Pheasant hunting is a family tradition

COURTESY PHOTO

My Grandfather, W. F. Smith Sr., was the Chicago and Northwestern freight and passenger agent in Huron. He transferred from Redfield at the request of Marvin Hughitt to manage Huron’s new facility. Hughitt bragged that it was the finest depot west of the Mississippi.

My Grandfather ran this depot from 1913 to 1945.

He and my grandmother had a large family. Six children, consisting of 4 boys and 2 girls.

In the late 1920s and 1930s, it was a challenge to feed all the kids. The boys were avid fishermen and hunters. All were “dead shots.” If you took one of grandpa’s shells you were expected to bring food. Pheasant, goose or duck  — and you better not miss. Dad often said his best Christmas dinner memory was of a roasted goose flanked by two ducks.

It was my grandfather’s duty to stay in contact with his customers and to determine their needs in terms of car supply, especially around harvest. He would drive around to various farms in the countryside and talk to the farmers and keep careful notes of what he saw and was told. He also had an ulterior motive.

It usually happened that he and his customers discussed the pheasant supply. He got first hand information about where and how many, and then often an invitation to come back and hunt the farmer’s land.

Hunting was crucial to the family’s food supply. Although he had an important job on the railroad during difficult times, he was also legendary for bringing home only part of his paycheck. He was very softhearted and was often touched by the stories of need by people who knew he just got paid.

My father did his part in feeding the family. He and his boyhood chum Gene Theimer (Pacific Fleet Heavyweight Champion later), would go at dark to the pond behind the Game Fish and Parks building. Using a long trot line they would bait hooks and throw them over the fence. In the early morning they would go and retrieve the trophy catfish that were in the pond, especially after the State Fair. They would explain that some person at the river gave them these fish and they gladly accepted. Grandma’s rule was I’ll cook anything as long as you clean it, and so the family enjoyed a satisfying meal for all.

While my uncle Johnny was overseas in the Pacific in WWII, grandpa just could not write to his son. He himself had served during war and one suspects that he feared for his safety and just couldn’t do it. His brother George in New Ulm took up the pen, and many letters regarding all topics were exchanged — especially involving pipe tobacco.

We found one letter that was just classic. Grandpa had beautiful penmanship and was ambidextrous as well. It was a step-by-step description of his journeys into the farmland and a detailed report on the expectations and locations for the hunt. Each year they would fill the locker and have meat for the winter. Being precise he had arranged for the local gunsmith to inspect, repair and reblue all the family shotguns. I found no follow up report on the season, but I expect it was successful.

Grandpa was an old soldier. A sergeant in the Minnesota Militia during the Spanish American War. After, he stayed in the Minnesota National Guard while working for the CNW. When he was transferred to Watertown, he joined the South Dakota National Guard. After the Guard was activated for WWI he was appointed a captain in the 8th company of the South Dakota Home Guards. His friend Peter Norbeck made the appointment.

In the early 1950s, I was able to go along as the family hunted. I was about 5 at the time. I recall it was quite formal. Canvas pants, hunting boots, canvas coats and red caps. Grandpa actually had breeches with tall lace up boots. As a concession to his age, he acted like a “blocker.”

My Aunt Jeanne Bauder joined in the hunt and was a good shot. A meeting of all hunters would take place before any field was entered. Safety was the focus. Handing of shotguns over a fence, adequate spacing and not to follow a shot too far to the side of you. All birds must be shot in the air, after flushing. Any bird shot on the ground and you would likely walk home. All wounded birds were tracked and not left in the field. It was a serious sport.

My favorite were the picnic baskets full of lunch. Hot soups, coffee, sandwiches, and cookies.

Eagerly eaten after walking fields, and then ready to go on road hunting to the next field. Asking permission of the land owner and sometimes sharing a bird. If things were not good that day the the word was “let’s go see Jake. He always has birds.” This was Jacob Bauder of Alpena, and Jeanne’s husband, Herman, was his son.

After hunting they went back to the home place. The men cleaned birds while a spaghetti and chili supper was prepared. We kids kept used shells, knocked out the primer and ran a spike through it. Then they were stuffed with pheasant feathers — we likely invented the first lawn darts.

I’m a very fortunate man to have had so many memories of my childhood. It was focused within a very close knit family. They are all gone now but the lessons and memories will never leave me.

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