KILLDEER PLAINS OHIO STORY
December 2, 1978 AMERICAN FIELD page 747
“Yes sir, boys” the man said. “I guess M’ole great great granddaddy got around more after he was dead than he did when he was alive!”
The “boys” were a group of bird dog men who earlier that very day had met with their brethren from through out the state of Ohio in the city of Marion to form the Associated Bird Dog Clubs of Ohio, an organization which persists to this very day, the umbilical lifeline of the various Buckeye state field clubs to the Ohio Division of Wildlife whose public hunting areas are the principal venue for their field trials. This carload of devotees had made a short detour en route to their northwestern Ohio homes following the meeting to inspect the only just begun land purchases by the Division of Wildlife in that not so highly regarded agricultural area already known as the Killdeer Plains.
“The man” was a frowsy one, somewhat long haired, in the era of butch and flat top hairdo’s of a quarter century age, unshaven, not as now at the start of a beard but rather because of inattention to the daily ablutions then required for good grooming.
His clothes were shoddy, ill fitting and perhaps unclean, altogether a hermit looking sort of person who contrary to expectation, did not flee the carload of strangers who descended upon him for information. John Watson, he will be for this purpose and he proved a veritable gusher of knowledge struck quite by chance by those who prospected for details of this new wildlife purchase, hinted to be an area which might become fine field trial grounds.
John Watson was the first to sell his farm to the State people. He as the first and others rushed to follow suit but the purchase of the Watson property marked the end of a dynasty, a chain of ownership come circle from the State through generations of Watsons and now back to the State. John’s daddy had been a blacksmith as well as farmer and John had learned a great deal of that trade from him. That he had a greater love of the smithy trade than he had for farming became evident as he led the boys across country to show them his forge, his anvil and his bellows and proud he was of his skill. But he seemed prouder still of the original Watson who had settled on the farm and had vowed to own all of the land from his homestead clear to Upper Sandusky a distance of eight miles. This goal was never reached for the old man was overtaken by death by the time his acquisitions had stretched to the Oak Hill Cemetery, some two or three miles short of his target and he was buried in an oak grove behind the
Watson home. In the course of time one of the family felt that he should have a more fitting resting place and had his remains disinterred and moved to the cemetery in nearby Marseilles thus leaving the oak grove to a fine family of bobwhite which later became a great favorite of field trailers. Still later another descendant had the first and greatest Watson moved to the aforementioned Oak Hill Cemetery which had ended his earthly expansion and which now became also the end of his post mortem journeys.
“Most folks, think”, the man went on, “that they call this Killdeer country after them birds but that ain’t the case. They ain’t no more Killdee’s here than anywheres else. Comes from the Indians, that name. Pete Kieffer over at Marseilles has got an old Ohio history book that tells about it. Lives next to the fillin station there-ya kin go read it for y’self.”
“The Indians hunted deer here. This was swamp country and in the summer the deer would go deep into the swamp and the Indians couldn’t get to ‘em. So come fall they’d get up a big shindig and dance and prance and the ol’ medicine man’d go into a trance and come ut of it with a date when the fall rains would come. So just ahead of the rains the Indians set fire to the dry grass and run the deer out where they could kill’em and get their winter meat supply and skins and stuff. Then the rains would come/ So just ahead of the rains the Indians set fire to the dry grass and run the deer out where they could kill’em and get their winter meat supply and skins and stuff. Then the medicine man guessed wrong and the rains didn’t start. Burned off the whole dern countryside! But that’s where the name come from, this here’s where the Indians killed deer.”
John Watson sold out and took the money and went to Florida. His farm house, well used and much worn was dismantled and removed to a nearby highwayt where it was reassembled but in its reincarnation didn’t have the stamina of the original dwelling for it has long since blown down.
