Birds of Nebraska: Newspaper Accounts, 1854-1923

Sandy Griswold. January 7, 1912. Omaha Sunday World-Herald 47(15): 2-S.

A Memory of a Hunters Haven on the Fabled Platte

The West hotel out at Clarks on the legendary old Platte. How the mention of that old hostelrie brings up the memories of the long ago. While it is still in existence, it is a different place than it was a quarter of a century back, much changed now from what it was when I first went out there with every recurring fall and spring.

The Old Lodge at Clarks.

What a glorious, old-fashioned hunter's resort it was, to be sure, and how sand and yet how pleasant it is to recall the days that I have spent there. As regularly as the years rolled round, spring, summer, autumn or winter, a happy and joyous lot of hunters congregated there, hunters who never dreamed of going any place else, knowing full well, as they did, of the warmth and welcome awaiting them, and of the good shooting that was always their portion there, whether on geese or ducks, chicken or quail, upland or golden plover, sicklebilled or Esquimo curlew. In those dim but beloved old days, what stories, jokes and merry hours passed around in that crude little old bar room, as the office of all country hotels were in those times designated. At night, after the day in the field or on the river or Prairie creek, how the shifting firelight flickered over the faces of those made one by that bond of sympathy that exists in its full intensity among just such men-men who had discovered that a spring or autumn day upon the wild and sprawling river, or in the broad fields forming the upland beyond, and the content in the old tavern at night, lurked the deepest joys that life could offer. How the cruel early March nor'wester would shriek around the corners of that flimsy old board structure, batting at the loose casements like ravenous wolves, wailing down the broad chimney like a soul that is lost, and moaning off, lower and lower, down the icy road leading to the frozen Platte, but only lulling its happy inmates to deeper slumber. March nor'wester or November nor'easter, was only melody to their ears. In the early hours of the morning, long before the first pearl of dawn had begun to run along the rim of the eastern horizon, the duck hunters, bundled to suffocation, almost, in woolen sweaters and canvas togs, would issue from the front door, crawl shivering into the waiting wagon, and then off down the bleak old road to the river.

Fabled Days Were They.

Ducks and geese were wondrously plentiful in those fabled old times, and it was seldom that a day's total ever failed to foot up, in that radiant old bar room at night, close to three figures.

But those incomparable old days have long since been numbered with the dearest of memories, only to be recalled in the jealousy of secret hours when the old hunter's heart beat to the tune of the long ago-when only one wish pervades his mind-a wish to once more see the old scenes in all their familiar beauty; the low sweeps of waving willows, in the __ of that ever struggling, ever striving, twisting, __ing and hoarse old river-to hear the dull roar __ the darkened air and the mellow call of the __ geese high up in the fathomless vault overhead. Vainly he may plead, the relentless tide of dead years lie between his wish and its fulfillment, for nothing is left to him but the wan specter of the past, the dim shadows of pleasures that will come no more. For such an one-the old hunter-it is only to you, oh, rolling Platte, and to you, dear old hunter's haven, with your riant lights, your laughter and your comfort and content, and all the sweet, solacing memories that cluster around you, it is to you-farewell!

Awakening Happy Memories.

Nothing revives happy memories of the past more vividly than a visit, after long years of absence, to the scenes of the days that have gone. It likewise affords an effective horological appreciation of the old Latin axiom, that "tempus fugits," and at the same time unwelcomly forces upon one the realization that he is growing older. I have been there lately, many, many times, but in my dreams only, and of course, stopped at the West hotel.

As I said before, this was the favorite stopping place of many of the hunters of auld lang syne, endeared to them by oft repeated and always happy and profitable visits in a way that few places can become endeared to one, whose facilities are so numerous and so varied. It was an unusually attractive port of refreshment and rest, and is yet today a favorite resort of the present generation of hunters of Omaha and elsewhere, who still go after ducks out on the Platte as regularly as did their fathers.

This old house was presided over for many long years by Uncle George West, after whom it was named, a whole-souled, broad-minded, generous, jolly old fellow who was known and esteemed in those times by more of the sportsmen of Nebraska, than any man within the state's boundaries.

Old Uncle George. He died a dozen years or more ago, and his death was lamented sincerely from one end of the state to the other, by the old-timers who had oft and again congregated around the cheerful blaze in his little old office, and smoked and drank and cracked their quips and told their stories of the days up or down the fretful river with the geese and ducks, or off in the briary fields and thin woods with the chicken and the quail.

Twenty-five Years Ago.

