100 Years At Thompson Pasture Hunting Club
Liberty County deer-dogging club nears its centennial birthday.
As the memories begin to flow, so do a few tears; but like those recollections, they spring from joy.
Eighty-nine-year-old Dent Newton can’t hold them back, and that’s OK. The big crowd on hand to honor the oldest member of Georgia’s oldest deer-dogging club has nothing but respect for this gentleman—a word that fits him perfectly. His mind is as sharp as a skinning knife, providing a treasure-trove of recollections from his six decades of roaming the Thompson Pasture Hunting Club, which will celebrate its 100th continuous year in 2019.
In 1919, a dozen Bulloch County hunters, including founder Al Davis, carved out a hunting lease in Liberty County. Since that time, as land became available, the club contained as many as 17,000 acres along Highway 119 between Riceboro and Walthourville, small towns near Hinesville.
On this morning, we’ve roamed quite a bit of its now 13,000 acres, seen a few deer and taken a couple. All that will be laid out for you shortly, but as we break for lunch, let’s sit down with Mister Dent and listen in as he explains how a club—hunting or otherwise—holds itself together for a century.
“Those fellows just wanted to go hunting, and Al Davis started it all right here with a tent. He strung wire between trees to run dogs on, and for cooking and drinking, he drew water from spring-fed flowing wells right beside where the highway is now. Back in those days, the woods were so open that drivers rode horses, and there was a stable here on the property. I got out of the Army in 1953 and came with my brother for the first time. A visitor could come three times, to see if he fit in. It’s hard to describe the untouched beauty of the woods in those days. The virgin oaks and pines on this place were something you can only dream about now.
“Little by little, the clubhouse area was built up. Folks would tear down small houses in other places and bring them here to be put back up, then add on later. When I came, we had a three-holer for a bathroom, dirt floor kitchen, bricked-up fireplace and a wood stove. All the cooking was done on that.”
And then, without even realizing it, Dent Newton profoundly summed up what I was beginning to learn about Thompson Pasture.
“Those older guys who founded this club had a short list of bylaws and a long list of gentlemanly behavior. It’s a social club that goes deer hunting; that’s what holds it together.”
I had been invited down for this hunt by yet another gentleman, Jimmie DeLoach, of Statesboro. Predawn, as we walked into the big kitchen of the block clubhouse built in 1985, Jimmie told me in no uncertain terms: “Take off your hat. Always been a rule that we don’t wear our hats in the kitchen.”
For some reason, that pleased me right down to the core. Gentlemanly behavior in the kitchen tends to carry over into all other facets of this organization, including the hunt.
“You don’t get the camaraderie that we have here from still-hunting,” Mister Dent continued. “That’s a solitary style of hunt, and fine for those who prefer it. But when you get into a group like this, these guys love one another like brothers. You’re hunting, sitting around the fire at night talking, eating together… all that builds bonds that last a lifetime. I missed these guys so much.”
In July of 2016, a stroke hit him hard and has left nagging, lasting problems that make it difficult to get around. His daughters, Nancy Thomas and Becky Miller—both of whom spent many eventful days here with their dad over the years—set up this special day, along with DeLoach, in honor of a man obviously greatly loved by the big group on hand. It was his first trip to Thompson Pasture in the three years since the stroke.
“I brought my daughters to the hunts, but they had to sleep outside in a camper like all the ladies. We had rules about no women in the clubhouse after dark. Everything was always done in gentlemanly fashion, and if they erred, it was to be on the side of right. And it’s amazing how it has all carried on.”
To this day, it reads thusly: No women in the clubhouse between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. They always go first at mealtime and never pay for their meals.
Dent Newton has no idea of the number of deer he’s taken over the 50-plus years of hunting here, saying only, “It would be in the dozens and dozens. I have a little camphouse at home, and it’s lined with deer I thought were mountable.
“In the 1960s, we could kill one doe a year at $10. The second one cost $20, the third $30. After that, it was suggested you resign! We never forced anybody out, but a fella like that just didn’t fit in. We weren’t meat hunters.”
As you will see…
“Back in those days, we would hunt Wednesdays and until noon Thursdays. We would put all the meat on a long table out front and cut it up in piles as equal as could be. We would draw numbers and have a man standing there calling out numbers with his hand near a pile of meat. When your number was called, that was your portion, and everybody went home with venison.”
Equally as fascinating as the hunting is the story of keeping the leases together, with available acreage coming and going over the past 100 years.
“In the early days, Union Camp owned this land, and all they asked from us was ad valorem taxes. Dues were $35 a year from 40 men only, no more and no less. That paid their taxes on over 17,000 acres. You could deal with those people with a handshake on an individual basis.”