Probably the covey of quail in the oak grove is all that remains as it was on that summer day long ago for that can’t be known for sure for that particular copse has not been reached by field trials for a long time. The years are several since that summer day long ago when the first field trailers were introduced to that geographic oddity which even in the hands of private citizens was known as the “Killdeer Plains” and the changes have been many and for always varying reasons. The Killdeer Plains have been for a quarter century a field trial grounds in flux, a continuing Kaleidescope of course arrangement and rearrangement dictated by new land purchases, changes of policy, by drastic topography changes of the very earth itself and by the farming program established long ago to prevent the area from reverting to jungle.
The first modern day trial was held on the Watson place with the old Watson homesite the headquarters. The Watson geese left to browse for themselves were much in evidence both from their noise and their droppings which seemed everywhere and perhaps now it can be reported that some of them ended in some field trialers’ Thanksgiving pot.
The term “modern day trial” is used advisedly for the veteran Curtis Miles will tell you of earlier trials held on the Killdeer Plains before it became a State property for Perry Hughes and Ollie Neimeyer, both written of by the great Al Hochwalt years ago, lived and trained near here and other trainers had used the area, better known then for its quail population so bird dogs and field trials were not new to the territory.
At the time of this first modern day trial the total purchase was still but a few hundred acres, not enough for multiple courses but permitting two courses to be run alternately, each ending in a common birdfield.
This area is where Gene Lunsford still refers to us as “that GOOD country” and well he might for it was here that he handled Perry Gray’s Paladin’s Royal Heir in one of the most unforgettably brilliant performances this field trial area has ever seen. The section abounded with both pheasant and quail and there was a lot of fur, too- rabbits, woodchuck, raccoon and once the field trial party rode quite close upon a huge buck as he lay slumbering in the afternoon sun. He seemed as large as a moose as he bounded from a deep sleep into full throttle and his splendid rack quickly disappeared from view.
In the years that followed this first event the Killdeer Plains Public Hunting Area as it was now named was quickly expanded. Farm folk, rushed to sell this marginal land so difficult to drain and so susceptible to the vagaries of nature so in each field trial season there was new ground to be used, new curse arrangements to be planned and of course the arduous task always new fence openings to be cut.
For several years the expansion was on the upbeat. New purchases came quickly and course improvement was constant as the jigsaw pieces of land were filled in. Game was plentiful for there were both pheasant and quail and it seemed the best of all possible worlds. As the song goes “those were the days, my friend.” Did we think they’d ever end?
Well if any did give that a thought the earliest harbinger of the first major change in the area came and went scarcely noticed.
An overconfident field marshal had failed to check all of the courses and abut thirty minutes into the first all-age brace found himself and the field party confronted with a water filled ditch, the result of a new dam put in during the summer. The ditch was not wide but was known to be deep and it was brimming with water. One of the handlers in the brace was W.L. (Bill) Cosner aboard a steed named Leroy, then brought him on to his summer and fall home at Mt Victory, Ohio for the Killdeer trials.
Cosner was running All Schort’s Natty Netty, a pointer bitch that was then his Sunday punch, especially on quail and believe what you will of this hard bitten veteran he could become as excited while running a good one as could the veriest handler.
Never one to accept adversity with equanimity Bill was loud in his denunciation of the situation and sounded dire warning of horses foundering, people drowning and all other forms of disaster should the attempt be made to ford the crossing. But, with both dogs on yon side, to back track was unthinkable so the chagrined field marshal timorously directed his horse into the deep, one slow step at a time until finally he made it across. Then another rider braved the flood and another and another and still another until finally only Bill Cosner remained behind still vociferously protesting. Then he too took the plunge.
