American Field

The National Championship, National Bird Dog Museum, and Field Trial Hall of Fame

A Bucket List Journey

By Al Mannes | Jun 30, 2020

TOLEDO, OHIO. “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” Abraham Lincoln, 16th U. S. President I find it hard to believe that as brilliant as our 16th president was that some seven score and seventeen years ago he could so adroitly describe in just a few words the magnificent beauty of a healthy retirement. Each day belongs to you, and what you do with it is all on you. With time we are able to assiduously create a plan for the future often postponed in our youth by family, career and other sundry exigencies. That plan is now referred to as our “bucket list.”

They say that travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer. I am a true believer, and since retiring about a decade ago I have been fortunate to travel thousands of miles and enjoy various cultures. One year I did get to visit the Bird Dog Museum and Field Trial Hall of Fame in Grand Junction, Tennessee and rode the National Championship on the Ames Plantation —it was everything I imagined it to be and more.

This year my good friend and hunting partner Bart Young made that same journey with me. Bart is a chemist by education and training, but a student of history by avocation. He also coached a lot of football in his life and appreciates great athletes even if they’re of the four-legged variety. Like myself, he is also retired and a trip to Ames and the Bird Dog Museum and Field Trial Hall of Fame has been on his priority list for years.

The drive from Toledo to Grand Junction, Tennessee is about twelve hours. We journeyed south through Ohio, into Kentucky and from there Tennessee – it’s a drive replete with history and bucket list targets.

Our first stop was in Findlay, just forty minutes south of Toledo, where we stopped at the Maple Grove Cemetery to pay tribute to my late friend Tom Honecker.

My father birthed me into field trials many years ago, but it was Tom who introduced me to the grace, power and beauty of the all-age bird dog. In February of 2010 he hosted my friends and me at his raison d’etre, CedarOak Plantation in Holly Springs, Mississippi. For Tom the place was the dream of a lifetime. He was chest-out proud of the entire facility from the rolling 17-hundred acre plus landscape right up to the magnificent plantation manor house. And I just loved the saddle honoring Tom’s winning of the 1998 National Championship with Cedaroak Kate right next to the stone fireplace.

Shortly after our visit, Tom had a great run at the National Championship with Cedaroak Bee Sting. He returned home in March and suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 62; he was inducted to the Hall of Fame a few months later. I  miss Tom and his father Ken and hope the surviving Honecker family is doing well.

It wasn’t long heading down I-75 when we entered Auglaize County, home to Wapakoneta and the Neil Armstrong Air and Space Museum. This is a must stop for any lover of American history; I checked this one off my bucket list years ago.

“This is sure one place I need to visit,” observed Bart. “Who can forget what they were doing the day Neil Armstrong stepped on to the moon.”

It was truly an iconic moment in world history, and such a uniquely American story; a larger than life figure such as Neil Armstrong comes from a small rural farming village like Wapakoneta and from those fields grows into the hero we still love and admire — the first man on the Moon— a brilliant pilot and aeronautical engineer. His family’s loss when he died in 2012 was a deep felt national requiem.

About an hour later we entered Hamilton County, home to the great riverfront city of Cincinnati. I lived in the area for a few years back in the 1960s and found it an area rich in history. As we crossed the Ohio River I thought of how much fun it would be to roll back the calendar a couple hundred years, take a riverboat cruise to Louisville, Memphis, Vicksburg and Natchez, Mississippi, ultimately arriving in the Crescent City — New Orleans. What an educational bucket list trip that would be. Nothing says summer around here like the sight of a paddle wheel steamer and the sound of her calliope calling. Bart gave this one a big thumbs up, “I think Shirley and I would love a trip like that.”

As we crossed the Ohio River into Kentucky — we thought — maybe next year!

Despite a passing snow squall we made good time rolling across the beautiful bluegrass commonwealth heading down I-71 toward Louisville. Once there, Bart and I agreed a surefire bucket list imperative had to be the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in the Spring.

