Publisher of Texas Field and Sportsman promoted passage of state's first fish and game laws.
By Mike Cox
No matter the significance of their contribution to society, sometimes worthy people get overlooked by later generations.
Oscar Charles Guessaz is a perfect example. No state park, wildlife management area, fish hatchery, vessel, conservation group, hunting club or school honors his uncommon, hard-to-pronounce surname, but anyone who enjoys hunting and fishing in the Lone Star state owes Guessaz an appreciative tip of their camouflaged gimme cap.
Born in St. Louis in 1855, this son of a Swiss immigrant came to Texas in the mid-1880s. A job printer by trade, in 1889 he began publishing a newspaper in the Alamo City called the Daily Times. He also put out a weekly edition.
Whether Guessaz cultivated a love for the outdoors in his native Missouri or developed it when he came to Texas is open to speculation, but he liked competitive shooting, deer, dove and duck hunting, and bird dogs.
In addition to his newspaper ventures, at some point Guessaz began publishing Texas Field, a monthly magazine for sportsmen. With partner Tony A. Ferlet, in early 1902 he purchased another outdoor magazine called Southwestern Sportsman and merged the two publications as Texas Field and Sportsman.
For a subscription price of $1 a year, readers got a game bag full of informative and interesting articles. A typical 72-page issue included a lead story such as "Game Birds of North America," a short piece of fiction, results of rifle meets and trap shoots, stories on hunting dogs and breeders, accounts of hunts and fishing trips, practical advice and humor.
In a section called "Uncle David's Fillossofy," written "By Himself" and published in the November 1902 issue, Uncle David offered:
"If a feller was ast to choose between a purty gurl and a new shotgun, what could he do? Your Uncle David is not so young as he wunst wus, but he hopes that God in His infinite Mercy may spare him from ever havin' to make that Chice."
Another issue of the magazine offered a tip for treating rattlesnake bites: Soak the bitten area in kerosene. Also, for good measure, kill the snake, cut a piece of meat from its body and place it on the wound to suck out the poison. (Remember, this was written 106 years ago - don't try it.)
Of course, like any businessman, Guessaz published his products to make money. And the way a publisher makes money is by selling advertising.
The October 1902 issue of Texas Field and Sportsman contained a full-page ad from the San Antonio and Aransas Pass Railroad, better known back then as the SAP.
"For Hunting and Fishing," the ad proclaimed, "the 'SAP' territory cannot be excelled." In fact, the ad continued, "Aransas Pass and Corpus Christi Bays Are Known the World Over."
The ad touts a $30,000 hunting and fishing club on St. Joseph's Island and the plentitude of tarpon. To support that claim, the railroad's ad listed numbers of silver kings brought in by rod and reel at Aransas Pass from 1896 (364) to 1901 (816).
While Guessaz obviously had no problem accepting money for such an ad, the pervasive, ahead-of-its-time message of his magazine was the importance of wildlife conservation in Texas.
In the same issue that boasted of the number of now-scarce tarpon killed for fun each year, Guessaz let fly with a double-barreled blast of editorial prose under the simple heading of "Apathy."
For years, he wrote, "the question of protecting the game and fish of Texas has been a prominent one with men who hunt and fish."
While sportsmen often decried the market hunter, the game hog, the killing of doe, year-round dove hunting, and the seining and dynamiting of fish, few ever did anything about it but complain, he charged.
"Laws are generally as good as the people who make them deserve," Guessaz continued, "and the sportsmen of Texas can no more expect that laws for their benefit will be passed without some effort on their part than any one else. If the sportsman expects the legislature to pass laws for the protection of game and fish, he must be in attendance on the legislature in person."
Guessaz went on to write that sportsmen needed to tell their lawmakers "why does should not be killed; why the number of deer to be killed should be limited, and explain why ... the open season should not begin until October 1st, and should extend to the 15th of January."
He urged the Texas sportsman to "get a move on" to "organize, put up his money, and ... appoint himself a committee of one to see that nothing is overlooked, which is necessary for the betterment of existing conditions."
Guessaz practiced what he preached. His efforts in large measure led to the passage of an expanded state game and fish law in 1903. But since that law had only a five-year life, he continued to push (successfully) for a permanent law. He also believed that all hunters should be required to have a license, with revenue from the licensing program earmarked exclusively to protect game and assure its propagation.
One prescient article in the magazine championed sportsmanship and hunter courtesy. One line that still rings true today: "If everybody behaved as they should when on a man's ranch, there would not be such an objection [on the part of landowners toward hunters], but unfortunately lots of fellows when they get away from town try and see what they can do to cause trouble."
For years, Texas landowners had not paid much attention to who hunted on their property. After all, most of them were ranchers. They would cheerfully hang someone caught stealing their livestock. On the other hand, deer and other wildlife belonged to everyone. But that was changing by the early part of the 20th century. Texas had more and more people while wildlife numbers were declining.
Guessaz also pioneered the concept of the deer lease in Texas. Beyond guaranteeing the lessee an uncrowded place to hunt, he saw leasing as a way to manage and conserve wildlife.
In 1901, he and four other men leased the Hoffman Ranch near San Antonio. A.Y. Walton, an acquaintance of Guessaz, wrote that he (in a similar lease for another ranch pasture) and Guessaz had signed an agreement that the landowner could take what game he needed for personal use while protecting the game from outsiders. "We agree to protect does, and selling of game is strictly prohibited." Such a system, the article continued, should also appeal to landowners.
"Why should not a ranch owner make several hundred dollars a year extra, and at the same time afford sport to a few friends or acquaintances who will be only too glad to see that the game and his interests are protected?"
Texas Field and Sportsman also editorialized about the importance of hunter safety. "Notwithstanding all that has been written and published about shooting accidents," Guessaz wrote, "they continue to occur, and in most instances from gross carelessness."
Another article he published, perhaps one he wrote, showed the magazine editor clearly had a soft spot in his heart for dogs. His November 1902 issue contained a touching but sad tale from Southeast Texas. Near Houston, a 14-year-old boy left home to go hunting. His two dogs, a German shepherd and a bulldog, went with him, tails wagging in anticipation of an outing.
Around dark, the shepherd showed up alone at the boy's home. The dog's "peculiar actions and symptoms of evident distress" told the father that something was wrong. After gathering some neighbors to help, the father followed the dog in search of his son.
"Losing themselves and the dog frequently in the heavy bottom, the anxious searchers were forced to temporarily abandon their quest and await the light of day," the story said.
The next morning, "guided by the canine pilot," the volunteers found the missing teenager. He lay dead from an accidental gunshot. Nearby sat his faithful bull dog, having guarded his master's body all night "from wolves and predatory animals."
Occasionally, choosing to avoid the sportsman's apathy that Guessaz had railed against, a reader sent in a letter supporting the conservation cause. Someone identified only as "F.L.D." from Temple wrote the magazine to report a disappointing quail hunt in the fall of 1902.
"I can not close without a word for game protection," the hunter wrote. "The lovers of the sport are sleeping on their rights and I am afraid will awaken too late."
In addition to his bully pulpit as a magazine editor, Guessaz variously served as secretary of the Texas Game Protective Association, chairman of the Texas State Sports-man's Association game protection committee and executive director of the Texas Game and Fish Protective Association.
When not protecting the interests of Texas outdoorsmen, he helped protect his county, seeing service with the Texas National Guard in Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898-99 and as a colonel in the 141st Infantry during World War I.
Guessaz ceased publication of his magazine in 1915, the end of his own hunt coming a decade later on Jan. 16, 1925. He is buried in the San Antonio National Cemetery, a forgotten champion of hunting and fishing in his adopted state.