That serio-comic happening was the one which sounded the knell for that GOOD country. The flooded ditch was the beginning. Not long afterward Bill Hendershot, Game Management Supervisor for the Division of Wild Game Management Supervisor for the Division of Wildlife and patron saint withi9n that body for field trailers, invited visitors to see the captive Canada Goose colony which had been established on the area. A small but deep pond at the rear of an old pump station house which was then being used for the field trial headquarters had been fenced in, the geese were wing clipped to prevent flight and the hope was that they would nest and their hatchlings would call Killdeer home in their future migrations. Soon the heavy machinery came to Killdeer for the first time and a large water impoundment was made in that best of all parts of the area and it was forever closed to field trials and all else, except Canada Geese.
But that was not the end of the earth as at first it seemed. There were other parts of Killdeer that were excellent and trials continued unabated.
Other problems arose, however, Land which when farmed was hard put to raise a horse weed knee high became enriched as years followed upon year that the vegetation rotted into compost in the soil. In good years the cover became waist high and soon the brush which precedes woods and forest set in. There was the year that rumors got around that Killdeer was in bad shape with high cover and someone asked Pete Smith, who was then training in Ohio. To which the indomitable Pete retorted. “Lose a dog, hell You can lose a horse there!”
And as usual he was quite right. The cover was high. In one of the trials that fall Pete was handling the pointer Paul Bunyan, He rode off to one side, stopped and scanned the horizon looking for the dog. Finally he raised his hat high, high, so every high you’d have thought the dog was a mile-maybe two miles cause he really had that hat up in the sky, away. The gallery started a mad dash for the scene then pulled up sharply as Pete dismounted and walked a hundred feet or so to the dog invisible in the high weeds and flushed a pheasant. Bunyan won the stake.
It was then very obvious that something must be done for control of the cover or soon the area would be useless for any kind of upland game activity. Weeds themselves are not productive of wildlife and high heavy brush is a hunter’s hazard in places where the hunting pressure is as great as it has been at Killdeer.
As mentioned earlier William B Hendershot was in charge of the Game Management Section of the Division of Wildlife. Bill was a professional wildlife biologian but more, he was also an outdoor sports enthusiast. A fisherman of some skill, he owned and trained his bird dogs, his Labs were a pleasure to watch. And there was no kind of hunting or fishing in which he was not keenly interested. At a time when field trialing was generally in low esteem within the Division, Bill Hendershot came to know that field trials and field trial people were not evil and he championed their cause in the inner sanctum of that body. Realizing that the wants of field trials and the needs of upland game hunters were identical, a cover control program was instituted. Principal vehicle of this program was an eight year rotation schedule that was planned to keep the cover at a safe height, keep down woody growth and supply food, refuse and nesting cover for all kinds of wildlife. The program as started has been maintained but with many changes designed to favor the goose flock and without it Killdeer would have been unuseable.
Perhaps the greatest innovation during Bill Hendershot’s years of service to Wildlife were the gradual release pens into which six week old 0pheasants, were turned their wings slightly clipped to prevent flight. They were fed and watered generously and daily in these enclosures. They were protected completely from all predators, climbing, burrowing or flying. As they grew their wing feathers were restored until the birds were able to fly as wild hatched birds. Their food and water was gradually reduced and the pheasants were allowed to fly in and out of the pens as they wished. They learned to forage for themselves as the necessity arose, learned their natural enemies and were able to survive and become completely independent of the rearing pens. The success of this method was phenomenal. In the fall the ringnecks were everywhere, so many in fact that at times they were too abundant for good field trialing. Who having seen it, could forget the pointer Q’s Delivery Doone standing transfixed near the road west of the present clubhouse his tail straight up with the very tip curled forward, standing that way while handler Fred Arant flushed a whole field full of pheasants. At neighboring Delaware Dam Area where the same release method was used the results may have been even better. In the Amateur Pheasant Shooting Dog Championship one of George Higdon’s pointers cleared a timothy field of literally hundred of pheasant for Norm Ellis’ Cover King which a few moments later came through the field unscathed and near the end pointed a single remaining bird and won the Championship.
