Deer Festival In The Deer Capital Of Georgia

Duncan Dobie | August 31, 2020

On Saturday, Nov. 7, the Jasper County Chamber of Commerce will be holding and celebrating the 54th annual “Monticello Deer Festival” on the square in Monticello. Originally organized by the Jasper County Jaycees, the first festival was held back in 1966 to celebrate the premier deer hunting offered in this amazing part of the state.

In 1997 the Jasper County Chamber of Commerce took over organizing the event. Ironically, 1966 was also the year Gene Almand downed a massive 11-point buck in southern Newton County, only a rock’s throw from the Jasper County line. Scoring a whopping 184 typical B&C inches, the Almand buck was recognized as Georgia’s first official state record whitetail.

(Note: Despite the spike in COVID-19 cases over the summer months, the Festival was still being planned as of this writing.)

This year’s festival will kick off with the 23rd annual Deer Dash—a 1-mile fun run and a 5K run/walk, followed by the Deer Festival parade at 3:30 p.m. The hours between those times are filled with entertainment, art, food and craft vendors, a beauty contest, deer related exhibits, a raffle, a children’s area and the annual venison cook-off. There is always an abundance of great food. If you’re like me, you’ll probably eat so much you won’t want to go back in the woods that afternoon. No wonder the festival draws about 5,000 people each November.

No wonder Monticello is known as the Deer Capital of Georgia! This photo, taken at a previous festival several years ago, shows the kind of outstanding trophy whitetails Jasper County has produced for many decades. Photo courtesy of Benny Hawthorne.

It’s no mistake that Monticello has long been known as the “Deer Capital of Georgia.” The Festival was established to celebrate that well-earned title. Thanks to some visionary individuals like Jack Crockford and Dick Whittington, who worked for the old Game and Fish Commission back in the 1950s and ’60s, a handful of large-bodied Wisconsin deer were stocked in each of the central Georgia counties. Monticello happens to be the epicenter of that five or six county area. By the time the first festival took place in 1966, hunters were dragging some incredibly big bucks out of the woods in Jasper County and surrounding areas. Today we regard some of the bucks and the stories behind them as true Georgia classics.

If you were a serious deer hunter living in any of the eastern suburbs of Atlanta like Tucker, Stone Mountain or Lithonia in the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the chances are good you hunted in Jasper County. Back then, Jasper County was a magical destination, and numerous Atlanta-area hunters leased land or hunted public hunt near Monticello. If you were one of them, the chances are also good you and your buddies probably dragged yourselves out of the woods early on the first Saturday in November so you wouldn’t miss the one-of-a-kind Monticello Deer Festival.

Jim Willoughby, a retired home builder in Marietta, was a member of one of those classic hunting clubs back in the 1970s. He and his cohorts fixed up a ramshackle farm house several miles east of Monticello into what they fondly named “The Monticello Hilton.”

The club had its share of characters, and Jim remembers the camaraderie and practical jokes that were constantly being played, and the fellowship of that hunting club as a very special time in his life.

“That was early in my deer hunting career, and like everyone I wanted to be a good deer hunter and shoot a nice buck. We always went to the festival. It was such an inspiration to see some of the big mounts the state brought in and put on display. And of course, the food was outstanding.”

Jim loved the area so much he ended up buying several tracts of timber land in Jasper County to hunt on.

A Bygone Era

Not only have individuals and groups been leasing private land in Jasper County since those golden years, but the southern portion of the county contains a sizable chunk of the Oconee National Forest. This picturesque, rolling public land is truly one of Georgia’s best kept secrets as far as hunting goes. If you’ve never been there, do yourself a favor and make a point to attend one of the many public hunts offered each year. Or at least go down during the off season and do some hiking and camping. The Oconee National Forest offers some of the most scenic and appealing woodlands and bottoms in the entire state, and as federal land it belongs to you and me.

The impressive 179-inch typical Hubert Moody buck was taken Nov. 1, 1957.

