In Camp At Georgia’s Oldest Hunting Club
The Portal Hunting Club boasts more than 100 years of hunting history.
In a time when so many things are rapidly changing, it’s comforting to know that in a remote corner of our state, good hunting has remained the same — and for quite some time.
The Portal Hunting Club, located on the Long/McIntosh county line, has been in existence for more than 100 years. This fall, deer hunters with dog boxes on the backs of their trucks will once again drop their tailgates and eagerly wait, shotgun in hand, for the hound music to head their way.
If you travel north on Jones Road in McIntosh County, just as the pavement ends, you will arrive at Portal Hunting Club. Portal’s clubhouse is actually in Long County, right on the county line. You will recognize the clubhouse: a large, white, one-story cinder-block building with a sign proclaiming Portal Hunting Club and the club’s logo. Without the sign, one would take the building to be an old abandoned juke joint (nightclub) from the 1950s or earlier. The first time I passed by, I could not help but think, “Portal,” what a strange name for a deer-hunting club on the edge of Bull Town Swamp. After all, the town of Portal is in Bulloch County on the west side of Statesboro.
Years ago I was invited to hunt at Portal Hunting Club. Toby Roberts, who grew up in Portal, was my host for the first hunt. I had no idea what to expect or even what was behind the front door at the Portal Hunting Club. My only instructions were to be at the clubhouse before 6 a.m., bring my favorite shotgun and be ready for a good day of hunting. My host went on to say Portal was a dog-hunting club that did not allow any still hunting.
It was a cold November morning when I arrived. About 30 trucks were parked, along with jeeps, swamp buggies and ATVs. There were no yuppie cars at Portal Hunting Club, but I really did not expect to see any Mercedes, Porsches or BMWs.
It was about 5:45 a.m. when I opened the door to the clubhouse. The first thing I felt was the warmth from a giant fireplace. There was a large group of men sitting and standing by the fireside, drinking coffee and talking. The first man I met introduced himself and shook my hand. Before I knew it I had shaken hands and been introduced to at least 40 hunters, some very old and several children. I was introduced to members whose names have long been associated with Bulloch County and Portal Hunting Club: Brannen, Deal, Nessmith, Ginn, Franklin, Roberts, Pope, Cassedy, Lanier, Marsh, Neville and Akins to name a few.
A jolly man named Don Lanier showed me the kitchen, just behind the wall where the giant fireplace stood. Don introduced me to Edith McIntosh, Portal’s cook, who handed me a cup of coffee.
I returned to the main room and visited with the hunters. The room was interesting. It had old trophies on the cinder-block wall, pictures, maps, a copy of the club’s bylaws and a short written history of the club. A real picture of interest was taken of the club and all the members in 1956 when the clubhouse was built. There were group pictures displayed of all the members taken over the years.
The hunters were very friendly as they engaged me in conversation and welcomed me to their club. Every member in the room was from Bulloch County and had been a member of Portal for years. That explained why it’s called Portal Hunting Club.
As we talked, I found out that several members had been introduced to Portal Hunting Club by their grandfathers. Toby Roberts’ grandsons made four generations of his family hunting at this old club.
Portal Hunting Club contains about 13,000 acres of land in Long, Liberty and McIntosh counties. Bull Town Swamp runs up the middle of the club. During deer season, a little more than 40 members meet once a week and hunt for two days.
At 6 a.m. sharp, the president of the club spoke to the group for a moment naming two club members as hunt masters for the day’s hunt. Then we all bowed our heads as the president said the blessing. It was a long good ol’ Baptist blessing. He blessed the food we were about to eat, our families, and he asked for a safe hunt. It was a very warm and heartfelt blessing.
Then we all marched into the kitchen for a great breakfast. Edith greeted us as she looked proudly at her work, once more making sure everything was just right before she left the room. Breakfast was a feast of pancakes, hot biscuits, eggs, grits, bacon and sausage. On the table were cane syrup, jams and jellies, most of it homemade. We all sat on large picnic-type tables as we ate breakfast.
After breakfast, we all returned to the main room to discuss the day’s hunt and talk about safety and rules of the hunt. It was decided we were going to hunt Bull Town Swamp down near an old abandoned railroad bed.
