Art Rilling: An Officer, A Gentleman And A Georgia Icon

Duncan Dobie | January 7, 2021

The outdoor and hunting world in Georgia has lost a very special friend. Art Rilling, who owned and operated the Stone Mountain Game Ranch from 1962 to 1982, and later the Yellow River Game Ranch from 1982 to 2012, passed away on Jan. 4, 2021. He was 92.

Art was a mentor and inspiration to many people across Georgia, including me.

In 1962, on a hope and a dream and little else, Art and his wife Barbara started the Stone Mountain Game Ranch inside Stone Mountain Park. A native of San Antonio, Texas, Art was transferred to Atlanta by the Marine Corps in 1956. Having grown up hunting and observing deer in the Texas brush country, Art’s dream was to own an animal park where visitors could walk around in a forest setting and have close encounters with native wildlife like tame deer. That dream came true when Stone Mountain was purchased in 1959 by the state and made into a park. The park was looking for vendors to operate businesses, and Art proposed his “game ranch” idea.

The Stone Mountain Game Ranch grew to become one of Georgia’s most popular landmarks in the 1960s and ’70s. It was the first and only animal attraction in the nation where visitors could walk on wooded trails while mingling with tame deer and other animals native to Georgia. Certain animals like buffalo, black bears and mountain lions could be observed from a distance in open enclosures. Thousands of Georgia children were greatly impacted by visits to the Game Ranch with school groups or their families during the 1960s and ’70s. Many avid hunters in Georgia got their first up-close-and-personal view of mature bucks with beautiful racks at the Game Ranch. Over the years Art also gave a number of young bucks to some of Georgia’s best taxidermists so they could study live deer and learn about muscle structure and other features.

Marine Lieutenant Art Rilling in California with his son Rusty shortly before Art was shipped to Korea.

Art was a proud United States Marine for much of his adult life. He attained the rank of full colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves after he founded the Game Ranch. He was a veteran of the Korean War and saw considerable action as a Forward Observer on the Korean front for nearly a year in 1952. Although he came home unscathed, he lived through some harrowing times and attributed his strong faith to getting him home alive.

The Game Ranch prospered in Stone Mountain Park for 20 years. In 1982, Art’s 20-year lease expired on Dec. 31, 1982, and Park officials refused to renew. Art was forced to move the entire operation—including some 600 animals—in a 30-day period from Dec. 1 to Dec. 31, 1982. The Game Ranch moved to a new 24-acre location outside Stone Mountain Park on Highway 78 and the Yellow River in Gwinnett County. Thus it became the new Yellow River Game Ranch.

During one of Art’s darkest moments in early December 1982—shortly after he found out he had only 30 days to move all of his animals, improvements and equipment—his entire hunting club of some 30 members showed up on a Saturday morning with trucks, trailers and flat beds. These dedicated friends helped him move much of his equipment including heavy animal cages, fencing and other valuable structures. Even the 100-year-old log cabin that Art had bought from a farmer near Fitzgerald was disassembled log by log and loaded onto a dump truck.

Art Riling with Bucky, a deer that was featured in GON for several years with weekly updates showing his antler growth.

Since Art had to purchase a new piece of property for the Game Ranch, zoning took several months, and all of the animals and equipment had to be “parked” at a temporary location for four months. This would have been a nightmare if numerous friends hadn’t come forward and offered to keep some of the animals. A man in Milledgeville pastured the buffalo for four months. Art never forgot the kindness and generosity of so many people during his time of need. He often said, “You can never have too many friends.”

In all, Art had to move nearly 100 deer, a small herd of buffalo, several mountain lions, numerous small mammals like coyotes, bobcats and foxes, and upwards of 100 ducks, geese and swans, not to mention a barnyard full of goats, burros, sheep, and other domestic animals. But the new Yellow River Game Ranch opened in the spring of 1983 and prospered for 30 years. Art retired in 2012 at age 84.

Art was a teacher at heart. He earned a teaching degree in San Antonio and planned to teach high school but instead was sent to Korea as a second lieutenant. During the 50 years he spent running the Game Ranch, he was in his element—constantly showing animals and teaching children to love and respect therm. Deer were his first love, but the Game Ranch featured a bear named Fuzzy that was famous for drinking Pepsi out of a can. Fuzzy lived to be 28 years old.

Art and Fuzzy the bear. Art raised Fuzzy from a tiny cub, and he was a popular attraction at the Game Ranch for decades.

One of the Yellow River Game Ranch’s most famous residents was General Beauregard Lee, the weather-predicting groundhog. Each year, on Feb. 2, the Game Ranch celebrated Groundhog Day. Journalists literally called from all over the world wanting to know if General Lee had seen his shadow. For years all of the local Atlanta TV stations covered the popular event.

Art was a pioneer in the animal business. He did what a lot of people said couldn’t be done. And he did it for nearly 50 years! He was a staunch individualist and a dedicated American patriot. I remember one time back in the ’90s when I asked a friend if he knew who Art Rilling was. “Who doesn’t know who Art Rilling is!” my friend responded.

Art was an avid deer hunter and an ardent GON reader. He became good friends with GON publisher Steve Burch in 1987 shortly after the magazine was founded. In 1989, Steve hired Daryl Kirby as a young editor and Daryl was sent out to the Game Ranch once a week in the spring and early summer to photograph and record the antler growth of a popular mature buck named Bucky. GON ran the Bucky antler-growth series for several years.

Art and I were working on a book about his amazing life with animals at the time of his death. Shortly before Christmas 2020, he fell and hit his head. He never recovered. His fondest wish was to see his book through to completion. Sadly it was not to be, but the book will be in print by early summer 2021.

Art’s book is titled, Art Rilling and His Game Ranch, Fifty Years an Atlanta Landmark. It contains dozens of photos and numerous stories about some of Art’s most memorable exploits with his beloved deer, bears, mountain lions and other animals. I’m honored to be the book’s author. If you love deer and other animals the way Art Rilling did, you’ll want to read his amazing story.

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