As a boy growing up in the 1940s, Tom Lester and his father often quail hunted the back roads around their farm in southern Mississippi. “We’d load up our bird dogs in their boxes in the back of our truck and let them out as we drove along,” Lester recalls. “There was lots of quail back then.”
Those days are long gone. Since the 1960s, urban sprawl, development and other land changes have significantly reduced quail habitat and, consequently, quail numbers.
“Quail hunting in Mississippi is not what it used to be,” laments the native Mississippian, who years ago starred as Eb Dawson in the TV comedy, Green Acres, and now runs his family’s farm.
Whenever he can, though, Lester heads north to Holly Springs and relives those bygone days at Galena Plantation, where quail hunters ride on mule-drawn wagons and gather for country-style meals. On the 7,500-acre operation, W.O. “Bill” and Joan Fitch — longtime customers with the Land Bank of North Mississippi — work hard to preserve both history and habitat.
The farm started with a section of land that Bill inherited in the 1970s. Gradually, he bought and added more property as he could. Along the way, he purchased several antebellum homes and moved them to his farm for restoration. In 1996, he started Galena Plantation — which includes a portion of the original estate, once one of the region’s largest — as a hunting destination.
It’s Not All About Wildlife
Today, the plantation and Fitch Farms together have branched out into numerous endeavors. “In this day and age, no matter what you do, you have to be diversified,” says Bill, a retired lender. “We have hay, timberland and 900 head of cattle, plus our quail, turkey and deer hunts. We also have buffalo, horses, mules and bird dogs.” In addition, Fitch Farms grows all of its own vegetables.
“…If you miss, it’s just terrible. Because then everyone ribs you. But still, it’s a lot of fun.” — Tom Lester, former Green Acres television star, commenting on hunts at Galena Plantation
Heavily dependent on the land, the Fitches take extra care to properly manage it. In the past 20 years or so, they’ve worked hard to restore native wildlife and heal areas eroded by row-crop farming. Prescribed burns occur on three-year cycles.
“Bill and I are both preservationists,” Joan explains. “We’re always looking to see what we need to do. It’s been a labor of love. We believe in taking care of what you have. Everything we do here is not haphazard, but is to fulfill a preservation goal. The soil is very fragile, so we terraced many areas to stop erosion. And any time we see a hole or gully, we put in a bale of hay to keep the soil in place. It’s amazing how the land will heal when you help it.”
Native birds, when encouraged, will return, too.
In many ways, the Fitches also preserve old-fashioned living and hunting. Guests who book a quail hunt may opt to stay overnight in a historic cabin and enjoy home-cooked meals. A one-day hunt typically starts with a sumptuous supper, served in the restored commissary.
“Everything’s fresh off the farm,” says Joan, who does most of the cooking. “We might offer a dish like quail served over dressing with a Grand Marnier sauce. For dessert — bread pudding with a whiskey sauce.” Joan and her staff also preserve many of the farm’s vegetables, which stock a long wall of shelves in the kitchen.
After a hearty breakfast the next morning, guides escort hunters to a trap range for some target practice. Then everyone piles into a mule-drawn wagon, loaded in back with caged bird dogs, all eager to flush quail, both wild and pen-released. After hunting, guests head back to the commissary for a noon feast. A sample menu might feature fried chicken, creamed corn, purple-hull peas, fresh okra and fried cornbread, topped off with buttermilk pie.
Next to historic buildings and their beautiful land, Bill adores his bird dogs. “For years and years, I ran bird dogs on the national circuit,” he says. “Nowadays, we buy puppies and let our trainers finish them.”
Both Fitch and his wife help support the Bird Dog Museum in Grand Junction, Tenn., and annually host a number of bird dog events, including the National Championship Hunt and the Fitch Farms-Galena Plantation Open All-Age Field Trial and Derby. “Many Holly Springs residents turn out for the trials,” Joan says. “It’s a lot of fun.”
That’s what Tom Lester will say he enjoys most at Galena Plantation: the old-fashioned fun.
“There’s about six or eight guys on a wagon when we go out on a hunt,” he says. “We tell jokes and laugh as we ride through the woods. Then the guide turns out two dogs, and two hunters get out to hunt. If you miss, it’s just terrible. Because then everyone ribs you. But still, it’s a lot of fun.”
– Sheryl Smith-Rodgers
“Twenty years ago, we had no turkey on this land,” Joan says. “Then we released a pair. Since then, because of what we’ve done, like plant 250 acres of food plots, we have them everywhere. State game officials have even taken our turkeys to stock other places.”
Antebellum Buildings Preserved
When it comes to historic preservation, the Fitches are just as passionate. Over the years, they have moved five Civil-War-era buildings, including the log home of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, onto their farm. During restoration, the Fitches paid close attention to details, such as making sure every hand-hewn log and brick was meticulously returned to its original setting.
“After World War II, so many historic houses were destroyed,” Bill says. “We didn’t want to lose any more.” In the past, the couple also has advised local residents on restoration techniques. They even restored an old Baptist church and then gave it back to the congregation.
“Bill and Joan are so interested in this area’s history, and they try to be true to the past regarding the old structures,” says Joe Hill, vice president of the Land Bank of North Mississippi. “We are fortunate to have people like them, who not only have the vision to preserve and refurbish historic structures but to offer their advice and encouragement to others who want to save and protect them, too.”