A quarter of a century ago, Clarks was the rendezvous of more well-known sportsmen than any other one place in this section of the great west, and in those romantic, old days I have idled away many golden hours there with such personages as the late lamented General George Crook, Indian fighter, sportsman, ornithologist, nature master and gentleman; with John Petty, another of the salt and these years over the divide; Judges B.E.B. Kennedy, Dundy and Ogden; Drs. George L. Miller, Gailbraith, Peabody, Richardson and Little; "Hank" Hathaway, John Collins, George A. Hoagland, Henry Homan, Captain Ray, Johnny Hardin, Captain and Billy Townsend, H.A. Penrose, J.M. Gillan, Myron Learned, Skip Dundy, George Small, Eddie George, Ray Welch, Will Pixley, Wilber Fawcett, George Tzschuck, John Weaver, Bill Simeral, Tom Foley, George Scribner, Fred Blake and scores and scores of others whose names just now evade me. Such days of sport, such scenes of exhilaration, such camaraderie, will they ever be known again, ever dawn upon the strained vision save as the images of mournful phantasmagoria?

In the earlier years when I used to go out there Sam Richmond was a chubby, chunk of a country urchin in knickerbockers, and Charlie Hoyt was the king goose and duck hunter of that roaring old river.

How I used to hang on the words of a Crook, a Petty or a Kennedy, as at night, after a hard day on the wintry river, we clustered about the old cannon stove, glowing red, with the fire that Uncle George kept roaring within, as they related with thrilling graphicness, the scenes of the old buffalo days on our broad plains, and told of the countless flocks of wild turkey that used to roam the woods along the Missouri's wooded bottom, and the millions and millions of geese and ducks that used to fill the morning and evening sky. But these, like old Uncle George, and many of the others whose names are noted above, being strictly to the mists of the past.

The wild buffalo and the wild turkey have not only been literally extirpated in this state, but are known no more in any region, however remote, on the face of the known globe. And the woodcock, too, matchless bird that it was, and which Petty was always so fond of telling about, is as extinct as the wild turkey, so far as Nebraska goes. It is a bird, just like the turkey, known to the younger generation of local sportsmen only from what they have heard from the old timers, and what they read, and I am confident that there is not one among them who would not walk further and work harder to bag one of these mysterious longbills, than he would to kill a dozen quail or a brace of fat old mallards. To hear Petty tell of his early experiences with the woodcock round about Omaha was enough to send the blood tingling through my veins and take me back to my own boyhood days in the good old Buckeye state.

I have had prime cock shooting on the tangly lowlands west of Lancaster, and also about Hall's on the sweeping Kankakee, and yet old John would hold me enrapt for hours in the warp and woof of his wonderous stories.

Old John's Early Gunning.

Before the pure white of the blood root illuminated the sodden leaves-almost before the purling note of that dearest of all the dear harbingers of the lovely spring time, the blue-bird, or the oom-oom-boom-oom! of the prairie chicken sounded again from the distant knoll, John said he used to roam with his pointer along the southern slopes, near the spring runs and open bogs, down below the ancient hamlet of Bellevue, not to meet the woodcock, with his roaring muzzle-loader on his return from the south, but to make sure that he had arrived and would be ready for the gun when the hot days of July came around. Where the racemes of the squirrel-brush lit up the leafless thickets, what a thrill those little holes made by the woodcock's long bill sent through the hunter's soul. How often he hunted, he used to tell us, day by day, to find the bird that made them, and again visited the scene in the evening, and hear him sing his only song of love and spring time, and when the snowy involucre of the wild crabapple tree lit up the darkening woods, and the liquid tones of the brown thrush would make the fall of the night so sweet, long would old John linger about the spot of the woodcock's tryst. But that is another story, as Kipling would say.

The Call of the Wild Geese.

And then out at the old West house, how we used to stop our stories short in he middle, while gathered around the hot stove, as the faint honk, auh-unh! of the wild goose came falling from the dark sky from some voyaging flock! It would come faintly to our ears and we would listen intently till nothing further came to us but the whining wind around the gables. And then more stories, and then to bed, to sleep and dream of the coming morrow.

Interesting beyond all others was the early hour of daybreaking, before the light paled the lustre of the morning star, when the east began to warm into vague hints of the coming day, when out at Clark's we were up and on the way to the shooting grounds.

On the River in the Early Morn.

What a weird, wondrous stillness seemed to be resting along the ice-fettered river and over the nude willows, when we reached the shore. The faint winds of night had all stolen away, and left absolute quiet behind. A world of barren shadows. Everything was moveless and fathomless, and dark the immensity of the over arching heavens. Vibrating through the cold, trenchant air, however, there came the low merigenous murmur of the rushing waters beneath the ice, imbuing the atmosphere with some inexplicable power of canny whisper, until the sharp quack of a keen-eyed mallard, drifting athwart the black skies, would bring us to life and action.

