A Southern Sportsman Forty Years Ago
By: Col. F. G. Skinner
We passed the winter of 1836-37 with a young kinsman who, two years before, had moved out from Maryland to Mississippi with his servants, and his lares and penates, and established himself upon a large plantation in the midst of a settlement composed of “tidewater” people from Maryland, most of whom were his kindred – more or less remote. They were all people of refinement and wealth, and their removal to a new country seemed, if possible, to have increased that fondness for high living and field sports, for which the inhabitants of lower Maryland are so noted.
Our young friend, who had read Downing, and had cultivated a taste for landscape gardening, had erected in a beautiful grove what, if it had not been of logs, might be termed a palatial residence. It was, indeed, for that time and country, a fine large house of four rooms, all on one floor. It was surrounded on all sides by a wide porch or gallery, as it is called in the south. 10 feet wide, and running quite through the center of the house was a wide doorless hall, which served in the summer as a dining and lounging place. The four rooms were eighteen feet square, with a good fireplace in each. The whole house, galleries and all, was supported three feet from the ground on square brick pillars. We have been thus particular in describing the house because of a popularity which we have never observed elsewhere, and that is, that the whole structure, roof included, save the floors, was built of sassafras cut and sawed upon the estate. This aromatic wood – a mere shrub and a nuisance north of the Ohio – attains in the south to the dignity of timber, which may be sawed into planks, and riven into imperishable shingles, and then converted into habitations which will not harbor insects.
Though a bachelor, our friend’s domestic arrangements were of the most enviable kind.
His large plantation and numerous slaves were managed, and admirably, too, by old Uncle Hannibal, a confidential old darky who had been the playmate of his father, and who claimed to have raised, as he termed it, his young master, and all the servants on the place, many of whom were his own children or grandchildren. Uncle Hannibal was not only an excellent overseer, but he cumulated upon himself the sacred and useful offices of parson and doctor, He was perhaps rather too much a disciplinarian, as most slaves are when in authority.
The house servants were all of that steady, well-trained class of menials “to the manor born”, such as could be found nowhere else out of the Southern states in ante-bellum days. Old Aunt Nancy, the cook, was a “cordon Bleu” of the Maryland and Virginia culinary schools – a class of artists, alas, for the gastronomy, fast dying out with our Southern institutions – Aunt Sukey, the dairy and chamber maid, was equally good in her department, and old Uncle William – it was a mortal offense to call him Uncle Bill – the white headed butler and dining room servant, who, a Sable Figaro in his younger days, had sobered down into a Chesterfield in manner, and the most accomplished waiter we ever saw, had general charge of the interior department.
Add to this smoothly working domestic machinery a larder abounding at all seasons with the fat of the land, and an admirable wine cellar, supplied from New Orleans, the best market for French wines on the continent, and some idea may be formed of the home comforts of our sporting bachelor. We rode up to our friend’s house late one evening at the commencement of Christmas Week, but dared not dismount until he came out and dispersed with word and whip a numerous pack of dogs, who tendered us the compliments of the season with such yells and howling as are rarely heard of a bench show. Our young nimrod kept, running freely about his premises and harboring under his dwelling, no less than 33 dogs, all hounds except a pointer, a terrier, and a duck dog.
With the most hearty greetings we were ushered into a sitting room rendered bright and cozy by a ruddy blaze of pine knots on the hearth. Over the mantel was a mahogany velvet lined gun rack, in which were a couple of rifles and three double guns of the highest quality, all in such condition as to pass the inspection of a military martinet. Around the walls were some capital sporting prints, and all sorts of shooting and angling implements. Everything about this snug apartment was unmistakably indicative of the sporting proclivities of its occupant.
On the sideboard was an immense oceanic bowl of old India China, filled with apple toddy, brewed as our host informed us, not only in honor of our arrival, but in anticipation of the coming of a party of his neighbors to breakfast and hunt with us on the morrow. After a hearty pull at the toddy we sat down in the next room to a glorious supper of Maryland biscuit, woodcocks killed the night before by fire hunting, and a cup of coffee, the aroma of which reminded us of Paris, and Araby the Blest. A darky, answering to the name of Joe Copper, who performed the functions of kennel huntsman and whipper-in to the hounds, and stud groom, was now called in and ordered to put up and feed the hounds preparatory to the morrow’s hunt, and to call us a hour before day. Then after a good cigar and another pull at the big bowl, by way of a night-cap, we went to bed.