The benefits of this release method were threefold. The fall field trials had plenty of birds, the upland hunters had a good supply of thoroughly wild game and the carryover of hen birds which are protected in Ohio provided a good supply of game for spring trials was well as brood hens for the summer nesting season. Unfortunately this method can no longer be used.
During these years the course changes continued as new land purchases were completed. Lakes were being created, parts of the area which had become brushy were being cleared, and the farming program was producing good results. The eastern sections of the area replaced that part which had been lost to the goose project as the favorite of field trailers. Some handlers decla5red that the No 3 Killdeer arrangement was the greatest field trial course in the world. There were birds and there was room for the mightiest to roam, handle and be seen. This was a course to fit the likes of Resthaven Spunky Bill, Homerun Johnny and Rambling Rebel Dan that Arant brought to trials here. Bill Ray’s Highway Man, Possessed and Endurance could roam at will and were most successful on this course. Maybe best of all on this course was Lee Hoffman’s Midnight Lou. Lou was a notoriously slow starter but she would wind up and up and up and away. She had an uncanny ability to pin a pheasant and did so regularly on the outside of far away and after some unbelievably long rides to reach her the bird would be there.
The spring trials seemed best for the cover was better, and the carryover of birds from the release pen was very good. Tool Steel Man, Pheasant Futurity winning little brother to Paladin’s Royal Heir won here in the springtime with four finds in the hour under Michigan John Thompson. The great running bitch Hall’s Stonecroft Babe, Howard Kirk handling, won a spring trial here with four finds. She stood pointed on the bridge just east of the present clubhouse and a covey flushed from the road behind her, flew low over her and flushed the covey she was pointing on the other side of the road! The super stylist Gunsmoke was also very successful at Killdeer for both Howard Kirk and his owner Herb Holmes.
Those were great dogs and great days as the land purchases filled in the area. Headquarters for the trials were moved about as the necessity arse. From the pump house to the Lemay place where White and Betty catered to the needs of visitors to the Heilman property when it was purchased. Here a large barn was available for horses. In those days the facilities were furnished by the field trial clubs. The barn was partitioned into stalls by members of the old Fostoria, Oihio club including George Pugh, Dick Stark and “Red” Elarton, who for many years furnished horses for the trials. The Southern Ohio Club built dog boxes in one end of the Heilman barn, the work done principally by C G Charlie Holt and Whit Lemay. The Heilman house became headquarters for humans. Food equipment was furnished by field trial people including a steam table shipped in by Wes Palmer, a stainless steel sink was built in by Milt Kerr of the Tri-County whose members one day met here to plaster and paint the walls. The rooms were decorated with field trial pictures and furniture awas perhaps a buit worn and rustic but trial people were pleased with what they had created and were quite content.
During this period the Pheasant Championship Club was organized and the International Pheasant Championship was established using these grounds and facilities. Early championship running was beset with heavy cover problems but there was continued progress in cover control and each season found conditions improving. It was not long then until the Amateur Field Trials Clubs of America scheduled its National Amateur Pheasant Championship for Killdeer Plains.
But in the meantime the Division of Wildlife tore down the Heilman barn and built on its site a fine new clubhouse with modern restrooms and a sparkling kitchen. They bulldozed the Heilman house away and erected a utility building with removable stalls that could be used for hoses. For the field trials clubs a kennel was built and though more were planned they were never built. The present era of Killdeer Plains was thus established and it seemed ready to take a more prominent place in the field trial firmament.
But then as a bolt from the blue came the cataclysmic announcement! “The Killdeer Area was to be opened to Canada goose shooting! The sections which the great No 3 course used were to be closed and taken over for shooting blinds! No more fall trials would be allowed to use that part of the area!
Further inroads on the upland game and field trial area were in the works, but after numerous heated sessions involving field trial people and Division personnel a plan was worked out whereby goose shooting, upland game hunting and field trials could co-exist. The courses as devised then are still used in pretty much the same way today.
