A Brief History: Union Springs, Field Trial Capital

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Bobwhites and bird dogs put this community in Alabama’s famed Black Belt on the map then and now 

By Tom Carpenter

Pulling into Union Springs, you can’t help but recognize the influence of bobwhite quail and bird dogs on this Bullock County community in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt.

A full building-side mural commemorates the area’s storied history. Traffic must swing around a bird dog statue that sits smack-dab in the middle of the town square, declaring Union Springs and surrounding Bullock County as the Field Trial Capital of the World. A group of hunters taking a break from the field doesn’t draw second glances at all while wandering the neat, relaxed and vibrant little downtown on a sunny, late-winter afternoon.

Bird dog statue, town square If you’re a quail hunter and bird dog lover, Union Springs is the kind of place that makes you feel right at home and in your element.

A group of Quail Forever employees, sponsors and supporters had descended on this magical corner of the world to experience said quail and bird dogs, along with the habitat work going on, and we were taking that break from hunting at Amber Anderson’s delightful FPH Bakery. There, we had the pleasure of hearing three local historians – Misters Tony Gibson, Joe Varner and Rueben Richardson –tell tales of Bullock County in its field trail heyday.

Amber Anderson and the crew at FPH, also known as French Press. “Here, bird hunting is quail hunting,” said Varner. “All three of us grew up quail hunting. November 22, the traditional quail season opener, was a free-for-all, and the center of the year.”

“I am a third-generation participant in the Sedgefields Stakes Field Trial,” said Varner. “We’re very proud of our quail hunting tradition here in Bullock County. Field trialing started in the 1870s, and continued strong up through the 1960s. The very first Bullock County field trial was held on the Banks Brothers Plantation.”

Field trial, Bullock County Currently, a revitalization of the local quail habitat is underway, thanks to intensive management by local plantations. In addition, two new Quail Forever chapters started up during our trip.

“‘One of the big events that really put Union Springs on the field trial map was when Mr. Lewis B. Maytag, of the famous company with the same name, first came to Bullock County in 1923,” says Varner. Maytag also later owned American Airlines.

Joe Varner “Between 1927 and 1929, Maytag bought over 12,000 acres that became Sedgefields Plantation,” said Varner. “‘That land only cost $12 to $20 an acre in those days,” added Richardson.

“Then, through the next decades, wild quail numbers were unbelievable here,” Richardson described. “It was a quiltwork of habitat. Every sharecropper had a corn or pea patch. Pastures here, brush there, woodlots across the way. You didn’t have to look hard to find quail. Winters are still mild to nonexistent. It was quail heaven.”

“And a real gentleman only tried to shoot roosters,” Richardson added. “One plantation recorded 832 quail killed one winter, only four of them hens.”

“That may be just an old tale,” he added with a wink, “but it’s part of our story.”

Reuben Richardson The field trial pageantry was unmatched. Bird dogs. Horses. Wagons. Fine shotguns. Galleries of onlookers. Picnic lunches. Perhaps a libation or two among those not working dogs or handling guns. Bracing winter air. Extravagant lunches. Receptions and parties at night. 

But at its heart it all came down to bird dogs and quail, and celebrating both.

“There was nothing like it,” said Gibson. “I’ve been in the bird dog and field trial ‘business’ all my life. I can remember those days like yesterday. Mr. Maytag used to say “howdy” to me. I was just a boy for some of it, then a young adult. We hosted the National Bird Dog Championships through the 1950s.”

Tony Gibson “Mr. George Harden himself was a judge for many years,” said Richardson. “In fact, much shopping for dogs was done at the trials.” English Pointers and English setters were the breeds of choice.

During the competition now as then, when a dog points, the judges verify the point and the handler dismounts his or her horse, walks over to the dog, and flushes the bird or birds and shoots blanks into the air. The winners are awarded their place according to their range, speed, class, style and handling, as well as their bird-finding ability.

“Hunting and field trialing are related, but not the same thing,” said Richardson. “In hunting, nobody cared about a dog being steady to wing on the flush. Many people, especially locals, and everybody for that matter, just loved to hunt too. They knew that a bird dog that was right on those tough little wild quail after they dropped meant fewer lost birds. It’s that simple.”

Of the many field trials still held in Bullock County from November through March each year, there are three championships -- two professional and one amateur. The February amateur championship, namely The National Amateur Free-for-All, might be termed the main event as it attracts visitors from all over the United States, even occasional visitors from foreign countries; there is also a large gallery of riders, sometimes more than 500 people … harkening back to the heydays.

With the renewed management of quail habitat in Bullock County that is going on – chiefly through fire to create grassy pine savanna habitat where mature forest has taken over – the storied field trial and bobwhite hunting heritage of this wonderful region is sure to continue.
 

More:

Union Springs Field Trial History

Shooting on Mr. Bud’s Place
(1966 Sports Illustrated Article on Quail Hunting at Sedgefields Plantation)

Game Test for Gun Dogs
(1960 Sports Illustrated Article on Field Trialing at Union Springs and Grand Junction, Tennessee)

Alabama Black Belt Adventures

Tom Carpenter is editor at Pheasants Forever, but he will drop everything at less than a drop of the hat to go quail hunting.