I once had the pleasure of visiting the 147-acre facility, and was immediately struck by the meticulous care of the grounds, the beauty of the grandstand with its iconic twin spires and the immaculately maintained stables and paddocks. You don’t have to be there long to appreciate the history of this sport of kings and the crème de la crème winners who have been honored by the Garland of Roses; the winner’s circle here is without question the most exclusive in sports. I would hope someday to be there on the first Saturday in May among 50-thousand racing fans with a mint julep in one hand and the winning ticket in the other.

Again Bart and I mused — maybe next year!

It wasn’t long before we crossed into the great Volunteer State of Tennessee and soon arrived in Music City, aka Nashville.

“Bart,” I queried, “where does the Grand Ole Opry stand on your bucket list?” “I’ve been there,” came the response. “I stood on the steps of the Ryman Auditorium a few years back, but never entered.” Some day, I said, we need to remedy that. We both have enjoyed bluegrass and country music for many years; a weekend in Nashville and a night at the “Mother Church of Country Music” would be a great way to celebrate the memory of some all-time favorites like George Jones, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and many others. If I plan it out correctly perhaps Willie Nelson will be performing the night we arrive. Again — maybe next year.

We then moved southwest, soon entering Bolivar to load up on provisions for camp.

As we passed through the small village of Hickory Valley we well knew we were in bird dog country. This, I mentioned to Bart, is home to one of the greatest bird dog handlers of all time. James Monroe Avent, “The Fox of Hickory Valley”, is the stuff of legends; a man who worked with Hobart Ames to establish the National Championship and develop some of the greatest dogs of the early 20th century. He earned that moniker honestly, which is saying an awful lot, since honesty was not one of his most endearing qualities. You see Avent, as the stories go, was not averse to using any extant piece of chicanery he could envision to get an edge on an opponent.

My favorite story comes from Everett Skehan’s great book Fields of Glory.

“ . . . Avent had a white dog that really did well in a trial. He went home and dyed that dog black, and ran it again in place of a black dog that wasn’t nearly so talented.”

We don’t know if he won the trial, but it’s obvious that had James Avent lived much later in the century he would have been a big fan of legendary football coach Vince Lombardi who once observed, “Winning isn’t everything —it’s the only thing.”

After eleven-plus hours we arrived at Pinecrest Camp and Retreat Center snuggled neatly in a large woodland just four miles from Grand Junction — the Bird Dog Museum and Hall of Fame — and the Ames Plantation. We had enough time to freshen up, get something to eat and head over to the drawing.

The 7:00  p. m. drawing at Bryan Hall  was well attended. Dr. Rick Carlisle handles this affair every year with great aplomb. He is the Ames Plantation director who oversees the 18-thousand plus acre facility that encompasses a lot more than just this National Championship which, by the way, is run on just 6,000 of those acres.

Dr. Carlisle’s mood this evening was upbeat despite predictions of rain for the foreseeable future. “The courses are muddy and wet but I’m pleased with the way the cover has responded. We’re seeing a lot of birds. A couple months ago at the National Amateur All-Age Invitational more than 35-coveys were moved during the two and a half days of running. And at the Ames Amateur twelve coveys were pointed in just two hours.”

Bart and I were pleased with the bird count analysis, and hoped it would translate into a lot of action.

“I was impressed with how organized it all was, and I saw that continue over the next few days,” Bart observed. “I always find it interesting to be around people with a passion for doing something the best and I found that here.”

He also wondered with 38 of the best dogs in the country competing what it would take to win. “It takes a great dog and a lot of luck,” opined Larry Huffman, three-time winner of this Championship with his Whippoorwill dogs. “You have to have the right day when the birds are active and feeding. Rain is the worst condition, but mostly you have to have the right dog and remember, every dog is different no matter what the bloodlines. I had one national champion I had to work every day, and an hour and a half the day before running him in the National. I’ve had two other national champions I gave three days rest prior to their brace. You just need to have a close connection with your dog.”

Brad Harter was also at tonight’s drawing. He’s been a ubiquitous presence at this Championship since 1988; he and his staff do an outstanding job of filming this event. A serious accident last year kept him out of the saddle, but he’s come back strong. I knew he would have insights.

