John Winter: All-Around Cowboy of the Outdoors
This Renaissance outdoorsman not only lived the good life, he chronicled it.
By John Jefferson
This is a story about a different time and place. Its principal character has been gone since 1954. Although he was a legend to the fortunate few who knew him personally and hundreds more who knew him through his outdoor exploits, his endeavors have dwelt in relative obscurity for half a century.
As far as anyone knows, John Winter never rode a bull to the buzzer or the wrinkles out of a bronc, never swung a loop or ’dogged a steer, but considering all the things at which he excelled as an early 20th-century sportsman, one can easily imagine that he could have been the all-around cowboy had that been his calling. But the closest he ever came to a rodeo was when he rode horseback to hunt ducks.
The first thing I learned about Winter was that he was a duck hunter. And was he ever! But he was also so much more.
Probably the single most significant aspect of his escapades — as far as history is concerned — was that he recorded all his adventures on still and movie cameras and an old, manual typewriter. Winter meticulously compiled hundreds of prints into volumes of scrapbooks, telling the story of his experiences in captioned photographs. Many take pictures; few catalog them for posterity as Winter did.
As Russell Lee’s photography was to documenting the heartbreaking agony of the Depression and the Dust Bowl days, so was Winter to chronicling the pinnacle and decline of nearly unlimited duck hunting in Texas. Plus he was heavily involved in inland and coastal fishing, boat building and racing, the advent of air shows, swimming and lifesaving, commercial marine sales and window decorating.
Yes, he did windows, from design to display. He worked in Beaumont doing windows for the E.L. Wilson Hardware Company and in Houston for the C.L. and Theo Bering Company Hardware and Sporting Goods. He produced detailed depictions of his clients’ merchandise, be it hunting paraphernalia, cooking utensils or common tools grouped in most uncommon patterns and kaleidoscopic arrangements. Perhaps none of his other passions or pastimes says as much about the man’s complexity and creativity as his window work. There lies his acute attention to detail, his artistry and the enormous energy needed to complete intricate and laborious projects. Window displays often included hundreds of elements, like a miniature battleship he constructed out of hardware items sold by the store, or the duck-hunting scene that featured four live ducks in an actual pond in the window. Another was made of tediously arranged shotgun shells. People don’t do windows like that anymore. Most never did.
The story begins in 1898 when John Winter’s parents emigrated from Germany, bringing with them a young son and a Teutonic work ethic that no doubt influenced his life. They arrived in Galveston and soon moved inland to Houston.
Fast forward to 2008. Rob Sawyer, a duck hunter originally from the Chesapeake Bay area in Maryland, but now a Houston geologist, went to Hempstead to buy a dog. Chet Beaty, the kennel owner, and Sawyer began talking duck hunting and Beaty showed Sawyer some old hunting photographs. Flint struck steel. Sawyer learned from Beaty that a wealth of duck-hunting lore was housed in the complete collection of John Winter’s photographs, stewarded by Winter’s grandson, Cliff Fisher, in Houston. That spark led Sawyer on a quest that will soon culminate in the publication of his book on Texas duck hunting, Coastal Texas Waterfowl — Market and Sport Hunting from the 1800s to 1970, to be published by Texas A&M University Press in 2010. Sawyer and Fisher have both been helpful in providing access to the photographs, family information and a peek at Sawyer’s extremely well-researched manuscript.
One of Winter’s first dated photos shows the pilot and plane that made the first flight ever into Texas on Feb. 18, 1910, landing on the prairie south of Houston. The following year, he shot a large air show (wearing a suit, tie and fedora). He later learned to fly, although it was nearly a fatal attraction for him.
Then came the “photo period” that cemented his place in history — waterfowl-hunting photography. One of Winter’s pictures is captioned “First ducks — near Clodine — 1913.” That bleak scene southwest of Houston taken on a “good day for ducks” inaugurated what was to be a great era for those interested in Texas duck hunting.
A section in one scrapbook reads “Duck Hunting — My Favorite Sport!” A picture in this sequence shows Winter and a couple of other hunters with 200 ducks. Another shot, taken by Winter, is of several hundred ducks rising off the water. Many of them are sprigs (pintails). Still another shows a gray sky that is darkened with ducks, maybe a thousand. The caption reads, “So many ducks it took two men to see them all.” A closer frame of ducks taking off shows the birds so thick and close together that one shot with the right choke on a 12-gauge shotgun might have put the hunter over limit had modern-day limits been in force at the time.
When John Winter began hunting, the limit was 25 per day and 75 in possession, set by a 1907 state statute, as Sawyer’s research reports. The Migratory Game Bird Treaty of 1918 changed that to 25 ducks per day and 25 in possession, according to David Sharp with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The limit was again changed in 1930 to 15 a day and 30 in possession. Currently, the limit is six ducks a day, but restrictions on several species lower the number a hunter may legally take in a day’s hunt. The possession limit (the number a hunter may have in his possession after the second day of the hunt) is twice the daily bag limit.
