The Last Ranger: The Wilbur Jones Story
Wilbur Jones, 87, has a lot of fond memories. Some of his favorite are the years he spent working in Eastman as one of Georgia's original conservation rangers.
Wilbur “Buddy” Jones, sitting in the shade of a huge pecan tree in his front yard, still laughed at the thought of having to chase turkey poachers in a wild foot race through the swamps along the Ocmulgee River. As one of the last surviving graduates of the state’s first class of game wardens, Buddy has plenty of tales to tell.
At 87-years-old, Buddy admits that after knee-replacement surgery and cancer treatments that he doesn’t get around nearly as fast as he used too. But with a little time and a comfortable seat under a shade tree, he can quickly take you back to a time when most hunters were ignorant of or completely ignored game laws, a time when conservation of game was a radical new idea.
Buddy still lives just outside of Mansfield, on a farm that he worked all his life — all except the three years he lived in Eastman, working as a conservation ranger for the old Georgia Natural Resources Department.
Buddy’s road to becoming a ranger started with an ad in a newspaper. In 1939, Charlie Elliott, the newly appointed commissioner of the Natural Resources Department, was looking to end years of lax game-law enforcement by hiring and training a corps of game wardens.
“I saw the ad and there wasn’t much work around here — cotton wasn’t bringing any money, so I went,” Buddy said. “I had always had an interest in that kind of work anyway.”
The newly married farmer was one of 2,000 men who made the trip to Georgia Tech to take an exam for entrance into the newly established ranger school at Tech. Buddy said that a thirst for a little something different and a decent paycheck is what drew him away from the farm where he was raised.
Walking through the doors of Georgia Tech, Buddy was excited and scared at the prospect of becoming a game warden.
“I wondered what a country boy like me was doing up there with a crowd of big shots,” Buddy said. “But I made it through all right. I was just excited to be there. I knew a bunch of people really wanted this job, and I was fortunate to be there.”
Buddy was one of 100 men selected to attend game warden school in August of 1939. The men were boarded in the dorms at Tech and started taking classes immediately. Training consisted of movies and short lectures, sometimes by Charlie Elliott himself, and lasted only three weeks. By school’s end, 65 men were picked to become Georgia’s first “trained” game wardens.
“They really didn’t know much more about it than we did,” Buddy said. “It was sort of a hit-and-miss thing, all very new to us.”
The farm boy turned game warden picked up his wife and two kids, loaded all his belongings into a friend’s cow trailer and Model A Ford and headed to Eastman for his first assignment. The job was going to be an interesting challenge.
“South Georgia was like starting over a new life for me,” Buddy said.
Buddy said that it didn’t take long for him to adjust to his new surroundings, with one exception — gnats.
“Folks would meet me and ask what part of north Georgia I was from,” Buddy said. “I would ask them how they knew I was from north Georgia and they would say ‘because you are always fighting them gnats.’ You never did see one of them boys fighting gnats.”
For years, game laws were an afterthought to most Georgia sportsmen. The state legislature had passed closed-season laws for turkey and quail in 1903 and a license system had just been established in 1911. (A county hunting license cost $1 and a statewide license cost $3. Fishing was still free.) Conservation and the preservation and protection of natural resources gained national attention through the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt.
“The thing that impressed me the most is how little the public knew about game and fish regulations,” Buddy said. “Most folks, including me, were pretty ignorant. We had never been exposed to them. Most game wardens back then hardly got out of the yard.”
Buddy covered Dodge, Bleckley and Pulaski counties. He said that his area was so large, there were some places he never did make it around to.
“That area had a reputation for being pretty tough country,” Buddy said. “They didn’t know what a game warden was and thought I didn’t have any business out there. I tried to educate them a little.”
Soon after getting settled, Buddy went to the sheriff and introduced himself. “He told me I would see things he needed to know about and that he would see things I needed to know about. There was kind of an understanding that we would work together.”
Several weeks later, Buddy ran up on some bootleggers loading moonshine into a pickup late one night on a lonely dirt road. He just drove on by, acting as though he hadn’t seen a thing.
