March/April 2019Henry Edwards Davisby Jim Casada
A treasured turkey hunting book written by Pee Dee legend Henry E. Davis lives on through a local collector.
Ask anyone reasonably familiar with the history and literature of turkey hunting about notable authors and authorities in the field, and the name most likely to be mentioned is Henry Edwards Davis. His book, The American Wild Turkey, published seventy years ago, remains the cornerstone of any significant collection devoted to the sport, as well as a source of information and inspiration to turkey hunters at all levels of skill and experience. Gracefully written, distinguished by the author’s deep knowledge, and comprehensive in coverage, the volume must be considered a masterpiece of its genre. It is a classic in every sense of the word, knowledgeable as only a volume produced by a man with a lifetime of turkey-hunting experience could be, a pure joy to read and a veritable gold mine of information.
Davis was born and raised in South Carolina’s Pee Dee region, and that area encompassed the vast majority of his hunting experiences. Florence, the city he called home as an adult, has changed dramatically over the decades, and doubtless this old master of the turkey hunting world would take pride in its gourmet downtown restaurant options and diverse cultural offerings. Similarly, this quintessential outdoorsman would be delighted by today’s canoe and kayak trails in the surrounding countryside, the wild wonders of Francis Marion National Forest, and the wilderness-like nature still characterizing his favorite stomping grounds, the Great Pee Dee River drainage. Add thriving Francis Marion University, where his papers are housed, and a vibrant religious community (Davis was affectionately known as “Mr. Presbyterian”), and one has to reckon this once widely known and deeply respected lawyer and judge would be pleased.
Yet today, outside of select turkey-hunting circles, a great South Carolinian and genteel sportsman/citizen for all seasons is largely forgotten. The 2010 publication of A Southern Sportsman: The Hunting Memoirs of Henry Edwards Davis (edited by Ben Moise) did take some welcome and needed steps in resurrecting his legacy. Likewise, over the past quarter century or so, thanks to publicity associated with the sale of some of his handcrafted turkey calls and other memorabilia associated with his life as a sportsman, Davis has garnered at least a small measure of his rightful recognition as a turkey hunting icon.
Although his book on the sport will always be the distinguishing feature of his career, another significant aspect of Davis’ contributions to the world of turkey hunting focuses on his considerable abilities as a craftsman. In his leisure hours, Davis made fine furniture, undertook a fair amount of gunsmithing and gun making, designed special tools for his work with firearms, made his own telescopic gun sights, and crafted turkey calls in which function followed form in exemplary fashion. A trumpet yelper he made and personally used, along with an octagonal shaped wooden case he made to carry and protect it, possibly fetched the highest price ever paid for a turkey call. Legendary North Carolina hunter Parker Whedon, who knew and corresponded with Davis, and later acquired the yelper. A decade or so ago, an avid collector purchased the call for some $55,000. That is quite possibly the largest sum ever paid for any single item of turkey-hunting memorabilia.
The Story of the American Wild Turkey
An intriguing history along with a bit of mystery underlies the publication of The American Wild Turkey. A noted Palmetto publisher, Thomas G. Samworth, originally commissioned state Poet Laureate and noted turkey hunter Archibald Rutledge to write the book. However, when Rutledge delivered the completed manuscript, it did not meet Samworth’s expectations. Rather than being a detailed, original work, it was apparently a compilation of previously published stories. In his crusty fashion, Samworth rejected it, and at that juncture turned to Davis. It proved a most felicitous choice.
The original edition of the book is now a treasured collector’s item. Nice copies with the dust jacket intact regularly fetch prices in the low four-figure range, and signed copies are true treasures for sporting bibliophiles.
Henry Edwards Davis was born on October 4, 1879, in the small crossroads town of Gourdin in Williamsburg County, South Carolina. He was educated at Presbyterian College, graduating in 1902 with highest honors, and straightaway entered the University of South Carolina Law School, where he again proved to be a student of exceptional ability. As a newlywed and newly minted lawyer, Davis settled in Florence, and for the six decades from that point forward until his death he was qualified to practice law in all South Carolina state and federal courts, in the Fourth Federal Judicial District, and before the U.S. Supreme Court. In short, he was an eminent and eminently qualified lawyer, and that would be his life’s vocation.
