Coach Bryant introduced himself and immediately began the familiar bird dog banter in his famous gravely voice.  “Boys,” he said, “I’ve bout got this bird dog bidness figured out.  It’s a lot like football players.  A big one is good.  A big one that is fast is better.  A big one that is fast, has some sense, got some manners, and is a gentleman, well that’s something REAL special.”  Coach Bryant had indeed figured out this bird dog bidness!

The first bird dog field trial in America was run on the old Greenlaw Plantation just east of Memphis, Tennessee, in 1874.  Field trials were commonplace on plantations through the South from that time forward, but it was not until 1896 that a national bird dog championship trial was held.  That first championship trial was run in West Point, Mississippi.  The next several years, it was scheduled to be held in various locations throughout west Tennessee and north Mississippi.  In 1897, it was too cold – at 17 degrees – to run the championship trial.  In 1898, an exceptionally poor crop of birds cancelled the trial.  And, in 1899, a smallpox epidemic dictated that the trial be scrapped.  Since 1902, at the invitation of Mr. Hobart Ames, the National Championship has been run on the Ames Plantation, just north of Grand Junction, Tennessee, making Grand Junction the undisputed bird dog capital of the world.

amesOne cannot tell the story of this magnificent seventeen-thousand acre Ames Plantation without noting the lineage of Mr. Hobart Ames and how he came to own this ground.  Way back in 1774, before America even thought of governing herself, one of Mr. Ames’ ancestors started a small company known as the Ames Tool Company in Braintree, Massachusetts.  By the time the war between the states broke out in 1860, the Ames family had re-tooled their little tool company, and, in addition to their shovels, hoes and rakes, began making Ames cannons.  These tools of war were sold to the Union Army in great volume and at large profits, making the Ames family one of the wealthiest in the country.  Many a Southern boy died at the blast of the cannon fire that came from these superior war guns.

Less than sixty miles from Grand Junction is a little place known as Shiloh, where twenty-four thousand good men died on April 6 and 7, 1862, many victims of the destruction of the Ames Tool Company cannons.  There is a private monument erected on the grounds of Shiloh battlefield in memory of one brave soul that charged head on into the cannon fire, which reads: “Three generations of Remberts.  To my dear parents and loving sisters and my noble, gentle, brilliant and brave brother, killed for defending home against the most devious lot of cut throats that ever cursed the face of this earth.”

For folks in this area, the emotions surrounding the invasion from the North and the horrific deaths at Shiloh were as raw as a drink of rot-gut whiskey taken from a fruit jar.

Only thirty-five years had passed since the Shiloh devastation when Mr. Hobart Ames, who by all accounts was a gracious gentleman in spite of his Yankee upbringing, began to seek plantation land where Bob White Quail were plentiful.  He first looked, and paid earnest money on, a place just north of New Albany, Mississippi, before finally settling on and purchasing the old John Walker Jones “Cedar Grove” Plantation just north of Grand Junction.  Mr. Ames’ kindly manner, love of the land, affection for his dogs, coupled with the fact that he was a rich Yankee who was more than generous with his money, endeared him to the locals. Not a word was ever mentioned about the recent unpleasantness of the war, the role his family played in it, or the massacre that took place at Shiloh.  I would like to believe that the sport of quail hunting and the pleasures derived from the noble bird dogs combined to soothe the horrid memories of the war, but I suspect it was his wealth and his willingness to spread it around a little that dulled the memories and shut the mouths.

Nash Birmingham was the daddy of all outdoor writers.

Nash Birmingham was the daddy of all outdoor writers.

One more interesting tidbit about the Ames Plantation.  Mr. John Walker Jones, who sold Mr. Hobart Ames the “Cedar Grove” Plantation, was the great-grandfather of Nash Buckingham’s wife.  Now, if I have to tell you who Nash Buckingham was, I must ask you to cease reading now: Google him before you continue.  Those not familiar with Nash Buckingham owe it to themselves to pick up a little education before continuing.