“A few days later I ran into the sheriff and told him where he could find the still,” Buddy said. “The boy running the liquor came to me after that and asked what did I mean telling the sheriff about his still. The boy said the sheriff just told him to be more particular. That’s what we were up against.”
Another time, a lawyer tipped Buddy off that a poacher was illegally selling game birds for market. A warden from another county went and purchased some quail from the man, who was arrested shortly thereafter. The same lawyer who tipped Buddy off defended the man in court and managed to have the case thrown out.
Buddy made $125 a month, decent wages at the time, and received $25 for expenses each month. He had to furnish his own car and boat if he patrolled the river. Buddy still has his service revolver, a Smith & Wesson Model 10, that he bought for $27.
The hours were long and sometimes lonely, but like most country boys, Buddy gained a certain sense of satisfaction and freedom from working alone and outside all day.
The most common violation was shooting doves over a baited field and out of season. Buddy ran into all kinds of things patrolling the woods up and down the Ocmulgee River. Though turkeys were rare in the state during that time and hunting them was illegal, the river bottom swamp still held a small population.
“Me and another ranger heard there were some boys down in the swamp turkey hunting so we went in there to catch them,” Buddy said. “The boys ended up running, and I managed to catch one. Brantley, the boy working with me, went to stop the other, but he raised up a shotgun. T. B. Brantley was 6-2 and weighed 260 pounds. He caught the shotgun with one hand and the boy’s collar with the other — and made him wish he hadn’t run.
“At the court house, both of these boys came up and apologized for trying to act rough. Most of the boys I met down there, even the ones I made cases against, were real good fellows. They realized I wasn’t trying to make it hard on them, but help the game. I made some really good friends while I was there.”
Buddy said his job then, just like rangers today, was to help the public better understand hunting laws. More often than not, after explaining the importance of bag limits, Buddy would receive an invitation to hunt quail or doves the next day. It was a great job for a young man who loved to hunt and fish.
“We wanted hunters to realize what conservation was all about,” Buddy said. “Most folks would shoot as many doves as they could hit, wear a shotgun out. They didn’t understand bag limits.”
Buddy once caught a hunter with way more than a limit of 12 doves. As the young warden was filling out the citation, he noticed the man holding a dove in his hand and looking it over.
“I asked him what he was studying so hard,” Buddy said. “He said he was just trying to figure out how this little old bird was going to be worth $7 or $8.”
Most of the fines for wildlife violations ran in the $10 or $20 range. If a case went to federal court, fines could be considerably more—up to $150. “Those cases really got their attention,” Buddy said.
Wardens even visited schools, giving out junior ranger badges to boys who excelled at quizzes.
In 1942, the newly elected Governor Eugene Talmadge was changing the face of Georgia politics. Buddy decided to stay well away from political battles raging across the state, resigned and moved back to Mansfield. Though his career as a game warden ended on a somewhat sour note, Buddy has fond memories of his three years of service.
Buddy, who was at the graduation ceremonies for Georgia’s newest class of rangers earlier this year, said that while the job of game warden hasn’t gotten any easier, it has certainly changed a great deal.
“Hunters out there know more about game preservation and conservation,” Buddy said. “Back then, most folks didn’t think much about saving game. The attitude was let’s kill all we can. Wildlife was just something to use. That has changed a little.
“Civilization as a whole, makes changes,” Buddy said. “People begin to realize that we were responsible for taking care of and helping the game and fish around us.”
Impressed with the quality and dedication of the graduating class, Buddy said conservation rangers today are much better trained and equipped.
“Those boys today train like they were in the Army and really know their stuff,” Buddy said.
As far as he knows, Buddy is the last living ranger from the original class that graduated in 1939. Buddy, staring out across the old cow pasture that is his front yard, said he often wonders why he has been so lucky in life, making good friends and living such a blessed life. It was comforting listening to a man, who has seen so much, express an optimism about our hunting and fishing future.
We owe the ground we have gained to men like Buddy Jones—pioneers who took to the field and made the sacrifices that ensured our hunting and fishing future.