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Illinois hunting and fishing

An amazing hunting history

December 07, 2008 at 03:24 AM

Order the book

Click here to order "The Shadow of a Gun" for $28.84.

The hardest thing to reconcile about Henry Clay Merritt’s 1904 book “The Shadow of a Gun” is that the author is actually writing about Illinois.

“Henry County, in the Valley of the Mississippi, has held more game than any land of its size in the world,” Merritt writes. “If the myriads that have possessed it should lift up their wings like the cherubim in Ezekiel, the thunders of their voices would drown Niagara.”

Flowery, yes. But still amazing.

Or consider this discussion Illinois hunting and fishingof the abundance of prairie chickens: “In one instance in Stark County on a cold day in early winter I have seen acres covered with the birds, as thickly as they could sit.”

Seeing that many wild birds is hard to imagine. That’s one reason I found Merritt’s book so intriguing and recommend it as a gift if there’s a hunter in your house who enjoys reading. “The Shadow of a Gun” is a well-written account of market hunting in the late 1800s, much of which centers around Kewanee.

Until recently, the book was a cult classic — with only 14 copies known, including one at the Kewanee Public Library. That a reprint is now readily available is thanks to Henry M. Reeves, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist from Amity, Ore. While working on a book about market hunting, Reeves located a copy of Merritt’s book at a library in San Francisco.

“It was in a locked vault and they would not loan it out,” Reeves said. “This book is among the rarest of the rare. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story but it’s not very well-known.”

Eventually, though, Reeves obtained Illinois hunting and fishingmicrofilm printouts of the original. Those were put together in book form by Kessinger Publishing of Whitefish, Mont. The resulting 450-page soft-cover edition includes an amazing history of Illinois’ former bounty of gamebirds.

It’s a sobering history. In less than 200 years of “progress” that bounty has all but disappeared. Actually, by 1873 Merritt said game populations in Henry County had already started declining thanks to the advancement of agriculture — and no doubt somewhat to his gunning prowess.

Imagine the shock he’d be in for if he came back to view the landscape of today.

A few months ago I mentioned “The Shadow of a Gun” in print, eliciting a call from someone named Pee Wee who claimed to have the author’s original copy.

I was dubious until arriving at the Toulon home of Meredith “Pee Wee” Duncan, who unveiled a well-worn copy complete with Merritt’s hand-written notes about typographical errors in the first edition.

Illinois hunting and fishing

Duncan said he inherited the book from his mother, whose third husband was a grandson of Merritt. Duncan also has a large wooden chest he said Merritt used to haul guns and ammunition.

That Duncan is part of this story is fitting, since Pee Wee is a tall tale himself. He explains his nickname simply. “If you were given the name Meredith, wouldn’t you rather go by Pee Wee?”

Younger looking than his 73 years, Duncan has just one leg, but you’d never guess that by the way he gets around in his cowboy boots. “He can hunt and fish and do just about everything but dance,” said his wife, Mary Duncan.

Yet even Pee Wee shakes his head at the stories in Merritt’s book.

“It’s amazing to think you could ever go out and get that many birds around here,” Duncan said.

Merritt did. And got rich doing it. In one hunt he and a partner shot 800 woodcocks, some of which sold for $1.25 per pair. In addition to woodcock, Merrit shipped plover, snipe, prairie chickens, quail and other gamebirds all over the country and was among the first to use refrigerated shipping for his birds.

When he died in 1907 his estate was valued at between $225,000 to $250,000 and his death merited headlines in the Kewanee Daily Star-Courier.

Merritt’s market hunting makes up the first part of his book. Part two is an entertaining and informative look at gamebirds of the Midwest. Part three traces the evolution of the gun, much of which I skipped.

Throughout the book Merritt writes well in describing an era none of us will ever experience. And while he made a career out of hunting, he understood his good fortune to make money in such a way — a sentiment I share.

Writes Merritt, “Hunting was looked upon as so much of a pleasure that the immense toil and labor endured was not counted.”




Your CommentsComments :: Terms :: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Interesting piece Jeff. I am from Henry county. I remember stories from my grandfather and some of his friends talking about years ago about all the rabbits there were. I myself can remember the great Pheasant hunting years in the late 70’s and early 80’s in both henry and stark counties. It would be nothing to see 50-75 birds fly up all at once. Them days are gone. It was easy to get your daily limits back then. Now your lucky to see a pheasant. This books looks like a good Christmas gift for a special sportsman, I think I might get it for myself.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/07 at 07:23 PM

I too am from Henry county, and sorry to say there are a few phesants although far and few between, and if your lucky one may see a quail once in a while but forget about the praire chickens! I agree with GA79 as I remember quail hunting with my father in the early 70s there were several around then. But in the name of “progress” the farmers have all but eliminated the habitat for these birds, just last week another headge row went up in smoke. It’s sad to think my 3 year old son wont get to experiance the thrill of flushing quail or phesants. I can only imagine what the deer hunting will be like when he’s old enough.Thanks for the info Jeff going to have to read it!!

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/08 at 11:47 AM

I have a IL 1916 hunting license and on the back of the license it has the daily limit: BW Quail-12; Prairie Chickens-3; Squirrels:15, Snipes& Plovers:15; Doves:10; Pheasants:2; Ducks:15; Geese: 10, Rabbits: No limit - They had some great hunting back then. Today, how many hunters have seen a Prairie Chicken, Snipes& or Plovers.
PS - Hunting License was $1.00 in 1916

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/08 at 03:15 PM

very interesting story. I am from henry county also and I never knew this book or man even existed. I have been hunting in henry county my whole life and its amazing the kind of history that is out there. My dad and alot of other old timers tell stories about the 70s and how many pheasants and other gamebirds there used to be. I wish it was still like that now. its hard anymore to go out and flush up a bird unless you have some well managed CRP ground and sometimes you still won’t find them there. I think I will ask for that book for christmas it sounds like a very good read. thanks. dustin

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 12/11 at 06:55 PM

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