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Tales of the Hunt

When the Spencer family revived their deer camp journal they found it held much more than hunting.


HUNTING TRADITIONS that transcend generations are not uncommon, especially in Texas. This rich heritage is often colored with equally rich oral histories, peppered with glory stories, embellished over time.

But this is not what Don Spencer had in mind when he penned his first journal entry in 1988 at the family’s modest deer camp near the Southeast Texas town of El Campo. The now-retired industrial engineer and college professor simply wanted his two sons, at some point in their lives, to look back on an unvarnished account of their own hunting histories. The multigenerational journal would become a fixture at the family camp, featuring entries involving Spencer’s father, Spencer’s children and their children.

So, on Nov. 18, 1988, on a calm, clear, starry night, Spencer wrote his first entry by the light of a Coleman lantern and the glow of a gibbous moon. His oldest son Tim was there. He was 24 at the time. This was their first overnight stay at a newly renovated campsite. The family had just added an enclosed kitchen space to the somewhat portable cabin. It had rained that morning, followed by a brisk north wind and falling temperatures. Supper that evening included hamburger patties, red beans and corn, according to the journal.   

'Down to 58 (degrees) by 9:30 (p.m.),' Spencer wrote in his typical shorthand style. 'It is a clear night with moon @ 2/3. You can almost read outside. Beautiful night. About 7:30 coyotes (?) started singing down south … one answered from the north. After 4 or 5 minutes they quit.'

This initial journal entry set the tone for many subsequent entries, replete with logistical information, weather reports, personal reflections, and the sights and sounds of a South Texas deer camp.

“Typically, one of our family members wrote in the journal in the evenings, following that day’s hunt,” Tim Spencer told me. “Many times, I’d sit and write in the camp house, and use a Coleman lantern for light and warmth. Or I’d sit around the campfire using a headlamp to make my entries. I think my brother Matt did the same. Dad was often preparing lunch or dinner while we wrote.”

Over the years, Don Spencer invited anyone staying at the camp to add their voice to the notebook, which remained at the rustic shanty year-round for a decade. This throwback cabin, which lacks running water and electricity, sits on 70 acres near the fabled ghost town of Provident City, along Goldenrod Creek.

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 David Sikes

FAMILY HISTORY

Spencer’s roots in the region run deep. He was born in 1937 about 50 feet from today’s campsite. His grandfather, Dr. T.C. Spencer, came to Provident City in 1915, where he served as the resident doctor for hundreds of fortune-seeking families in the small community, which was founded in 1909. Spencer’s father, Morgan Spencer, grew up nearby.

As a boy, Don Spencer played in the shadow of the Provident Hotel, which still stands majestically at the original site. The historic structure is a testament to restoration efforts by heirs of the late R.H. Hancock, who purchased the hotel and surrounding crop fields after the settlement faded into the landscape.

I visited the Spencer family campsite during opening weekend of the 2022-23 deer season, where I met three generations of Spencers. This was the first family gathering since rediscovering the journal, which had been lost, if not forgotten, for years. With Hurricane Bret bearing down on the Texas coast in 1999, Don Spencer removed the cabin’s contents ahead of deer season, then packed them away at his home in Bryan. Hurricane Bret made landfall on Padre Island as a Category 3 cyclone, sparing the Spencer deer camp. But the journal was not returned to the cabin until December 2005, and then only briefly. Tim Spencer penned a single entry during that December hunt. For reasons that are not clear, his dad took the journal back to his home in Bryan, where it remained until 2022, when the family resurrected the tradition of chronicling their adventures.     

handwritten notes in hunting journal

Hurricane Bret made landfall on Padre Island as a Category 3 cyclone, sparing the Spencer deer camp. But the journal was not returned to the cabin until December 2005, and then only briefly. Tim Spencer penned a single entry during that December hunt. For reasons that are not clear, his dad took the journal back to his home in Bryan, where it remained until 2022, when the family resurrected the tradition of chronicling their adventures.

While sitting around a campfire, on the eve of the season opener, the Spencers began reminiscing about good times at the deer camp, along with their successes and mishaps. When Don Spencer began to recall his first successful deer hunt in 1951, when he was 14, the elder Spencer had the floor to himself. As he began to recount the tale, Spencer’s sons, Tim, 58, and Matt, 50, along with granddaughter Lauren, 19, and grandson Levi, 12, scooted their chairs closer to the 85-year-old storyteller, whose eyes sparkled from the flames as he conjured sweet memories.

Spencer told us how he and his dad were hunting on opposite sides of Goldenrod Creek during a brisk north wind. Spencer described the morning chill, and how the stock and barrel of his new .300-caliber Savage M99 lever-action rifle felt good in his hands. He still hunts with the relic, which he later fitted with a scope. It’s the only deer rifle he’s ever hunted with on the property. Spencer couldn’t see his father along the east bank, but they occasionally whistled so one wouldn’t get ahead of the other. Not long into the hunt, the young Spencer was startled by a buck that his dad must have flushed from the creek bottom.

“I’m not sure if Dad saw the buck or knew he had spooked it, but I sure did,” Spencer recalled. “It was running right to left pretty fast.”

At this point during the story, Spencer raised an imaginary rifle and squinted one eye to simulate how he had exacted aim on the 10-point buck.

“Dropped him with one shot,” Spencer said with a grin, as he lowered his arms and scanned the fireside faces before him.   