Then all the hunters drew a number from a hat. The numbers corresponded with a number shown on a map, and this indicated the area we were going to hunt. The hunt masters addressed the hunters again, giving instructions on safety and how the hunters were to conduct themselves. There were several children in the room. What impressed me was how polite and respectful they were.
My morning hunt was interesting. My stand was located just on the edge of the swamp. Although I did not take a deer, I did watch wood ducks flying out of the swamp and a great blue heron feeding in a still pool. The club as a whole had a very good morning taking a total of 10 deer, five of them bucks. The frosty morning was cold, and I thought often about the warmth of the giant fireplace back at clubhouse and a cup of hot coffee.
Lunch and supper were just as great as the fine breakfast. Edith McIntosh is one good cook and a welcome part of this hunting club.
Before the club divided up the meat from the deer harvested that day, there was a prayer thanking God for providing us with the deer we harvested and for a safe hunt.
That day I learned a lot of history about the Portal Hunting Club. The club was established back in the late 1800s. There were few or no deer in Bulloch County back then, so a group of hunters from Portal learned they could lease land in the corner of McIntosh, Liberty and Long counties to deer hunt.
Twice a year the men would load up their wagons, saddle their horses and bring their hounds and bird dogs for the two-day trip to Bull Town Swamp. The hunters would camp one night en route. The bird dogs would hunt along the way, and if one pointed to a covey of quail, the hunters would shoot. If a hound jumped a rabbit and someone shot it, they would have quail and rabbit for supper.
The members of Portal have hunted the property for about 110 years. They are believed to be the oldest, still-functioning hunting club in Georgia. However, there were two years during World War II when the club was closed. The Army was using the woods in and around Bull Town Swamp as training grounds. Of course they were using much of Long and McIntosh counties to train our troops. During those two years, the Army blew up the old barn that used to house the hunters.
After World War II, the Portal Hunting Club members leased an old home off Sandy Run Road in Liberty County. It was an old farm house with newspaper on the wall for insulation. A potbelly stove provided the only heat. It was a proud day in 1956 when the hunters moved into the existing clubhouse.
Besides the large country kitchen and the comfortable main rooms, Portal has two bathrooms and four sleeping rooms — very much like an old Army barracks where everyone sleeps in an open room with bunk beds. At some point in the past, it was decided that if the hunters ate and slept together it would make for a much better club. I think they were right.
The club abides by very strict bylaws that include how the hunts are conducted, how the officers are elected and what days the hunts are held. Each year, there are two family hunts, Thanksgiving and Christmas. On these hunts, female family members are encouraged to participate. This is a very popular time for members and their families.
As would be expected with a club this old, there are a lot of traditions. One of the traditions are the quail suppers on the third weekends in January and February. Years ago, they would spend the day hunting quail in and around the club. Today the wild-quail population is no longer strong enough to provide quail for their suppers. Unfortunately, Portal Hunting Club has to buy pen-raised quail for this custom.
Another tradition is “court.” Every so often, Portal has an evening of court. Right after supper, the president of the club calls court to order. Everyone has to have their hats off in court. There is no smoking, and there are no adult beverages during Portal’s court.
The first order of business is calling the hunters to task one at a time for any deer they have missed since last court. The fine for missing a deer during a hunt is having your shirt tail cut. The actual cutting of the shirt is done by a friend, child or grandchild.
Should you make the mistake of being caught wearing your hat in court or during a meal at the club, you can expect a shirt-tail cutting. More serious offenses are handled by a full vote of all club members present and can mean expulsion from the club or a high-dollar fine by the club.
One of Portal Hunting Club’s strongest rules is for each member to be a good, respectful neighbor. They have tried very hard over the last 100 years to be good neighbors to the fine folks who live at the end of Jones Road and their neighbors along Sandy Run Road in Liberty County.
There have been some interesting members over the years. Four of the members have been elected to the state house in Atlanta. There have been doctors, lawyers, bankers, farmers and painters, to include a very good collection of Bulloch County citizens.
One of my strongest wishes in life is that 100 years from now there will be plenty of game for all hunters and that Portal Hunting Club will still be running deer along Bull Town Swamp.
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