Old Shotguns and Good Dogs
A Tribute to J.R. Jefferson, 1868 - 1939
By John Jefferson
Opening day of the 2004 dove season was a fine day, whether the birds were flying or not. It was the coolest, driest opener in my memory, and it just felt good being afield, hunting with my dog.
I glanced down at the old Model 12 Winchester 16-gauge laying across my knees. The original finish was worn in many places, and the vintage shotgun was as shiny as the seat of an old pair of hard-worn pants. The oil-rubbed stock and ribbed forend of the slide, however, had beautiful grain, reflecting the quality used in guns made early in the last century.
The gun is identical to the first shotgun I ever fired. “Uncle Josh” Munro let me shoot his 16-gauge when I was nine, and I still remember the bruise to my shoulder. It left a far deeper mark, though. By kerosene lantern light in a small cabin on Beach Creek, he told me how he and my grandfather, his best friend, bought matching shotguns at the same time. I later inherited my grandfather’s Model 12, and cherished it for years. I miss it.
Determined to keep alive the memory of a gun I wish I still had and the recollection of a grandfather I wish I had known better, I bought an old Model 12, a 16-gauge, in a pawn shop in Corpus a few years ago. It was well used, and the stock showed years of neglect. But it was of the same vintage as the gun I grew up with, and cleaned up quite well. I think of my grandfather every time I pick it up.
He and I would have been close. Our lives had parallels. We both played baseball: He caught for the Longhorns; I got cut by A&M. We both spent more time hunting and fishing and talking about it than most people thought prudent, and we both worked for the Game Department. We each once gave our wife a shotgun as a present. Mine thought it was cool; I’ve heard his didn’t. Guns and dogs were important parts of our lives. And we each, so I’m told, spent some time howling at the moon, ourselves, before walking away from that side of life. I understand that if you look closely along the winding road leading from his house overlooking the Guadalupe River to the Elm Grove Campground he founded at the west end of his acreage, you can still see the dim outline of what may have been scars from the bumper of a Model T Ford.
Most family members learned trot lining from him in that river, and some learned to swim there. He generously extended the campground and its cabins to relatives for family vacations, about which some still speak fondly. Our 2005 reunion will memorialize the early days at Elm Grove, and let the younger members know what they missed in those simpler times.
An old cousin once told me my grandfather knew more about wildlife than anybody he had ever met. I wish I knew half as much. He became Chief Deputy of the Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission in early 1919, and was named Commissioner later that year. That office was equivalent to a modern- day TPW Commissioner, except he was it - the only commissioner.
His term was marked by several significant events: he appointed the first six official state game wardens, marking the beginning of conservation game law enforcement in Texas, and he proposed what was then considered foolish folly — the idea of importing pheasants into Texas for hunting. He left office not knowing what success wildlife re-stocking would have in later years. Ironically enough, when pheasants became established in Southeast Texas and the season was initially opened in the ’70s, one of the first places where hunting was permitted was the Boyt Ranch in Liberty County, owned by Pat Boyt, to whom Commissioner Jefferson’s granddaughter, Betsy, is married.
In his annual report to Governor W.H. Hobby in 1920, he urged that all department revenues be deposited into one fund for operation of the agency. In 1923, the legislature authorized just that, marking the beginning of what is now TPW Fund 9.
His report acknowledged that wildlife belongs to the people of Texas, but he ratified the rights of landowners to control their property. To provide hunting opportunities for those without access, he proposed purchase or lease of public hunting grounds, thus initiating the public hunting program.
He died in 1939, when I was just three. My grandmother told me many things about him, and I listened with a child’s imagination, dreaming about his ranching in Tom Green County near Lipan Springs, being elected County Clerk of Jefferson County, establishing Elm Grove Camp on the Guadalupe near Seguin as a fishing camp, enduring the constant floods on the river, catching 98-pound catfish, and loving her cooking. Maybe that’s why cooks have always been special people to me. I can still taste her bread pudding.
As a little boy in the ’40s, growing up at the southern edge of the Big Thicket during the big war, I knew little about the rest of Texas. My grandmother gave me a subscription to a new magazine being published by the agency her late husband had directed. It was called Texas Game & Fish Magazine. From it, I saw the vast blessing of the Texas outdoors. I had never seen water that wasn’t dark and mysterious and home to ’gators and water moccasins. Through this magazine, I learned there were other parts of Texas, some that had clear, running water. One place was intriguingly called Marble Falls, and people caught channel catfish there in the current of the Colorado River. It made me want to go there. Still does.
I would sit in my room and gaze at the magazine’s covers, all of which were Orville Rice paintings in those days, and dream of being able to walk the woods on misty mornings with a pump shotgun like the one the hunter was carrying as he stalked a cat squirrel in a pecan tree in one of the covers. I imagine the number of other little kids that have been equally inspired by what is now Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine far exceeds the number of squirrels in all of Texas.
The legislature merged the State Parks Board with the Game and Fish Commission in 1963 to form a new agency called Texas Parks & Wildlife Department. The magazine’s name was changed to Texas Parks and Wildlife in 1965.
Texans owe a debt to all the people who have had a hand in bringing this superb, mind-broadening magazine to Texans of all ages. And I certainly owe a debt of gratitude to a grandmother who gave me a subscription to the first issue… and to a grandfather who helped shape the agency that sponsored it.
He also taught countless Texans an appreciation for hunting and fishing and being in the woods.
And he gave me an appreciation for old shotguns and good dogs.