“Luck of the draw is huge, but it’s not just about rain,” he opined. “You have to have a dog that’s going to dig in when times are tough and birds aren’t moving. We have radio-tracked birds here at Ames and when they are pressured they move into heavy cover and may not be feeding or active until very late in the day, perhaps even after the final brace has been run. The dogs that dig in and get off the edges in these situations can have big days — this is also where a good scout is essential.”

As Bart and I left Bryan Hall we were more than ready to hit the sack; a long but gratifying fifteen-hour day was coming to an end. I knew that tomorrow, Sunday, would be a very educational experience for both of us.

Our Pinecrest lodging gave us a good night’s sleep and by mid-Sunday morning we were ready to take a driving tour of the eighteen thousand acre Ames Plantation. We practically had the place to ourselves and took full advantage by cruising up and down every road we could find.

“I was really struck by the sheer size of the place,” observed Bart. “It was something out of a travelogue with gently rolling hills, beautiful pine forests and the feeling you are in an historic place.”

What many may not realize is that this is a living plantation with thirteen thousand acres of timber, row crops, corn, soybeans, wheat and milo and the third oldest registered Angus herd in the nation. Ames is owned and operated by the trustees of the Hobart Ames Foundation and exists for the benefit of the University of Tennessee.

For Bart and me the highlight of the morning tour was pulling up in front of the Ames Manor House. Built in 1847 it immediately transports the visitor to the antebellum period; it is not difficult in your mind’s eye to envision a time and place that held all the opulent appurtenances of 19th century wealth.

On this quiet Sunday morning you could almost hear a shimmering black horse drawn barouche pulling up to the Manor House adorned with polished brass struts, hand rails and lanterns — a handcrafted leather interior and artisans tack worth a small fortune. The guests step out and are greeted by liveried footmen anxious to address their every need. It most definitely was a whole different world back then.

Hobart Ames was a wealthy industrialist from Massachusetts who bought the plantation and manor house in 1901 and operated it as a hunting preserve, livestock enterprise and cotton plantation. You must remember, this was Mark Twain’s Gilded Age when wealthy eastern industrialists saw opportunity everywhere. For the South, however, the interest in quail hunting was a boom to a region still struggling from Reconstruction. People such as philanthropist Herman B. Duryea, Harry Payne Whitney, Pierre Lorillard, A. G. C. Sage, Lewis B. Maytag, Gerald Livingston, Hobart Ames and many others brought their wealth and opportunity to the region.

Ames was heir to the Ames Shovel and Tool Company which was developed by his grandfather in the late 18th century. The company supplied metal shovels to our troops during the War for Independence in 1776.

These men all shared two passions — quail hunting and bird dogs. Their huge infusion of capital in the region was a godsend. The little game bird was a cash crop that saved many struggling plantations. In fact, as one pundit put it, “Quail are to these plantations what grapes are to Bordeaux,” the famous wine-growing region of France.

Fortunately, this unique love affair did not end with the death of these captains of industry. Many more have followed in their footsteps sharing that same passion for quail, bird dogs and field trials. It is the main reason why the sport survives and thrives. “Without generous benefactors across this country preserving field trial grounds it would be difficult to maintain the present quality of our National Championship,” noted Dr. Carlisle. “We are also lucky that a lot of the states have stepped forward to provide grounds.”

It seems to me what’s evolved since the very early days of field trials is a page right out of Emerson’s concept to “pay it forward”.

Successful business people who enjoyed hunting and field trials at various venues when they were young thought it their turn to the “pay it forward”. The largess of these owners can never be fully appreciated: people such as John Ivester at Sawtooth Plantation, Dr. Ron Deal at Chickasaw, Ted Baker at Chinquapin, Butch Houston at Shadow Oak Plantation, and who can ever forget the generosity of the late Jimmy Hinton at Sedgefields? This partial list only scratches the surface; they are true giants in the field trial world and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

Later in the morning Bart and I had the opportunity to visit with another group of “pay it forward” fellas at the West Tennessee Field Trial grounds in Dancyville just some twenty miles from Ames. They’ve been running field trials here for almost seventy years.

