Claypool’s and Wingmead: Duck hunting cathedrals

I’ve enjoyed writing in recent weeks about storied Arkansas duck clubs. They’re a part of our state’s unique heritage.

In my mind, two names stand above the rest as far as being legendary — Claypool’s near Weiner and Wingmead near Stuttgart.

I wrote about Claypool’s in last week’s post about the book “First Shooting Light.” Wallace Claypool of Memphis bought the land in 1941 as a sanctuary for ducks, building a reservoir that would become internationally famous on Dec. 23, 1956.

That’s the day NBC broadcast live as three blocks of TNT were fired off, causing an estimated 350,000 ducks to lift off the water.

The black-and-white photo of those ducks has become a classic in the history of the Arkansas outdoors.

Claypool, an automobile dealer, sold his land in 1966 to friends from Memphis. In the course of my research, I ran across an article by Eugenia Bone that ran in the November 2000 issue of Gourmet (I miss that magazine).

She had gone hunting at Claypool’s on a Thanksgiving weekend with her husband, Kevin, and an uncle from Memphis named Norfleet Turner.

The cast of characters on that hunt included men with colorful names such as Skeets Boyle (“vivacious and grumpy”), Toof Brown and Bayard Boyle Jr. (“a gentle loner who hunts by himself”).

John Riley — “a giant of a man and the terror of local poachers” — had run the place for 32 years by that point.

“Green rubber waders hang on pegs along one wall,” Bone writes. “Guns, primarily 12-gauge, rest on a tall rack. Masks, camouflage jackets and boxes of neat orange and yellow shells sit on a long bench. There’s a dead mouse in the toe of one seldom-worn wader. The shed is dingy and gloriously atmospheric, smelling of leather and wet wool and dogs held in high esteem.”

Bone writes lovingly of waiting for shooting time in the flooded timber: “Everything stills. And we wait. Very quietly. So concentrated is the quiet that the slow zigzag of a leaf falling from the canopy captures everyone’s attention. This is the true character of hunting: A zen-like state of simultaneous excitement and calm that allows for acute observation of nature. It’s why I don’t have to kill anything in order to experience a good hunt.

“Overhead, ducks fly by in flocks and pairs, and higher up, geese travel in tremendous, fluttering ribbons. Riley begins calling — a wonderful, lonely quack. … As the sky turns orange and pink, we shoot mallards and tiny, zippy teal for their sweet, tender meat. With every bird that falls like a feathery stone, the dogs leap off the blinds and lope through the water to retrieve it in soft jaws, their tails wagging fiercely.”

Bone tells of the famous people who have hunted at Claypool’s: “Jimmy Carter, Wernher von Braun, various DuPonts and baseball great Preacher Roe, but not Bill Clinton. (‘Skeets don’t like Bill Clinton,’ says John Riley.)”

Like my trips to Piney Creek, breakfast after the hunt is as good as the hunt itself at Claypool’s, Bone writes.

“Settling down to this breakfast is a true reward,” she says. “The table, by a picture window that looks out on a duck-resting pond, is set with thick, dinner-style ceramic, matching in spirit only. Pitchers of orange juice and milk are set out, as well as bowls of jelly, jam and marmalade. It may be country, but nothing is ever served in its original container.

“Then Mary comes out with the goods: a platter of scrambled eggs and another of fried country eggs, a basket of steaming homemade biscuits, a mound of curly bacon and a bowl of white gravy with the handle of a ladle sticking out of it. Everyone is pretty quiet for the first few minutes of furious piling on plates, and then the stories start — about the hunt, the dark water, the red sunrise.”

Here’s how Bone describes the club: “Inside, it smells like coffee. And peanuts, and gun metal — and rubber boots, and old tobacco, and even older men. There’s a big fire burning in the living room fireplace, and a coffeepot and mismatched mugs on the table. Hunters lounge on dumpy furniture that crackles when you lean back because of all the peanut shells behind the cushions. Others are banging around upstairs in the dormitory bedrooms.