Davis and his wife settled in Florence and made it their home for the rest of their lives. A man who worked and hunted hard, Davis made a lifelong practice of waking up before dawn and retiring shortly after dark. He brought painstaking care to everything he did. Like many devoted sportsmen, Davis treasured fine guns and enjoyed both trading and tinkering with them. Among the guns in his collection at one time or another were classic British shotguns from the likes of Purdey, W. & C. Scott, and Greener. These were tools of his turkey-hunting trade, but he also hunted a lot with rifles. This was a time when rimfires for turkeys were not only legal; they were in the eyes of many the weapon of choice for the wild turkey.
As a craftsman and in his other leisure-time pursuits, Davis was a perfectionist. A “salt of the earth” sort who was never given to airs and was never happier than when communing with nature, he raised prizewinning dahlias and was noted for his ability to graft camellias. Those were pursuits which could be enjoyed in the odd half hour he had to spare here and there, but once his daughters were grown and his economic circumstances more comfortable, Davis began to put his lifetime of accumulated wisdom about turkeys to good literary use. He contributed articles on the subject to national magazines, most notably the National Rifle Association’s house publication, The American Rifleman, and wrote the aforementioned landmark book.
The American Wild Turkey is everything a sporting book should be, with exquisite artwork from Walter Weber and Ned Smith, along with vintage photographs. It is its narrative content, however, that makes the volume of lasting importance. In the course of more than three hundred information-packed pages, Davis touches on just about every aspect of turkey hunting. Given today’s fascination with custom callmaking, his efforts in that regard deserve special attention. Davis devotes Chapter 11 to “Calls and Callers,” and in it he includes “recipes,” replete with details and/or exact measurements, for his favorite instruments of turkey seduction — what he described as “a box and slate caller” (scratch box), Gibson-style box call and trumpet yelper. These were his go-to calls when afield, and Davis made and tuned them on his own. He even went so far as to replace the scratch box’s sounding board, worn out from hard use, numerous times over the years.
Working with his detailed instructions, which not only involve precise measurements but suggestions on types of woods and other materials, it is possible to walk in the callmaking footsteps of this master craftsman half a century after his passing. To do so, or to accompany him vicariously on a hunt in his Pee Dee stomping grounds, is to interact with a man of many facets and someone who lived a life of enviable fullness. Turkeys, turkey calls and turkey hunting were integral parts of that fullness. Every sportsman who loves what Davis often styled “the great American bird” owes him an incalculable debt. He left the sport far richer, and to follow his guidance in crafting a call or his wisdom in working a lordly longbeard is to sample and savor turkey-hunting wonder.
A Collectible Book, a Treasured Memory
Henry Edwards Davis may not be as well-known as other South Carolina outdoors writers such as Archibald Rutledge or even Havilah Babcock, but serious turkey hunters will recognize this Williamsburg County native’s name for his 1949 masterwork, The American Wild Turkey. Although the man likely was already a local legend around the Pee Dee region, his book set him apart as an authority on all things turkey.
Davis’ work has lived on through outdoor enthusiasts such as Charlie Davis (no relation) of Columbia. Charlie is the lucky recipient of a first edition of The American Wild Turkey, one handed down to him from a great uncle, George Hyman. Although Charlie’s copy no longer sports the colorful dust jacket, it features an inscription from the author himself.
Davis was not known to sign many of the books, according to Jim Casada, freelance writer and turkey hunting expert from Rock Hill. To make this inscription more important, it is dated January 1949 — marking this as an early first edition.
Finally, to add an exclamation point to this story, there is a paragraph about Charlie’s Uncle George Hyman in the text as he was on a turkey hunting adventure with the author.
“On another occasion, George Hyman and I went to a turkey roost before daylight and took up stations about a quarter of a mile apart.” The story goes on to describe yelping sounds that Davis mistook for a signal from Hyman, but as he answered, he was surprised when a mature gobbler flushed from the brush, just out of shotgun range.
— Joey Frazier, SCW editor