Written by: Durrell Smith
Because I live in Atlanta, many of my adventures in bird hunting and gun dogs occur on plantations. When I share my stories with people, they are often surprised by this reference. Response to the word “plantation” is not always positive, due to recollections of the South’s painful history. That said, I believe that to move toward unity, understanding, and a better future, it is important to shine a light on modern-day plantation culture. Clear understanding of contemporary plantation culture is the best way to address the understandable discomfort associated with the word “plantation” for non-hunters and minority communities.
Though a stigma remains associated with the word, I would like to encourage folks to no longer fear the word “plantation” or actual modern plantation grounds. While I certainly don’t believe that we should forget our history or dilute it, I do believe that we can alleviate fear of a certain culture, and in so doing embrace the outdoors for the beautiful sanctuary that it is. I personally value the days that I spend strolling through the Red Hills with my double gun, as only then can I truly think about the many feet that have traversed and hunted the Southeastern landscape.
Historically, a few select African Americans on the southeastern plantations were dedicated to raising quality bird dogs. This was a special kind of privileged work, as the ability to rear and train bird dogs was regarded as a highly-specialized skill that offered a bit of job security. Unfortunately, at the same time the field hands on the same plantations were often viewed as exchangeable labor. I learned this history while visiting a legend of a dog-man by the name of Neal Jr., who has been featured in notable magazines such as Covey Rise and Garden & Gun. Mr. Neal Jr. recently retired from a career on a plantation in Thomasville, Georgia. While many of us enjoy dog training as an enjoyable pastime, training bird dogs and hunting was arduous work for bird dog elders such as Neal Jr. Such men were tasked with raising a kennel-full of finished bird dogs to guide prospective clients for the plantation masters. When plantation owners came to hunt the quail fields personally or with friends, it was a point of pride that the dogs perform perfectly. Consider a perfect bird dog. Producing such a thing … now that is a lot of pressure! But the social construct of the time illuminates the degree to which effective bird-dog training was not only expected but demanded. What stood out to me in speaking to Mr. Neal Jr. was the confidence he had in his training ability, and the fact that he maintains zero regret about working on a plantation. For him, plantation life was thoroughly fulfilling, and the dogs gave him something to look forward to, day in and day out. The owners of the plantation fully trusted that he would effectively train the dogs to be mannerly shooting dogs, ensuring complete hunter satisfaction.
While making my most recent trip to scout plantation country, I spoke with my wife about her grandfather, who once lived on a plantation in the Red Hills of Georgia. Proximity to the rich history and natural beauty of Camilla, Albany, and Thomasville makes me even more curious about the histories of the remarkable bird dogs and hunters that ventured to South Georgia in search of gentleman bobwhites. What I know and accept is the fact that my curiosity and passion for training bird dogs, especially while living in Georgia, is going to lead me to many plantations over the course of my career, and despite the many confused looks that I often receive, I think if we are to continue our traditions of upland bird hunting, we must remove the stigma of the antiquated perception of the planation. We must create a contemporary definition of the word. I believe the definition of plantation may include a description of creating memories with family and friends, or deepening the inherent bond between dog and man, or connecting to what feels natural, or having spiritual experiences while breathing the fresh air, or feeling renewed after taking in the glory and beauty of uninterrupted fall foliage, or challenging yourself as you reach different goals, or just plain experiencing the fun and adventure that resides in the uplands.
I am grateful to be able to enjoy plantations in a different way than my ancestors did. As I walk freely through these lands, I am cognizant that those who came before me dreamed of and fought for the freedom that I enjoy today. With that in mind, I am excited to honor the past and the future by being part of a new narrative that advocates for camaraderie in the outdoors and excites people to get out of their homes and enjoy nature! Plantations continue to cultivate and conserve quality habitat and agriculture for all to enjoy. It is my hope that my work with quality shooting dogs and the joyful nature of the hunt will change the narrative, as I continue to document my journey and my adventures. I encourage everyone to visit southern plantations and explore more histories of the bird-dog South. There are secrets down there, buried deep within the red clay, and pumping through the heart of the Red Hills. Our search for these secrets is embodied in our quest to find bobwhite quail. It serves as confirmation that we are all here for the same reason, and there is value in discovery as we traverse the unknown while hunting game birds over fine shooting dogs, thereby creating our personal histories.
You can listen to Durrell’s podcast, The Gun Dog Notebook, by clicking here. You’ll also find it wherever you get podcasts.