A 1921 picture in front of Bering’s Hardware showing Winter and another hunter standing proudly by the fruits of their hunt is captioned “191 ducks. No Game Laws Violated.” We’re not told how many hunters participated, which could have easily legalized the limit, but the fact that the two posed for pictures in downtown Houston strongly supports their claim of legality. Many other pictures showed strings of 225 ducks, 210 ducks, 54 mallards in one evening at Barrow’s Camp, 150 at Cove, all with Winter and his hunting companions standing stoically in front of Bering’s windows in suits, ties and hats. A dapper bunch of duck hunters, indeed. Winter guided duck hunters throughout the area, including many notables, such as General Billy Mitchell and other military personnel.
Winter occasionally hunted out of sink boxes and used live decoys. Those were all legal then. They aren’t now. Live decoys were just that: live ducks Winter raised in his backyard in Houston and anchored among his artificial decoys. A sink box was a floating (usually!) box in which the hunter laid down, feet toward the wind, and shot the ducks as they passed over and set their wings going into the wind to land. Rob Sawyer referred to sink boxes as more of a culture than an apparatus. It took nerve, balance and a lack of wave action to survive it. Some called them “floating coffins.”
Hunting was tougher then than now. It’s hard to imagine how Winter toted all the equipment it took to camp out in duck-hunting areas. Roads were poor, if they existed at all. Automobiles had skinny wheels, and off-road tires hadn’t yet been invented. Horses and boats carried much of the gear. Getting there was not half the fun.
On one trip across Trinity Bay, the wind and sleet were agonizing, and a wave swamped Winter’s boat, causing him and his friends to spend a frigid night in a bayou near Anahuac. They answered the elements by shooting 200 ducks over the next couple of days. On a trip to Cove by plane, Winter’s craft collided with another biplane. His scrapbook somberly says: “No ducks that day.”
Winter’s camera was a wood, metal and glass R.B. Tele Graflex with a long bellows. According to Jerry Sullivan at Precision Camera in Austin, it would have weighed 4 to 5 pounds. That was an added load.
Winter usually hunted in the early days with a Parker double-barrel 12-gauge, and took a case of shells. He also used a Remington Model 11 semi-automatic shotgun and occasionally a Winchester Model 12. Those were the “paper shell” days, too, so keeping the powder dry was more than a mere figure of speech. He was an excellent duck caller, using just his mouth much of the time, occasionally assisted by a call made by Charles Ditto of Illinois. A Houston Chronicle article said, “Johnny Winter used to call them to us when they were neither hungry nor lonesome.”
Outdoor writing for newspapers and magazines, as we know it today, had not yet become a profession. This was before the days of Brister, Boughton, Holder, Klepper, Swann, Thompson and Tinsley. But Winter was considered such an expert in the outdoors that he regularly wrote for Houston papers. A December 1947 copy of a magazine called Sports Round-up carried his “Hints to Duck Hunters.” It was as current as most pieces you’ll read today, especially on decoys and blind placement and construction. In it, he wrote that he was personally “strong for the 20-gauge and haven’t shot anything else for 25 years.”
Winter was a versatile outdoorsman. He built boats and won races in his “Ankle Deep,” a long canoe with a three-horsepower engine. He designed and built a “Hydro-Glider” that attained 70 mph — one of the fastest boats in America. He helped develop races in Houston and San Antonio and was a vice commodore in the Texas Boating Racing Club. His boating expertise led him to become sales manager of the largest marine store in Texas, and along with C.B. Delhomme, he initiated the Houston Boat Show.
Winter was also an experienced fisherman. Pictures show him with 28 bass caught on a fly rod near China, Texas, in 1918, and 50 to 60 bass on a long stringer. His most astonishing catch, though, was a 2,500-pound sun ray he and two other men caught in a seine near Galveston!
As if all that wasn’t enough, Winter taught swimming and lifesaving and formed a Red Cross Life Saving Corps of the Kodak Canoe Club, patrolling the San Jacinto River.
In his later years, his hunting and photography waned. Winter even commented in one of his articles that “many of us have quit duck hunting altogether as the limits are so small.” He predicted, however, that some of the restrictions would be lifted in light of the “wonderful conservation programs” then in effect.
Sadly, however, his guns and cameras were being left on the shelf more and more. Like Puff the Magic Dragon, the day was approaching when Jackie Paper would come no more. His shotguns would soon “cease their fearless roar” for good. But like that make-believe magic dragon, his pictures will live forever.
No one seems to know what became of his cameras. Like many photographers, he may have “traded up” to other needs. One shotgun is still in the family.
His legacy, though, is in the aging black-and-white photos — the ones already mentioned and many others that recorded family history: his beautiful wife, Leta, gracefully seated in a long canoe wearing a long dress and a large hat and holding a baby; Leta walking precariously along logs out over the river; his beloved dogs; his family on vacations in Mexico and the West.
We have his photos, too. Were it not for John Winter’s photographs, we would not know what parts of the upper Texas coast looked like a hundred years ago. We would not know that as we pass over the “Lost and Old Rivers” on Interstate 10 between Houston and Beaumont that the Cove community lies in its shadow, a mere fragment of the wildlife wonderland it once was.
And were it not for Winter’s pictures, Rob Sawyer might have never been moved to write the history of coastal waterfowl hunting. Who knows what Sawyer’s book will inspire?
My hope is that those reading it will adopt a deeper spirit of conservation for waterfowl and protect its ever-diminishing habitat.
Thank you, Mr. Winter.