It’s pretty obvious that a lot has changed financially in today’s world, but there are still only 38 members in the Thompson Pasture club.
The day of my visit, Oct. 27, there were 35 members present, and with wives, children and guests, it brought our total to 50 for Mister Dent’s special day. Even with that many folks on hand, it was fairly amazing to witness the Swiss-watch precision with which the day’s hunts were handled.
There were to be three successive morning hunts in three sections of blocks, with times scheduled beforehand. Each hunter drew a stand number out of a hat, therefore knew exactly where to go: everything is mapped out in detail beforehand, and once in the woods, stand numbers are affixed to trees. There was exactly NO confusion, and if anyone had a question, I never heard it.
I was paired with Colby Gibson, and off we went to Ernest Buie block. Hunting block names are always fun. Most are named for former members. Others include Big Griffin, Little Griffin, Bennie Connor, Back o’ Bob’s, Red Deer, Otis Sewer and Dead Horse.
From what I gathered from Colby, his wife was expecting their first child at any minute, but he had managed to keep his priorities in order. Reagan Claire checked in at 6-lbs., 12-ozs. on Nov. 6. She has not made it to Thompson Pasture yet, but all is well with the Gibson family.
Parked and walking in, we passed a fellow hunter on the stand just before ours, and I caught a flash through the trees. Three does, none of which we were interested in. Dogs hadn’t been turned out yet. These were simply meandering through and got caught. These hunts with dogs are shotgun only, yet they were well within range of the Beretta’s 00 buckshot loads.
Within five minutes of reaching our destination, hounds were loosed. Back along that same trail the other trio had followed came more deer—out of our sight—wasting no time and bounding in and out of cover. Our neighbor got a couple of good looks but no shot.
When the block was run, that was it. There was no standing around discussing what to do or where to go since all had been laid out previously. We quickly caught up dogs, jumped back into the truck and moved to Buggy Axle block, which is where things really got interesting.
In no time I was at the base of an ancient water oak, surrounded by some scrub brush to break my silhouette, when a buck slipped across the road to my right. He came from 4 o’clock headed toward 11 o’clock, and I could have shot him at any hour on the dial.
Over 40 years of chasing these critters makes it fairly easy to size one up in a hurry, and I decided not to shoot. Besides, I’m a guest and this needed to be Colby’s buck. I glance toward my partner—seated on a folding stool a hundred or so yards away—and he’s bent over his phone, working both thumbs. Understandable when one considers Reagan Claire had not yet put in an appearance.
Backing up a step, I whistled softly, waved my arms and pointed—and that buck was walking right at him! Colby jumped up while shouldering the shotgun, and the buck whirled to take off. The first load of buckshot took him in the left hip, the second in places best left unmentioned in a family magazine. That one knocked him off his feet.
We stood silently while scanning for movement in the brush, but I couldn’t pick out the buck from 75 yards, even after pulling my 7×25 Bushnells from their shirt pocket. If we could have waited, the hunt would likely have ended there. But where the yellow Lab came from, what he was doing there or if he actually belonged to one of the hunters, we’ll never know. What we do know is that he jumped that deer, and both were gone.
While we found a good blood trail, there was no buck at the end of it. A good 10 minutes into the search, and another shot rang out.
Other hunters had remained in place long after the initial race had passed them by and following Colby’s episode. One of them, Jamie Wise, said this buck simply stepped out into the woods road and presented a broadside shot. He was carrying Colby’s buckshot, but it was Jamie’s deer. Colby stated that this was probably the biggest buck he had ever shot at while dogging and a good deer for these swamps of southeast Georgia. The 6-pointer tipped the scales to 122 pounds.
With that, the morning hunt was over, and it was back to camp for my meeting with Mister Dent and a huge lunch that included 48 pounds of fried chicken with a ton of trimmings, all whipped up by Miss Irma, one jewel of a camp cook, and helpers from among the club members.
Afterward, under an open pavilion with a couple of deer hanging in the background, Dent Newton was presented with a Thompson Pasture medallion featuring a buck’s head and the No. 1 on it, in recognition of his dedication and years of service to the club.
“It’s good to see the younger folks here,” he told me. “They need to slow down and learn more about what makes this world go round.”
And maybe about what holds this world together: people like Dent Newton.
Like Al Davis, Jimmie DeLoach and Colby Gibson, I wish I could go back a hundred years and a give you a few thousand other names. Graceful, grateful greats who did things the right way and had in common the love of the hunt. When all is said, it’s the hunters of Thompson Pasture Hunting Club who have made it what it is.
Down the road, I have a plan: go back, sit in the swamp’s silent places with Mister Dent and listen to more stories and a race or three. Maybe even with Reagan Claire on my lap.
One hundred years? Tremendously impressive. But let’s shoot for 200.
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