Most every year for the last 15 or so, my friend, Butch Beier, and I make the drive north to Little Falls, Minnesota, to hunt at LeBlanc’s Rice Creek shooting preserve. Butch, his brothers, and their dad, Mel, were originally from that neck of the woods, but over east on the Iron Range in Grand Rapids. They go way back with the LeBlanc brothers, who started the Rice Creek operation in 1984, at which time many of the Beier clan kicked in as life members. Now they have a tradition of meeting there in the fall to hunt pheasants and ducks.
Last Halloween week was a special one, not just an annual get-together, but also the occasion of Grandpa Mel’s 90th birthday. Mel has had a few health issues lately, but is not only back on his feet and going strong, he is also back in the drivers seat. In fact, he drove his own van down to Little Falls from Grand Rapids.
On the Monday of Halloween week myself, Butch and his son Tim, and Butch’s brother Jerry and son Troy drove up from Winona to LeBlancs where we met Mel and another son, Gordie, with his three boys, Andy, Jim, and Jeremy. We broke into two groups of five, Mel and the Grand Rapids bunch in one, the Winona contingent in the other.
Over the years the Leblancs shooting preserve has grown and evolved into the best game farm operation I have ever seen. They have 1,700 acres divided into some eighteen different areas, each well defined and separate from the others. Leblancs can handle many people and many groups at once without losing any of the sense of hunting wild birds in natural conditions. I have never seen pheasants there that didn’t fly as strongly as wild ones, nor have I ever seen one run down by dogs, as you do at poorly run game farms with inferior stock. Typically at LeBlancs, groups of inexperienced shooters don’t bring back many birds.
That evening a game feast was served in honor of Mel’s 90th birthday, wonderful dishes of pheasant and duck in country gravy, served home style with mashed potatoes, corn, biscuits, stuffing, cole slaw, and yet more that I can’t even remember. Many a toast went round for the patriarch, and before long voices were raised in song, for Mel had provided the table with a case or two of Mogen David sweet Concord grape wine. It was obviously an old family tradition, as the brothers all chimed in:
“Poor Jack the lonely Cowboy,
with heart so brave and true,
He learned to love a maiden,
with eyes of heaven’s own blue...”
“My father, he’s a drunkard,
My mother she is dead,
and I am but a poor orphan child,
No place to lay my head.”
And for the grand finale, “That silver-haired daddy of mine” was sung in lugubrious tones of infinite regret, ending,
“I’d give all I own, if I could but atone
To that silver-haired daddy of mine .”
Mel beamed at this last, and then launched into stories of his youth among bootleggers and gangsters out on the South Dakota border where Canadian whiskey made its way south to assuage the suffering of Americans put under the cruel dry thumb of Prohibition. At one point, in a particularly bloodcurdling yarn, he barely missed a shootout between federal agents and bootleggers, all armed with the deadly Colt .32 automatic. Finally conversation died out among the older members of the party, who toddled off to bed, tonsils by now well candied with Mogen David wine.
Next morning the dawn came early, especially for some who stayed later at the party than others. We divided again into groups of five, but this time Mel was with the Winona contingent. It was barely out of the 20’s, and he said that he would be happy to watch the adventure from his van, driving down to the ends of the fields as we pushed the birds out.
Just about noon, the weather now bright and balmy, a last rooster got out wild, cackling and making a getaway up into the sun, out of range of either drivers or posters. Not so fast, buster – and “bang” went the old exposed hammer Winchester model 96, purchased for $37 in 1937. Mel, who had warmed up and gotten out of his van, accounted for one more rooster at age 90.