Bill and Allen Currie inherited the property from their grandparents who also loved field trials. They then went about cobbling together five other properties to make up the present 5,000-acre field trial venue. Some of the top field trials on the circuit are run here: the West Tennessee Amateur All-Age, the West Tennessee Open All-Age, the Tennessee Shooting Dog Championship, the All-Age Derby Championship and others.

“This club and grounds are constantly changing,” noted Bill. “We sometimes lose land and then gain some. Developers are often after us to sell portions, but we’ll never do that.”

One of those gains occurred some twenty years ago when Blake Kukar bought the late Dempsey Williams’ place just up the road and has since added more land. Blake, originally from Arkansas, had a highly successful run at Lehman Brothers on Wall Street; he then returned to his roots in the Southeast, eventually setting up his financial business in Memphis. Soon after the move he found himself enjoyably ensconced just east of Memphis in the world’s field trial capital. Once you step on to Blake’s property you’re immediately struck by his febrile devotion to dogs of every tone and tint. You don’t necessarily need a pedigree to be part of Blake’s world, but he does possess an insatiable appetite for watching great all-age bird dogs cover the country.

“When I moved to Memphis for business reasons I knew immediately where I wanted to live,” Blake explained. “I was drawn to this area for the quality of life here, and I already knew some of the people — it was a seamless transition for me.” What I found ironic is that while Blake has a surfeit of all types of dogs, the Currie brothers have none.

The time Bart and I spent with them at the clubhouse was one of the most interesting parts of our trip. “I was amazed at the dedication, the pure passion these people have for this sport,” Bart observed. “They have gone to great lengths to maintain the continuity of the property, and the development of the field trial grounds. I loved the clubhouse with the old pictures of some of the greats who have competed there. It shows the intense pride they take in this club.”

The short trip up from Grand Junction brought living proof that the passion of people like Hobart Ames, and others I’ve mentioned, still exists in today’s computer world, and in the flesh and blood of those who have invested so heavily in the sport’s future.

Next it was back to Grand Junction for a tour of the Bird Dog Museum and Hall of Fame; later came the Hall of Fame dinner sponsored by Purina. Bart had hardly taken a dozen steps toward the front door when he stopped to admire the bird dog statues. “The place just knocked me out,” he explained. “The building is beautifully planned with monuments out front honoring some of the greatest dogs and that helps prepare you for what’s to come inside. This is a real museum with gorgeous portraits of great dogs and people, and not just pictures — genuine museum pieces.”

There is one interesting footnote to the dog pointing portraits. Why do some dogs, we wondered, point with a 45-degree tail, parallel to the ground, while others have that twelve o’clock tail reaching for the stars. We were told that’s been an evolutionary process, but no one seems to know exactly when or why that changed over the past one-hundred plus years. Suffice to say, the twelve o’clock tail has definitely become the de rigueur of field trial placements, pictures and portraits.

We can’t say enough for the genuine hospitality we were shown by Tonya Brotherton, the executive director of the Bird Dog Foundation, and her staff. As we toured the facility we noted with interest the portions devoted to honoring the retrievers and flushing dogs; it truly is an eclectic repository of art work, saddles, guns and other artifacts and includes a research library.

“The place reminded me of our own Toledo Museum of Art and speaks to the devotion and love of the people here,” said Bart. “I was impressed by the staff’s vast knowledge and the participation of so many women.”

As we pressed on with questions we were directed to talk to Gary Lockee who, we were told, was probably more involved than anyone at making this brick and mortar tribute a reality. As I soon discovered, at age of 97, Garette E. Lockee’s total recall is astounding, but his self-effacing demeanor was a challenge for this reporter. At first blush I thought for sure I’d be just talking to a fella who loved hunting over bird dogs and that’s it. But the story here is much more intriguing.

