Hidden Dangers In The Deer Woods

Much of Georgia was once dotted with small farms that were long ago abandoned. Woods have grown up, the homeplaces have disappeared, but the wells remain.

Joel Robertson | November 1, 2007

Many years ago, while making preparations for a deer-hunting trip in central Georgia, I scouted some hunting land in Butts County, north of Macon. I picked a place for my brother-in-law, Buddy Hynson, near an old rock wall adjacent to a deer trail. About 300 yards away, I found myself a spot in a gully near two converging deer tails.

We were archery hunting when about a week later we went into the Butts County woods well before daylight. I pointed out the place to Buddy where I thought he should hunt. From there, I walked on to my selected stand in the gully.

After about an hour, I shot an 8- point buck. I didn’t immediately pursue the deer. I wanted time to take its toll. I walked back to the old rock wall where I had left Buddy. I wanted him to help me track the deer.

When I approached Buddy, he said, “I’ve been smelling something dead. I think there is an old well over there.”

He got up, and we started looking around. Just 30 feet from where Buddy had been sitting, we saw an opening in the ground. We walked over and looked into a deep, dark hole.

It was an old, hand-dug well — like the wells at all the old farm houses. Some old, rotten boards that had covered the well had broken. Pieces of the boards were left hanging at the base of the well. As we peered inside the well, we could see about 40 feet down, and there was a dead deer floating on the water.

A chilling thought ran through our heads. Either one of us could have taken the place of the deer.

Obviously, the boards had been placed there many years ago. Over the years, the boards were covered with straw and leaves. When the boards rotted, the well became a perfect booby trap. If it fooled a deer, it could definitely fool a human. The hadn’t broken through the boards when I was there a week earlier, so it could easily have been me in that well. After this, we left and finally found the deer I shot.

The incident drove home an important lesson to me. Do not cover a well wooden material. Leave it open so it can be seen. People think that covering a well will keep someone from falling in, but even treated lumber in time will rot and become a hazard.

Most of the land that is now timberland in central Georgia was once cropland. Extensive areas and entire rural communities were abandoned for farming. For various reasons, including soil erosion of farmland, the boll weevil and the Depression, there was a mass migration away from many of the farms. Trees occupied the land, and the old houses gradually disappeared.

But the dug wells remain.

As an example of land abandonment, Stewart County in southwest Georgia had 186,000 acres of cropland in 1950. By 2000, cropland had dropped to 27,500 acres. The county population dropped from 9,194 to 5,145 during this same period.

From 1962 until 1999 I worked Stewart County and area counties as a forester. I was a forester managing timberland for a paper company. I managed timberland in 12 counties of the Piedmont and Upper Coastal Plain regions of Georgia. Once, while building a road through 2 miles of timberland, we filled up 22 old wells where houses had been. Any time a well was located, we put flagging tape around it, then brought in a bulldozer to fill it up. Many open wells are still in the  woods, creating an ongoing, often hid- den danger. In many cases evidence of a house has all but disappeared. Anyone in the woods should always be alert for an old well. If you see a foundation or chimney stones, decorative or exotic plants, or any evidence of an old homesite or settlement, be aware that there is very likely to be an open well close by.

In western Stewart County, a large area of hilly timberland is called “The California Woods.” The legend of the area says that a great many people left this area in mass and headed for California during the Gold Rush. If this is true, then there are some home places in that part of Stewart County that have been abandoned for 150 years. In this length of time forests have made a magnificent comeback. It is hard for many people to realize that so much timberland was once farmland.

There are any number of hazards that can befall a hunter. You could be shot by a careless hunter, bitten by a snake or a rabid animal, fall out of a tree — but hunters also need to be aware of an untold number of hidden, dangerous hazards that may lie beneath their feet.

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