We needed no summons from Joe the next morning, for the howling and baying hounds and blowing of horns was enough to wake the dead. Dressing in a hurry, we went out on the porch, where we found half a dozen gentlemen, each tooting with all his might on a tin or cow’s horn – by way of a serenade, they said – and each accompanied by one or more couples of hounds, all with their couples on, and all howling and accompaniment to the music of the horns. After depleting the oceanic bowl by several inches, and a gargantuan breakfast, we all mounted ad rode forth in quest of a fox; but as we were invited to dine after the chase with old Colonel Wood, the amphytrion and patriarch of the county, the dogs were not uncoupled until we reached a small cane break near his house. On our way thither we had what was to us a new experience with woodcocks. We were riding through a dense fog over an old field, covered with thick tough sod, that could scarcely be bored through with a bill of steel, and yet to our surprise we flushed woodcocks one after another in great numbers. They seemed to be as plenty as blackbirds. Here they were evidently feeding heartily, but without the labor of boring, which was an impossibility. The long bills hibernate in vast numbers in the lower cotton states; but while the sun is above the horizon the remain concealed in the high cane, coming out to feed only at night when they are easily bagged by fire-hunting.
Just before reaching the cover we were making for, a great commotion among the dogs indicated not only a trail, but a very hot one; the couples were hastily taken off, and away they all flew, heads up and sterns down, in full cry on what was evidently the fresh trail of a gray fox. Reynard ran in circles of not more than a mile in diameter. The cry was incessant, and we never lost its glorious music. At the end of an hour and a half the sinking fox crossed a road and entered a large clearing in view of the whole field, with the hounds close in his rear, when suddenly the fierce roar of the pack was succeeded by dead silence. We took it for granted as we cleared the fence into the field, that the dogs had run and killed the fox; but to our profound astonishment we saw them wandering hither and thither as they had lost or given him up. Several casts were made, but all in vain – they could not hit on the trail. Then it was remarked that a favorite bitch, the leader of the pack, was nowhere to be seen or heard. Just at this moment a noise was heard which seemed to issue from a great log lying near the middle of the field. Upon examination the log was found to be hollow, and in the hollow the fox and the missing bitch were fighting like demons. The bitch was evidently in great distress, and we could not reach in and pull her out. An ax was speedily procured and a large block cut out from the center of the log. The block came away square, and there, as in the frame of a picture, could be seen the heads of both the fox and the hound. The fox, the big fellow, had seized the bitch by the nose, and held to it with the tenacity of a snapping turtle. There was a great danger of the nose being torn off, to the ruin of the most valuable hound in the state – the winner of many a well contested match. After many efforts the bitch was at last relieved by prying open the fox’s mouth with a spring-backed knife. But the picture of the two heads seen through the cut in the log would have inspired the pencil of a Landseer.
It was yet early, and there was time to kill another fox before dinner, and we had determined to do so but just then the old patriarch himself, Colonel Wood, rode up and put a veto on it. It would take from that hour until night, he said, to make way with all the toddy and egg-nog he had brewed, and we might have a little game of brag before dinner. The old gentleman would take no refusal. The hounds were coupled, and we accompanied him home. By the time dinner was ready the whole party was nearly in the condition of Tam O’Shanter, “O’er all the ills of life victorious.”
What a grand dinner that was! At the head of the table was a baron of beef that might have been cut from the prize ox of Smithfield, and at the foot a twenty-pound wild turkey, fattened on pecan nuts, both were honestly roasted before an honest wood fire; each was crusted with that golden brown osmazome which a wood fire alone can bring to the surface. Those cast-iron monstrosities called cooking stoves, in which the flavors of the best materials become mixed and mongrel, and in which meats become sodden and baked, like “funeral meats,” and not roasted, had not then reached the south, to the utter ruin of the culinary art.
During the pleasant winter which we passed with our hospitable Nimrod, fox hunting, driving deer, snipe and wild fowl hunting, we concluded the true sportsman’s paradise was to be found in the planting states, and that the planters, in their mode of life, hospitality, and thorough knowledge of a keen enjoyment of all the sports, both by land and water, more nearly resembled the landed gentry of England than any other class of American people.
But alas, Ichabod! Ichabod! Thy glory has departed.
contributed by Charles Dawkins, Hattiesburg, MS