Lockee grew up on a farm in South Carolina and went to the University there on a Naval ROTC scholarship. He graduated only months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor and then spent the rest of the war fighting in the Pacific. He was commissioned on a destroyer, and as any student of naval history will attest, the tin can sailors are among the toughest hombres the Navy has to offer.

He saw action in nine different campaigns, but the most frightening moment, he said, came in early December of 1944 when under the command of Admiral Bill “Bull” Halsey, the U. S. Pacific Fleet sailed right into the teeth of a killer typhoon. Three ships capsized and sank — 790 sailors were lost.

“I was lucky” he said with a wry smile, “we had a great captain and crew and a ship that withstood one-hundred mile-an-hour winds.”

After the war Lockee rose to captain and commanded three major warships including a guided missile cruiser and saw action in Korea and Vietnam. He later taught naval history and navigation at the University of North Carolina, but continued to pursue one of his major love affairs — that of bird dogs and field trials. He has had three dogs qualified for the National Championship.

Some thirty years ago he moved to the Grand Junction area with the expressed intent of doing all he could to build a physical manifestation of what William F. (Bill) Brown, editor of the American Field, started in 1953.

“I dearly wanted to honor the memory of the great Bill Brown,” Captain Lockee recalled, “and, of course, the great dogs and people who have made this such a wonderful sport.” As a principal founder and president of the Bird Dog Foundation he went about fund raising with the passion of an Elhew pointer. He barnstormed the nation covering all fifty states with the end result being the dedication of the 30-thousand square foot Museum and Hall of Fame in 1991.

Captain Lockee wanted to emphasize, “This is one facility serving similar, but distinct, entities existing under one umbrella called the Bird Dog Foundation which has a 501c3 tax status. That Foundation embraces within these walls The National Bird Dog Museum, The Field Trial Hall of Fame, The Wildlife Heritage Center, The Retriever Field Trial Hall of Fame, The National Retriever Museum and the Continental Breed Museum and a complete research library.”

Notwithstanding the reality that the Museum and Hall of Fame in Grand Junction are a de facto presence, we asked Captain Lockee why this site was chosen since the tiny hamlet is somewhat remote.

“That’s easy!” he said. “This area had the greatest quail hunting anywhere, and it was located on a main rail junction accessible from anywhere in the country. Wealthy easterners had no trouble getting here.”

It was also perfect for waterfowl hunters, as arguably the most famous outdoor writer of the early 20th century reported in his numerous waterfowl hunting tales, “the area was comfortably situated in a waterfowl heaven called the Mississippi flyway,” wrote Nash Buckingham some eighty years ago. In addition, history more than supports what we were told; research shows that during the Civil War General Ulysses S. Grant built a fort nearby so as to make sure the South could never again control the Grand Junction rail center.

That evening we enjoyed the Hall of Fame dinner and got to meet a lot of people who make this a special time of year in Grand Junction.

“It was like being at a major league baseball or football banquet,” Bart observed. “I was talking to the best in the sport. Total professionals with support from a large fraternity of both active and retired professionals. Extremely interesting.” We had a great time but left early knowing we had an early date with a horse and rain moving in.

We rose early to a light drizzle on Monday and suited up appropriately. We arrived at the clubhouse from where the morning brace would commence. “I was sure impressed by what I saw when we arrived,” Bart admitted, “the state of the art horse trailers and trucks are sure attention grabbers, and I was surprised at the number of people ready to ride in the gallery which is no walk in the park.”

Our horse wrangler this morning was Kerry Kimery of Double K farms who has been providing this service for the past 25 years and relies heavily on two very capable assistants: Dr. Kerri-Kimery-Breeden, Squeaky Powell and Katy Dunn. Kerry is very mindful of the needs of his customers and does his level best to match his many gaited horses to your size and experience. He also rides every brace to make sure you’re safe and sound; his friendly badinage is both enjoyable and educational. Kerry is, by every measure, a major asset to this Championship — a real mensch.

As promised, the rain arrived promptly at 8:00 a. m. just in time for breakaway — a light mist at first and later intermittent downpours. Touch’s Red Rider, handled by Luke Eisenhart, and Lester’s Private Charter, handled by Mark McLean, broke across an open field and headed toward some milo.

