When we lived in New York City, my dad belonged to a competitive indoor pistol range where he shot at least once a week. He also was a member of the Chesapeake Gun Club, where he did a lot of duck hunting in the bay area. But his favorite was deer hunting, and each year he and his buddies packed off to Willow just six miles from Woodstock. They stayed in a house across from the original post office near the bridge. It was owned by a woman named Ella Wilber, a tall, strong farm lady, who milked her own cows and sold fresh milk to the locals. She took in boarders in what we’d now call a bed-and-breakfast. But Ella did not stop at breakfast; she made three meals a day. She gave her hunter guests what my dad called a “hearty hunter lunch” to carry with them into the forest. This so-called lunch consisted of two huge ham sandwiches (from her own pigs) on her homemade bread, with sauce made from her own garden horseradish along with two apples, which were kept in what was called a root cellar (built into the bank next to her backdoor). This cavern kept everything cold enough without freezing. Dessert was raisin or oatmeal cookies; no chocolate chips in Ella’s pantry. She told her enthusiastic city slickers, “I want you to have enough to eat, so when you get lost in the woods, you will be ok until we come and find you.”
Any lucky hunter was afforded a venison steak dinner, which my dad called “chicken fried.” The meat was breaded and cooked in a heavy black iron fry pan called a “spider.” It was fried in bacon fat that was collected and stored in an old coffee can, which was a permanent fixture on Ella’s stove, dispensed with a wooden spoon, the end of which was wrapped in a piece of cloth. My dad gave it rave reviews. It was a dish my mom was never able to duplicate, although she tried. Maybe that was because she refused to keep an old can with bacon fat on her stove. I think what she used was called Crisco. You know how those high-heel wearing, city-slicker New York City women are— no old bacon drippings for her.
My dad was a good hunter and would bring home his quarry in the form of roasts wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. And of course there were the antlers, some of which still adorn the walls of my garage.
Eventually we moved permanently upstate. Each fall our house would fill up with my dad’s hunting buddies, who came equipped with the latest of gear, state-of-the-art rifles and enough stories to fill our house with laughter late into the night. Most were serious hunters, but there were those who were just there for the camaraderie. They were the ones who returned from the hunt early in the day to help my mother cook for the gang. They all brought great gifts for me and my siblings. The one who stands out in my mind was Jimmy, an ardent comic book reader. He would bring us stacks of the latest editions. Oh, if we had only known! I am sure if we had kept them they would now be easily traded for the most expensive deer rifle.
With all the excitement of the season, my dad took his responsibility very seriously. He had strict rules which he reinforced every year in what he called a hunter’s muster. It was a serious discussion of how each hunter was to act, safety utmost, with a daily plan— plan the hunt, hunt the plan. He would review the guidelines every year without fail. One rule that stands out in my mind— “Do not put your finger on the trigger before you ask yourself, ‘Is that a deer with antlers, and what is behind him?’” This, of course, was before doe permits.
Too young to have a license, I was the designated guide. My dad handed out the assignments the night before, and it was my charge to take the huntsmen to one of several key places, like the buckwheat field, Tate’s swamp, the corduroy bridge or the Tremper trail. These areas had been scouted out by my dad on his many hikes, watching for game trails which could prove successful.
I had an uncle who came from Massachusetts every year. He had great determination, but day after day, he swore he never saw a thing. My father decided to send me with him. We were near a stone wall, I was looking downhill, he looking up. He tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “Bobby, turn around.” He could have touched that deer with his rifle. We knew he had thick glasses, but never guessed he was near-blind. He never saw that doe until it was right in front of him. I was probably ten at the time, but I knew how much he wanted to shoot a deer, so on impulse, I said, “Shoot it, Uncle Stanley.” He hesitated, and I said it again. Suddenly he emptied his rifle, as this bewildered doe bounced safely off into the woods. I can’t imagine what we would have done if he had killed it. We could not have taken it home. My dad would have sent Uncle Stanley packing and I am sure my punishment would have been severe. It was our special secret for many years and a fond memory of an uncle whom I dearly loved.
Saugerties had several sporting goods stores that served as a places for hunters to congregate, sharing their hunting stories and often imbibing a few adult beverages. Longtime resident Carl Sperl told me about coming into town on Friday nights with his family. While his mother went to the A&P grocery on Main St., he and his dad went to Lang’s Sports down the street. While the large chain sporting goods stores have squeezed out many small-town shops, hunting is alive and well in our area.
Saugerties has indeed always been a hunting town; consider the three gun clubs in a six-mile radius. Saugerties Fish and Game Club alone has 500 members and a waiting list. The club hosts hunter safety classes for licensing would-be hunters, always filled to capacity. It sends two youngsters each year to Camp Debruce, where they learn conservation and survival skills; donates to the local food pantry; sponsors a fishing derby for youngsters at Blue Mountain Reservoir; and has an expansive range for pistol, rifle, shotgun and bow. An addition was recently added to the clubhouse to accommodate larger groups. The club hosts well attended dinners several times a year. Hunting is alive and well in this area; I am proud to be a member of this group of sportsmen.
I was raised in a hunting family and I am grateful for the experience.
Barbara Buono’s column appears monthly.