Tiny Grand Junction, Tennessee, is filled with history, and any bird dog man with a true passion for the sport will surely be grabbed, thrown to the ground, and compelled to glory in its past the instant he arrives. The history of this place can be seen at the National Bird Dog Museum and the Bird Dog Hall of Fame, but it can best be felt on the grounds of the Ames Plantation.

Er Shelley was Paul Rainey's dog handler, a true gentleman, the most influential dog man of all time. He accomplished one of the most amazing feats ever by a bird dog handler: best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club bench show and, in the same month in 1906, the same dog won the national bird dog championship. The dog was named Pioneer.

Er Shelley was Paul Rainey’s dog handler, a true gentleman, the most influential dog man of all time. He accomplished one of the most amazing feats ever by a bird dog handler: best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club bench show and, in the same month in 1906, the same dog won the national bird dog championship. The dog was named Pioneer.

All the giants of the sport, both men and dogs, traversed this terrain.  Jim Avent, Er Shelley, Clyde Morton, Wilson Dunn, John Gardner, John Rex Gates, John Olin, John Baily, Hoyle Eaton, and yes, Nash Buckingham (Do you know who he is now?) gathered at this place, shared their wisdom, made their name, said a little prayer, made a little money, and had a lot of fun.

Bird dogs, and the running of the national championship at Grand Junction, was what first attracted twenty-four year old adventurer Paul Rainey to north Mississippi.  Mr. Rainey attended the 1901 running of the trial, fell in love with the land and the people, and decided this is where he wanted to establish a base camp between his African safaris.  He settled on a thirty-thousand acre tract north of New Albany, Mississippi, near a place dear to my heart called Cotton Plant, the breeding ground for six generations of my Patterson kin – but that is all a story for another day.

Jim Avent was sometimes called the "Fox of Hickory Valley." Avent was sometimes a gentleman, but most of the time a scoundrel. Legend is that he once killed a man with a knife when the man kicked on of his dogs.

Jim Avent was sometimes called the “Fox of Hickory Valley.” Avent was sometimes a gentleman, but most of the time a scoundrel. Legend is that he once killed a man with a knife when the man kicked one of his dogs.

These men, like this place and the dogs they trained, have always inspired and fascinated me.  Their stories are tales of adventure, perseverance, devotion, and love.  Yes, love – love of the land, love of the loyal dogs they trained, and love of the sport and their fellow man.

As soon as my two boys were old enough, the summer between their Junior and Senior years of high school, I insisted they go with my dog trainer, Randy Downs, from Rienzi to the Bad Lands of North Dakota to work bird dogs for the summer.  I well knew the men they would meet, and understood the experience they would have.  They would spend the summer months with hard-driving, no-nonsense, John Wayne type characters, that naturally fostered good character in all the bird dogs and people with whom they came into contact.

The year my older son Beau went, they took a string of one hundred and twenty plus bird dogs of varying ages.  The following year, when my younger son John Calvin went, the string of dogs had dwindled by half.  The experience was hard work, with days on horseback starting around 4:00 A.M. and ending around 9:00 P.M., when darkness finally arrived on the northern plains.  Each day would be met with new challenges from the dogs, the horses, the snakes, and the weather.

Perseverance, patience, and organization would be required if either the dog or the young man were able to unlock their fullest potential.  Their mission was to nurture the virtues of courage, stamina, team work, discipline, and competitive spirit in each dog they worked.  My ambition, whether they understood at the time or not, was that both the dog and the young man would derive great benefit from the pursuit.

I was not disappointed.  My dogs returned South well-mannered and a pleasure to work; and my boys, well…they came back men…Gentlemen.  And, a gentleman can become whatever he resolves to be!  A good dog and two sons that are gentlemen.  What more can a man hope for?

I always dreamed of winning the national bird dog championship.  But, like so many other dreams, that goal has surely and sadly slipped away.  In the Spring of 2011, an early morning thunder storm rolled through Rienzi, Mississippi, and lightning struck the kennels owned by my dog handler and loyal friend, Randy Downs.  Freshly cut hay bales were stacked near the kennels and a fierce fire erupted, leaving forty-two of the best bird dogs in America little more than smoldering ash.  The two best prospects I ever had perished that morning.