It’s hard to describe in words the beauty of some of the almost pristine areas I’ve seen while still hunting through portions of the Oconee Forest in years past. I truly felt like Daniel Boone must have felt when he first laid his eyes on his beloved “Kaintuck.” When you walk through some of those bottoms in November with rifle in hand, you go back in time. You never want to leave. The sheer beauty of the area will stir your soul and make you glad to be alive, whether you see a buck or not.

Jeff Banks, a name familiar to most GON readers, lived in Jasper County with his family in the early ’70s and attended high school there. Going to the festival was always a much anticipated event for Jeff and his friends.

“Everybody I knew went to the festival back in those days, and it was always packed with people and lots kids,” Jeff remembered. “It was something we always looked forward to, and you didn’t want to miss it. One year they had a greased pole contest. The greased pole was about the size of a telephone pole—without the splinters. A bundle of money had been placed on top of the pole. Whoever got to the top of the pole first could claim the money.

“Several people tried individually but didn’t get very far, so a couple of buddies and I decided to make it a team effort. We formed a human chain standing on each other’s shoulders, and I was the last one up. I was a lot skinnier in those days and a lot more agile. I was almost at the top but not quite there and I reached up in a last-ditch effort and grabbed for that money for all I was worth. Just as I got my hand around it and yelled, ‘I got it!’ our human ladder began to collapse underneath me, and I had to either let go of the money and throw my arms around the pole or hold onto the money and risk falling and breaking my neck. I let go of the money and all of those beautiful bills started floating down to the ground like rain, and people were picking it up as fast as they could and fighting over it in some cases. Our team didn’t get any of it, but it was so funny to be up on that pole and watch what was going on below and see all those people running around underneath me. I don’t know how much it was—maybe $50 or $75­—but we laughed about that for a long time.”

Rocky Thompson, who just bought a place near Lake Jackson in Jasper County, grew up hunting with his family in the area and has many fond memories of attending the deer festival years ago as a young man. This year he is doing his part to try to recapture some of the excitement and magic of past festivals that gave Monticello its classic nickname. Rocky plans to have a 12×40 foot booth for his “Ole Slewfoot Hunting,” his new ministry. He will be selling hunting apparel and other gear, T-shirts and hats and custom knives made by south Georgia knife maker David Miller.

Frank Pritchard shot the massive buck on an 1,800-acre hunting club in northern Jasper County. After being field-dressed, the buck weighed 180 pounds, but it obviously had lost quite a bit of weight during the rut in November 1968.

Rocky will also have plenty of deer mounts and other taxidermy work on display, and he’ll be giving out free bibles to kids. Rocky plans to hold an adult raffle featuring many great items such as a Remington bolt-action .308, a PSE Volke bow, a Hoyt bow, a custom knife and many other prizes. He’s also planning a free children’s raffle that will give away several BB guns, fishing gear and other great prizes for kids. The proceeds from the sale of raffle tickets will support Rocky’s ministry of taking underprivileged children hunting and fishing and trying to instill a love for the great outdoors in children from all walks of life. Rocky would love to see a renewed interest in the festival by hunters, and he is doing his part to make it happen.

Over the years, Jasper County has produced at least five bucks that make the all-time B&C record book. Several others were lost in fires or had the antlers cut up before they could be measured. Hundreds of exceptional Jasper County trophies that now hang on someone’s wall bare testament to the outstanding hunting available in the area. In addition, many of the central Georgia counties surrounding Jasper County including Newton, Morgan, Putnam, Jones, Monroe and Butts counties have contributed toward producing some of Georgia’s most impressive whitetails of all time. And today, with so many people practicing quality management on their land or lease, this part of the state is still capable of producing the buck of a lifetime.

If you’re hunting anywhere in the area on Saturday Nov. 7, make plans to attend the deer festival on the square in Monticello this year.

The 170 5/8 typical Wade Cown buck from Jasper County was taken in November 1961.

Editor’s Note: Duncan Dobie recently reprinted his classic book Georgia’s Greatest Whitetails, first published in 1986. The book profiles 42 B&C bucks taken in Georgia before 1986, including stories about four great whitetails from Jasper Co. The 420 page softbound book can be purchased by sending $25 to Duncan Dobie, 3371 Meadowind Ct., Marietta, GA 30062. The price includes postage and shipping.

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