Black Storms of March.

When one of those black March storms come stalking onto us in the early spring, there were few so hardy and indurated but who longed to be back in that little cozy old hotel office with its, to us, fragrant coal oil lamps and flaming cannon stove. In the evening, sometimes in the glow of the dying day the storm would come rolling across, swiftly blotting out all color, hurrying us across the icy expanse, dragging our lines of dead geese and ducks, into the willow thicket and straw-filled wagon, and back through the black night, home-the West hotel. Along in the later hours the shrieking winds around the house would wake us, hurtling against the window panes with the force of chilled shot. But what cared we for this wild, fierce raving of the weather-a moment's listening, then over we rolled, to sleep and dream again.

Then came the morning faint and gray, with the air full of flying scud, and a chill that reached the marrow of one's bones. But we would go down to the river, weather or no weather, and find it one illimitable waste of neutral-tinted vapor. Overhead the voice of the stubborn storm would come the querulous cries of countless ducks and geese, eddying and tossing high in the gale, or huddled wherever they could find shelter under towhead of shelving shore. We all knew, we old timers, that is was going to be a great morning for the birds. There was an unwritten law among we hardened river haunters that told us this. At the falling off of such a storm there were almost sure to be legions of distraught wild fowl flying up and down, across and back again, over that savage river.

When You Want to Sleep.

There is one delusion which is familiar to all duck hunters, pristine and modern-that is the incomprehensibly short space of time between going to bed at night at a shooting lodge and the rout out in the morning. We sometimes were willing to swear we had not been asleep fifteen minutes, measured by the time dial of our discontent.

"Git up, old man! It's time we were on the river now!"

And will you believe it? Old Hoyt never had o sound his summons the second time. In a jiffy we were into our lugs, and down in the old barroom where we would be greeted by the crackling of the driftwood in the big cannon stove, and the aroma of coffee and bacon floating in from the kitchen.

If the outer door happened to be opened but a moment, the cry of distant geese was heard, and in another hour we were, cold and shivering, on the river. Darkness still veiled the earth when the decoys were all out with heads upwind. The scanty brush blind rearranged from the tousling the night wind had given it, and then a wait till it was light enough to shoot.

Cries in the Dark.

From what portion of the heavens came that low, guttural fall, faint and far away, but growing nearer and nearer, though impenetrable to our overtaxed vision? Lucky geese-they passed us close enough to hear the wiff, wiff, wiff, of their strong wings, hidden by the sheltering dark before dawn.

Soon another thrilling chorus trembled waveringly upon our hearing, and crouching low-old Charlie calling all the time-we waited. Again and again came an answer to the grizzled old ducker's persuasive call, coming closer and closer, until from out the dim air rushed a splendid flock of Canadas, and dropping their black legs, with low curved pinions, they prepared to light among the decoys.

And then-

The Coming of the Day.

Now the warm light was reddening the eastern sky. A great shaft of rose-tinted vapor, like a halo from the brow of Helios, shot up toward the zenith. Across the gray expanse of hillocky ice and snow slanted silvery rays, and when we looked again the distant sandhills were no longer murky splotches and the morning broke.

What happened? Ask the wailing winds of winter, they were there then the same as they are today, and for all we know carried all tidings of our doing's into the unrecallable beyond.

But we wouldn't quit-only with the evening's twilight, and then with other burdens than those with which we were freighted in the morning, in happiness we made our way back to the warmth and comfort, and the thousands of good things that awaited us, always under Uncle George's hospitable roof.

Home in the Twilight.

As we jogged along, in contented silence up the old willow bordered road, a sable crow or two would flap his silent way to roost across the now blue vault above, and chilling and sadly came the yipping of the coyote along the darkening valley from the hillside beyond. The storm had vanished with the day, and as we climbed the low hill sloping down to the river, we could see a glimmer along its ragged surface, pink and topaz, from the reflected sunlight against the light lace work of clouds still sweeping in broken columns across the heavens above. Far down the lonely valley the low woods lay darkly blue, while the higher points of the rolling shores long held a lingering tinge, crimsoned from the sunken sun, as if unwilling to give up the day.

How magic is the old gunner's memory of the good old times at West's and on the Platte. How sweetly tingling the tale of another's hunting experiences, and how strangely potent to renew the recollections of one's own days on river and marsh. And then, too, it is the one failing charm of advancing years, that in such reminiscent photographs, one may, in fond fancy, see again, the savage river and the low, thin willow woods, the dreary groups of islands and towheads, the laughing and scowling skies, and the camaraderie of those halcyon days and nights out with Uncle George, in that old frame port, facing that little street in Clarks, on the ever plaintive and complaining Platte!