After that tragedy, I vowed, in part out of respect for their memory and in part out of realization of my own advancing age, to never campaign a dog again.  The fire’s flames consumed the dream, but not my passion for the sport.

Bird dog statues watch over one of the driveways at Patterson Pointe Lodge

Bird dog statues watch over one of the driveways at Patterson Pointe Lodge

Bird dog paintings and photographs are prominent in the interior of Patterson's home.

Bird dog paintings and photographs are prominent in the interior of Patterson’s home.

My lone surviving dog, a little liver spotted female pointer that was kissed and scarred by the raging flames, is now my constant companion.  Her official name is “Cotton Plant Chick,” but I have taken to calling her “Chicken.”  Late most nights, we can be found discussing world affairs, public policy, family issues and the events of the day.  She is hesitant to say much and never disagrees with my opinions, but every emotion known to man can easily be seen in the warmth of her eyes.  She undoubtedly understands, deeply feels, and shares all my fears, doubts, and joys.  While she still hunts birds daily, her only real responsibilities are two: she’s the boss as to when it’s time to go to bed and when it’s time to get up.  Chicken’s love is unconditional, and I can’t imagine a better sleeping partner.

Should you decide to go to Grand Junction, look for me.  The good Lord willing, I will be there.  I’ll be the one riding a big gray mare, probably near the back of the gallery, sporting my old Stetson.  My imagination will probably transport me back in time, and I will think, as I always do, this must be what it was like to have ridden with General Nathan Bedford Forrest when his cavalry was on these grounds protecting the railroad supply lines for the Confederacy, or perhaps destroying those same lines if, as was often the case, the Northern invaders were in control. Or maybe you can catch up with me at the barn with old friends gathered around, re-living the glory days when my “Fiddler’s Pride” dog almost won the national.  But, if you miss me there, you will surely find me in that big old rocker at the big house, tall drink of good Bourbon in hand, listening intently as the young dog handlers tell about today’s dog work, and awaiting the older trainers’ predictable response with tales of days and trials long past.

Every old bird dog man has heard the familiar old truism: “ The reason bird dogs have so many friends is they wag their tails and not their tongues.”

During a long season of dark days, I came to appreciate the same quality in bird dog men.  For the most part, they are true gentlemen from the old school.  Loyalty is a big word for them, and devotion to friends a guiding principle.  They will never give up on a man or a dog when they need someone not to give up on them.  As we say in the bird dog world, “they will do to hitch to.”

Yes, I’m passionate about bird dogs, and the people they love. Hell, I am one.

 

Previous articles by Steve Patterson:  The Unlikeliest Christmas,  Billy Brewer and other friends,  America’s Dilemma

4 Comments on In Praise of Bird Dogs, Field Trials, & Gentlemen

  1. Peter McAlister // January 25, 2016 at 4:27 PM //

    My Grandfather was a bird dog man and a real gentleman! This article brought me back to thinking of him — he would have loved it , his definition of a gentleman was as follows : A true Gentleman never hurts anyone unintentionally !! Think about that one ! Thank you Mr Patterson for a great read

  2. Dixie Smith // January 27, 2016 at 4:47 PM //

    I absolutely loved the article! Printed it so TBone can read it tonight. Have walked a thousand miles with my Dad. He would only have a liver pointer. My Mom cleaned ’em all when he got home as I watched and waited to see what was in the craw. She always looked. Then it would be time for Bisuits and Gravey. Thank You for the memories this brought to me.

  3. Rex Stringer // January 28, 2016 at 11:57 PM //

    Wilson Dunn…what a great man. What a sport! This world needs some more “old school”.

  4. Rooster Calderon // January 30, 2016 at 6:35 PM //

    I have worked Dogs with Mr. Patterson many times . I always remember him saying ” ok, boys , let’s run them to sweat !” The old man is a true Gentleman . A great read– I miss working with him .

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