There are of course, changes each season to avoid the crop palntings which are quite necessary, absolutely vital in fact to the maintenance of a usable areal It is not always easy to circumvent the standing cornfields and soybean plantings as witness this year’s problems with understanding and cooperation of all concerned a way has always been found.
In the last decade and more heavy equipemtn has become as much a part of the Killdeer landscape as the many woods and thickets and treelined fencerows. The contour of the countryside has been altered drastically as a huge, up ground reservoir has been established, myriad small ponds, some involving adjacent earth mounds have been created and formerly congested areas have been cleared. A recent summer saw a crps of National Guard engineers on the area and the 0passages they cleared, as well as the bridges they build are still a valuable asset to the field trial courses. In the same period the courses have become more stabilized than at anytime in the history of the area. Compacted as they are between the huge Canada goose project on the east and Marseilles, town and reservoir on the west, the Kildeer field trial area has become sintered and irreducible. In short there is no land, land usable for field trials that is not presently being used. The limitations imposed by the expansion of the goose project have dictated a course arrangement that has been even more vitally affected by the cropping so necessary for the continued cover control of the area. Minor course changes are still necessary and even sometimes they prove distinctly beneficial as this year when a rearrangement of the No 2 starting place, dictated by a large corn planting, became a definite improvement as it solves at once the corn planting problem, a new water impoundment smack in the middle of the No 1 course and a severe handling problem on the old No 2 course which had been the downfall of many a big running dog!
Verily indeed Killdeer has been and is a trial trial grounds in flux.
Onto this scene, home of the International Pheasant Championship since its inception and of the National Amateur Pheasant Championship for much of its recent history and also home of frequent breed Championship trials, has come the prestigious American Field Pheasant Futurity. In three quick years it has experienced a meteoric rise in entries and this year’s renewal must certainly have been one of the finest performance also.
And any who had chanced to find his way to Killdeer on a summer day long ago and who now sat in the clubhouse during the lunch period of this largest of all Pheasant Futurities heard a new voice over the echoes of old John Watson.
“We want” the new voice said, “Killdeer to become the greatest field trial area in the world. We want the Pheasant Futurity to be run here”. And the voice and the message had special meaning to the assembled field trailers for it was the voice of Dr Robert W Teater, Director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Dr Teater struck a most responsive chord in those present, an instantaneous rapport with his audience when he recounted that as a lad at home on his family farm when the work was done in the fall and the crops were laid by, it then became “bird dog training time” Dr Teater, a man of quite obvious talent and competence and with a most compelling personality, has traveled far since those remembered days. For many years while on the Ohio State University staff he has worked closely with the Division of Wildlife before assuming the office of Director of the Department of Natural Resources and its concomitant post in Gov James Rhodes’ cabinet.
The dynamic Director further outlined plans of the Division to attempt to restore the pheasant population in Ohio and told of plans to overcome the kill rate of the recent winter’s snowfall on the quail population, especially good news this for in the past state game authorities have had no quail propagation program.
It was a magic moment for field trailers. That brief interlude between running Futurity prospects for it seemed to give sanction to all that had been done before and all that was being done at the moment and to give assurance that all was well for the future.
(Author’s Postcript) “Say” said the girl who types these occasional messages to the FIELD BOOK, as Tate Cline refers to it and who for lo this longtime has fed the dogs and the horses in my absence from home and me in my home. ”whatever became of poor old Leroy? You left him lying in the ditch with his head stretched out on the bank with his eyes close and never a word about what happened to him. I’ve been worried about him.”
Well for any who may be similarly afflicted or tend to over-sympathize, poor old Leroy was untangled from the roll of wire by scout Don Stut, for what else are bird dog scouts for but to pursue wild and unbroken dogs on wild and unbroken horses and to berate when they lose either or both and to discourage handler’s hoses from coils of submerged fencing and Leroy was immediately and with very little sympathy remounted and the field trial resumed apace for Lou Cosner was a dog man and Leroy was a dog horse.