Red Rider, just a rookie, slammed on point at the 4-minute mark at the edge of a milo field and then did a beautiful relocation job for the first find of the Championship. Despite the steady rain the dog was looking sharp. He posted another find at the 9-minute mark and continued to run a strong all-age race despite the rain. So strong that he was soon out of pocket and the retrieval unit was called for at the 44-minute mark. The intensity of the rain kept increasing with conditions deteriorating.

Lester’s Private Charter struggled to find birds and was picked up at the one hour and 18-mark. What transpired this morning goes to the heart of what Larry Huffman told us at the drawing on Saturday. The luck of the draw — the incessant rain — made it awfully difficult for dogs and handlers. My friend was anything but discouraged. “Despite the conditions, it was great to watch these pros in action,” explained Bart. “They are great horsemen and I was especially impressed by the scouts who have a tough job keeping track of the dogs, especially in this kind of weather.”

As Dr. Carlisle intimated Saturday night the course was in workable condition despite what they’ve been through last Fall and this Winter with rain, rain and more rain. We crossed stirrup high swollen streams on gaited horses game for the challenge and without incident.

As we rode down one steep embankment to cross one of those streams Bart earnestly reminded me, “A missed step here by the horse could literally wreck your day.” I couldn’t agree more. With the morning brace complete we were glad to dismount and dry-off.

Poised in our saddle preparing for the afternoon brace, I couldn’t help but reflect on this unique American tradition that’s over 120 years old. The very first National Championship was run in West Point, Mississippi in 1898; that was the inchoate forerunner of what Bart and I were witnessing today. A lot has changed over that time but the “My dog is better than your dog” aphorism remains the same.

This afternoon under still soggy conditions S F Bandwagon, handled by Larry Huffman, battled Touch’s Spaceman with Randy Anderson. Again the conditions were not the best, but there was improvement over the morning race. S F Bandwagon had a find at the 27-minute mark and again at 1:37; a couple unproductives forced a pickup at about 1:45.

Your eyes and ears perk when you see the Touch’s prefix and so the gallery was tuned into what this Keith Wright bred pointer might produce — last year Spaceman finished the three hours with five finds. On this wet afternoon Spaceman didn’t have his first find until 54 minutes in and his second at 1:23; he was in harness after a breach of manners at 1:35.

Bart and I felt the paucity of points this day was probably weather-related, and it even seemed to affect the dogs’ range as well. “The dogs worked very hard,” explained Bart, “and they are so well trained they know what’s expected of them. They all ran to likely cover and rolled down the edges but I think the adverse conditions won the day.”

We awoke Tuesday to much improved weather. We did not ride this day, but were told of a great morning by last year’s champ Dunn’s Tried’n True and handler Luke Eisenhart — eight finds and a strong finish.

In the afternoon Dominator’s Rebel Heir, handled by Jamie Daniels, had a likewise five-star performance — again with eight finds a strong forward race. The first Tuesday’s tours de force performances set the bar high for the rest of the Championship.

The improved weather conditions no doubt played a part, but never underestimate the great dogs the handlers have developed. “These dogs are like NFL athletes,” insisted my erstwhile football coach partner. “They are not just incredibly talented,” noted Bart, “but they’re in amazing condition — they’re pure muscle.”

We were up early Wednesday to beat a big wet weather front that was moving in and subsequently forced cancellation of the braces for the day. We had plenty of time to reflect on the journey which we thoroughly enjoyed. To Bart it was an epiphany moment, “Those dog performances take what I have known about bird dogs to a whole new level. This is not just about finding and pointing a bird. This is about extreme physical excellence.” No doubt about it!

We also agreed that the caliber of individuals and bird dogs in this arena can never, in just few short days, be fully appreciated or apprehended; but what they represent definitely can be. The late sportscaster Howard Cosell perfectly encapsulated what we witnessed on this journey when he observed, “No matter what your level of sophistication, just remember — excellence is usually obvious.”

This journey was proof of that.

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