In an era where liberal limits and wanton waste were the norm, George Wilcox was years ahead of his time as he became one of the country’s first waterfowl conservationists.
The 1930s were a remarkable time in the history of waterfowling. Duck hunting exploded on the national scene and Arkansas was promoted far and wide as the premier destination to shoot mallard ducks. The Duck Capital of the World tagline was born. Outdoor writers across the country were traveling to the Stuttgart area to write about the massive amount of wintering ducks on the Grand Prairie.
Ducks existed in such large numbers that farmers were allowed to shoot them at night to keep them off their unharvested rice. Crops were being completely ransacked by thousands of ducks each evening. In desperation, a farmer near Stuttgart rigged an oscillating fan equipped with lights to spook the nocturnal ducks. Others resorted to roman candles and other fireworks to chase the ducks off their crops.
Waterfowlers, mainly the wealthy with the means to travel, hire guides or lease property, came from coast to coast and points in between to see the incredible numbers firsthand and, for many, to experience the sport of duck hunting for the first time. Limits were liberal as they bounced between 10 and 15 ducks per hunter, but with the lack of game wardens to enforce the laws, hunters often exceeded the limit with no fear of penalty.
Despite what appeared to be plenty of ducks to go around given a 90-day season, things were happening in Arkansas that raised eyebrows with the Federal government, the Audubon Society, the Izaak Walton League and other conservation entities. Baiting, the practice of artificially dumping grain to entice waterfowl, was allowing “systematic commercialized killing of great numbers” according to published reports.
Ducks were killed in such incredible numbers that environmentalists began to fear significant damage being done to the species. Aldo Leopold, a renowned environmentalist and conservationist at the time, addressed the subject in his book titled Game Survey of the North Central States on the topic.
The headlines drew more and more outdoor writers to Arkansas and one name was frequently mentioned in their accounts of remarkable amounts of ducks and fast and furious shooting. George S. Wilcox of Mount Adams Landing on the White River became a household name in the waterfowling community not only for the hordes of ducks hunters were sure to harvest on his property but the extremes to which he went to ensure ducks stayed on his property.
Wilcox was born the son of a blacksmith in 1899 in the White River Bottoms and in his 20s he bought 2,000 acres of property in the area. Most notable were three timber lined lakes which became known as Open Lake, Little Round Pound and Wilcox Lake.
Not long after the purchase, Wilcox ceased all hunting on the lakes as he built blinds 100 feet up in the trees to study the ducks as well as hawks and other enemies of waterfowl. Wilcox and his associates claimed to kill over 5,000 hawks and eagles in the early 1930s when the practice was still legal.
There were several extremely dry years during the decade and ducks that fed in the rice fields of the Grand Prairie found areas of refuge on the countless White River lakes. The green tree reservoirs popularized by Verne Tindall and Frank Freudenberg outside Stuttgart were just being built, and ducks had limited choices to where they could escape the constant harassment by farmers and hunters in the rice fields.
Wilcox’s three lakes provided an ideal place for ducks to rest and relax.
As the Great Depression trudged on, Wilcox began guiding duck hunts for $10 a day and hunters came from far and wide. Despite a literal carpet of ducks on his river lakes, Wilcox did not allow shooting there and instead set up the hunters in the sloughs and bayous running through the timber between the lakes. Eyewitnesses described shooting that was frenzied almost to the point of being ridiculous.
Herbert Caldwell, sports editor of The Memphis Commercial Appeal, participated in one such hunt in 1930. “I was a member of a party of eight who killed 127 mallards within less than 20 minutes’ actual shooting time on these grounds last Tuesday morning,” he wrote. “At two minutes after 8 o’clock in the morning our day’s shoot was over.” The hunters were shooting as fast as they could load their shotguns and didn’t realize they had exceeded their limit by seven until a cease fire was enacted in order to do a count.
In The Spotlight
Despite the volume of ducks shot by Wilcox’s clients, Caldwell gave Wilcox credit for being a good steward of wildlife, whether intentionally or not. “There is another angle, however, to Wilcox and his duck slaughtering business,” he wrote, “and one that deserves deep thought and consideration by the Department of Agriculture and its bureau of biological survey in its national wild fowl conservation project. Wilcox, in a way is a conservationist, whether or not at heart. For every one duck killed in a season on his place Wilcox offers shelter and protection for thousands of other ducks.”
Wilcox and his ducks were making enough noise that the St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a large photo spread in its Sunday edition on Dec. 31, 1933. Wildlife authorities estimated that nearly four million ducks were concentrated on the 120 acre lake featured in the photograph. A year later the New York Times ran the same photos in a Sunday edition, amazing the public as to the wonders of ducks in Arkansas.
MGM Studios, saw the pictures and paid Wilcox $500 to film ducks on his lakes. The resulting short film ran in movie theaters across the country.
Others, including a wealthy landowner from Chile, sought Wilcox’s input on how to build a bird sanctuaries in their part of the world. On top of being considered an early conservationist, Wilcox had become an ambassador for the state as duck hunting made Arkansas a tourism destination.
Wilcox died at 44 in a drowning accident in the very bottomlands that made him famous. After his death, his wife Bobbie leased the property to several companies, but financial hard times forced her to sell the lakes and surrounding bottomlands to the Townsend Lumber Co., which later transferred the land to Potlatch Corp.
In 1993, Potlatch exchanged 41,000 acres in the White and Cache River bottoms, including Wilcox’s former mallard mecca, for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service land in Idaho.
Wilcox’s three lakes are currently part of the North Unit of the White River National Refuge. Like many properties from that era, the lakes, which sit just north of Crockett’s Bluff, don’t draw great concentrations of ducks like they used to. The boom of rice farms in the area and the building of reservoirs that can be flooded to attract ducks quickly scattered the populations out across the Grand Prairie, even in dry years.
Truly a man before his time, George Wilcox juggled the opportunity to make a buck when times were tough with being one of the original waterfowl conservationists. Countless duck clubs and property owners across the country have adopted Wilcox styled methods of designating areas for ducks to rest combined with successful hunting outings.
Wilcox’s trendsetting efforts are somewhat undervalued and overlooked today, despite their role in perpetuating the sport that waterfowlers now enjoy. Throw in his contribution to Arkansas’ mystique as a duck hunting destination and that’s not a bad legacy for fellow from Mount Adams Landing.
“Some years ago, I came to Stuttgart with the late Gilbert Pearson, an officer of the Audubon Society, whose mission is to conserve the bird population. Pearson had heard that the Stuttgart area was a vast slaughter pen which would eventually exterminate the wild duck. He went, among other places, to the old George Wilcox place near here. There he saw ducks by the hundreds of thousands on the Wilcox lakes, so closely packed that only glimpses of the water could be seen.”
“He found, to his astonishment, that Wilcox permitted only very limited hunting and that he spent much of his time, money and energy guarding his ducks from poachers and predators. It was almost a kind of mania with this Arkansas man to keep his ducks from being slaughtered. Pearson found similar concern for wild ducks at other places in the area, even commercial ones. He returned to New York with a rather different view than the preconception he had brought to Arkansas.”
“Good shots are often able to get their limits in a very short while, but the tendency is to make shooting selective — such as limiting the kill to drakes — to prolong the pleasure of the hunt.”
— Ralph Coghlan, in a Dec. 30, 1949 column in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.