“There are dead wasps on the windowsills and worn issues of Ducks Unlimited, dusty taxidermied ducks and old sepia-toned pictures of hunters and dogs and ducks and woods. And there are maps — beautiful maps, depicting Claypool’s 1,370 acres of flooded woods and reservoir, and maps showing the location of blinds: Brown’s Hole, Well Island, Snowden’s Hole, Johnny’s Hot Spot, Turner’s Hole, Mystery Hole, Fifth Avenue.”

It sounds like my kind of place.

Wingmead, meanwhile, has the reputation of being an elegant place, a reputation promoted by its founder, Edgar Queeny. Wingmead, which is just off Arkansas Highway 33 in Prairie County, was built in 1939 by Queeny, a St. Louis resident who was the chairman of Monsanto. Peckerwood Lake was formed in 1942.

Queeny had a deep interest in how ducks fly. The book “Prairie Wings” was written at Wingmead and published in 1946.

The Wingmead estate recently was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In its nomination narrative, the Arkansas Historic Preservation Program noted: “Construction on Wingmead took place shortly after the land was acquired, and the complex that Queeny built was unlike any other duck hunting camp in the state. Designed in the colonial revival style, the main house encompassed approximately 10,000 square feet. In addition to the main house, the estate included several farm buildings, a kennel and a small cabin located one mile south of the main house that Queeny used as his personal retreat to do much of his writing. Queeny named the estate Wingmead, a word of Scottish origin that means ‘meadow of wings.’”

For several years, Queeny had stayed in a trailer when he visited Arkansas to hunt ducks. His wife finally gave him an ultimatum: If she were to accompany him in the future, he would need to get rid of the trailer.

Queeny consulted with Stuttgart businessman Roger Crowe to find land. Crowe found property on LaGrue Bayou, northwest of Roe and south of DeValls Bluff. Queeny formed an irrigation company and actually used eminent domain to acquire the 11,000 acres.

Queeny died July 7, 1968. His wife, Ethel, maintained the property until her death in 1975, when it was donated to Barnes Hospital in St. Louis. Barnes announced that the estate would be sold by sealed bids in January 1976.

Rumors as to who would buy Wingmead ranged from Johnny Cash to Elvis Presley.

The Lyon family of Little Rock was the purchaser. The estate is still owned by Frank Lyon Jr. and used as a hunting retreat and farming operation.

In his 1990 book “Private Tour: At Home In Arkansas,” Hunter Gray wrote: “Not many things have changed over the years at Wingmead. Hunters are still helped out of their muddy boots by the staff. A model 12 shotgun might be handed to you as if by a golf caddy. This is hunting with all the finery — the spirit of the hunt is alive and well at Wingmead. At the end of the day, the table is set with fine china embellished with the recognizable Wingmead logo.”

This is how an article published several years ago in AY magazine put it: “The word lodge is certainly a misnomer for the main house at Wingmead, which is reminiscent of a large, luxurious country inn. ‘There have been changes in farming and conservation practices,’ Frank Lyon Jr. said, ‘but we’ve tried to keep the lodge in the same condition as when Queeny had it.’

“Bedrooms occupy most of the space on the two levels; a wood-paneled office, brightened by abundant windows, sits at one end of the ground floor. Lining the walls are illustrations by Queeny’s friend Richard Bishop, once one of the country’s best-known wildlife artists. Also displayed is one of the few complete collections of federal waterfowl stamps and prints in private hands. A Bishop illustration of a flying mallard has become the Wingmead logo, seen on panels in the main room of the lodge, above the office fireplace, on glassware and dishes, and on the doors of vehicles.”

The article notes that “rumors inevitably developed about Queeny’s very private hunting grounds, and some of them were actually true. Guests at Wingmead, whether politicians, business tycoons or artists, were expected to arrive for dinner in formal dress: black tie and dinner jackets for men, long dresses for women. The sense of decorum continued even during hunts. A painting over the fireplace in the main house shows Queeny and his wife, Ethel, hunting in flooded timber, wearing old-style sporting jackets; their guide is wearing a jacket and bow tie.”

I’ve been fortunate to visit some of Arkansas’ great duck clubs through the years. But I’ve never seen Claypool’s or Wingmead.

One of these days, I would like to take a peek.

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