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CAMP DIARY

IRONICALLY, THIS KIND of drama is mostly absent from the journal. This is part of the camp diary’s charm, lending credence to its authenticity. The notebook’s roughly 60 pages contain numerous accounts of deer-less hunts and many idle hours spent atop tripod stands or inside box blinds, reflecting the humble experiences of most deer hunters.

And even when an entry highlights a kill, the language seems intentionally matter-of-fact and honest. Such is a page written by Matt Spencer, in December 1994, when he was 22.  

'About 20 minutes later I heard a noise and looked thru the west window as a 10-pt. walked 5 feet past the stand,' Matt wrote. 'He looked up but kept walking. I couldn't get my gun up for a shot before he stepped into the brush heading S. I set up for a shot to the S and about 10 min later a doe and yearling came out going W to E. Following was the mangy spike and a couple of min. later the buck. I shot him @ 50 yds and he dropped on the spot. His spread is maybe the biggest ever off our land.'



The journal’s pages are sprinkled with details about antler widths, referring to a controversial hunting regulation imposed during the early 2000s. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s biologists determined that hunting pressure in many counties prevented bucks from reaching maturity. So, in 2002, the department prohibited hunters in several counties from taking a buck with antlers that measured less than 13 inches between the inside width of the two main antler beams.

Tim Spencer addressed the regulation in an entry dated Dec. 17, 2005.  

'Unfortunately, none of us have made entries into the journal since 1998,' Tim wrote. 'Since then, regulations in Colorado County have changed dramatically … This is the 4th season with the restrictions in place. Our deer harvest (in particular bucks) are down significantly. To my knowledge, there have been 2 spikes & 1 10 pt. harvested in the past four seasons … Our time in the field for the past 4 yrs. has remained consistent. I arrived at camp (6:15p) after hunting the 55 acres. Dad is driving in from Bryan & I will hunt tomorrow. I saw a large (body & antlers) 8 pt. He was in the brush off of the north fence. I feel he had an inside spread of 17–18 inches & was probably 4–5 years old. Didn't shoot. Will try again tomorrow.'

The department’s stated goal in this experimental regulation was to improve the age structure of deer herds, while ultimately increasing hunter opportunity. Even though some landowners in the county requested the restrictions, many hunters were unhappy with it.

“Back then, Dad and I had mixed feelings about whether the new restrictions were going to limit our opportunities for harvesting bucks,” Tim Spencer recalled during the first week of the 2022 deer season. “Fast forward to today, and it’s very apparent that the antler restrictions had a net-positive impact on bucks in the Provident City area.”    

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BIG BUCK

THE FOLLOWING WEEK, Don Spencer punctuated his son’s positive view of the department’s management strategy by besting his best buck from 1951 with perhaps the biggest buck taken by a family member in more than 70 years.

True to the Spencer family’s humble tone, the patriarch was reluctant to include this glory story in the resurrected journal. But finally, he agreed to tell the tale after the urgings of younger Spencers.

He described the 45-degree morning, as he settled into his blind with barely enough light to see.

“It was a beautiful morning — blue skies with a slight breeze and a few birds overhead, but no deer movement,” he began. “A few minutes after 10 a.m. I sent Tim a text telling him I was heading back to the camp house. I stood up and reached down through the window to pull up the south window door and it screeched — metal window against metal wall — just like it always does. I turned to the east window to repeat the process, and as I reached down through the window to grasp the door handle, I saw a big buck slowly grazing as he approached the thicket to the south.

“I sat down, reached for the rifle in the corner, lined it up, released the safety and concentrated on getting a shot off before he reached the thicket. I got on target and took the shot. He dropped on the spot. All of this occurred in 30-45 seconds. I collected my thoughts, climbed down and went to check on my deer about 55 paces from the stand. I believe he is the oldest, heaviest deer I have shot over the years.”

Later in this journal entry, Spencer recounted the story of his boyhood buck, and reflected on many subsequent hunts, spanning seven decades.

Here’s how the narrative ended.  

'Today's hunt involved the same weather, creek, hunter, and rifle fitted with a scope,' Spencer wrote. 'Two big days of deer hunting on Goldenrod (creek) – decades apart.'

Tim arranged for a taxidermist to create his dad’s second shoulder-mounted buck. Yes, Don Spencer resisted this also, but eventually came around. Someday, Tim said, his dad’s latest buck will share a wall with his first.

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Ghost Town

Around the turn of the 20th century, a Missouri land company with interests in Southeast Texas sold unsuspecting folks from the Midwest on the rich potential of the Goldenrod Prairie region of Texas near El Campo. Local lore suggests the company posted false testimonials and promotional photographs of fruit orchards and lush crop fields, the likes of which the region’s soil would never support. They promised a railroad would connect this bountiful region to a world of commerce. All this was meant to sell a dream of prosperity that faded quickly in a town, Provident City, that barely survived adolescence.

Isolation prevented the agricultural industry from taking root. But for a while, Provident City bustled. With a peak population of about 500 families, the community supported a bank, several stores, two churches, a restaurant, schoolhouse, canning factory, sawmill, post office, two blacksmiths and even a baseball team. The town’s center was the stately Provident Hotel, established in 1909 by the Provident Land Co. to house prospective land buyers.

About 150 residents continued clinging to the dream in 1914, and Dr. T.C. Spencer moved there in 1915. After World War I, the town began dissolving into the earth and woods. In the 1950s, R.H. Hancock bought the ghost town along with much of the surrounding land, and the hotel became headquarters for the Hancock Ranch and rice farming operations.   

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