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A Good Shooter

Quail Hills Plantation, a 2,000-acre property in Coffeeville, is the legacy of a man who loved hunting and had a heart for conservation of the land and wildlife.

Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem

When John Provine Bailey was a sixth-grader in Coffeeville, Mississippi,

Latin was not his favorite subject. But he suffered through it, and to the joy of his parents, their boy scored a 76. Their parental pride took the form of a reward — a gun, a $4.85 special from Sears & Roebuck — that may well have paved the path to young Bailey’s future.

“Daddy picked up a love for hunting and outdoors at a very early age,” said

Jean Bailey Kirk, 88, one half of a pair of identical twin daughters born to Bailey and his wife, Catherine. Kirk’s sister Joan Sharbrough lives in Vicksburg. “When he was a young boy he would slip out of his bedroom window at night and walk out in the country, chasing coons and possums. He loved being afield.”

Not only did Bailey love the hunt but also he realized early on the importance of the conservation of the land and of the species being hunted. For Bailey, that was quail. He didn’t go out and shoot haphazardly; he kept up with the dates of his hunts, the number of shots fired and the number of birds bagged.

Bailey’s hunting diary is as heavy with hunting facts and figures as it is in pounds.

He began recording the accounts of his hunts when he was 12, and continued to do so for 60 years. Bailey died in 1983 at age 75.

The dry and yellowing pages of his well-preserved journal also mention the weather during each hunt and other factors that may have contributed to the decline or resurgence of the quail population through the years. Bailey’s diary remains one of the most complete records of hunting, hunting lore, and conservation of quail, duck and dove habitat in the world. The journal, a source of pride for Bailey’s daughters and his grandchildren, is kept in a safe place at Quail Hills Plantation, but it’s brought out with great pride to share with visitors.

THE LAND

The history of the land that became Quail Hills is as much a part of Bailey’s story as that Sears & Roebuck gun. After high school, Bailey attended for a time Mississippi A&M (now Mississippi State University), but his heart was on the hunt, and he did not finish college. Instead, he went to Greenwood in the heart of the Mississippi Delta to learn the cotton business from his uncle Brax Provine.

“It was perfect for Daddy,” Kirk said. “He worked hard during the fall harvest season, and by the time cotton was harvested, quail season had begun.”

In 1934, a pair of quail-loving, Detroit twins were in search of a good place to hunt.

When they asked for the name of the best guide around, the answer came quickly and without hesitation: John Bailey. The brothers, Jerry and Tom Webber, were members of the family that owned and operated Hudson’s, which at that time was the second largest department store in America. The two built a small cabin near Bryant, Mississippi, not far from Coffeeville, with a kennel for their dogs, and Bailey became their hunting guide.

“They’d come in every January to hunt quail,” Kirk said. “Then they told my daddy to buy land for them to hunt on.”

Bailey purchased for the Webbers 2,000 acres — the land he’d hunted as a child about four miles outside Coffeeville. And for a month every year for nearly three decades, Bailey would pick the Webbers and their hunting dogs up each morning in Bryant and drive them to hunt on the acreage that would later be named Quail Hills Plantation.

“Daddy became great friends with the brothers through the years,” Kirk said. “They came from Detroit every year until they became too old to walk the property.”

THE LODGE

When the Webber twins realized their hunting days were at an end, they gave their 2,000 acres in Yalobusha County to their friend and longtime hunting guide. And in

1960, Bailey built the lodge that continues today to provide a place for his daughters and their children and grandchildren to gather for quiet, country weekends or special family occasions, like Thanksgiving. Though the official name of the acreage is Quail Hills Plantation, most family members and close friends affectionately refer to it simply as “the farm.”

When Bailey and his wife designed and built the lodge, all the materials that went into its construction came from the land, including the cedar paneling from trees Bailey selected and cut from his acreage.

In one of the four bedrooms are the twin beds used by the Webber brothers at Holly House, the cabin in Bryant. In another, a large, locked safe serves as home to the hunting holy grail of the Bailey family.

In addition to John Bailey’s diary, the safe holds a bevy of books and magazine articles published through the years about Bailey and his hunting prowess, penned by such famous outdoor writers as Nash Buckingham, George Bird Evans and Bill Tarrant.

Over the course of their close friendship, Buckingham and Bailey exchanged letters.

At the time of Bailey’s death, he had received more than 360 letters from Buckingham, which led to Evans’ book, “Dear John: Nash Buckingham’s Letters to John Bailey.”

Behind the lodge is a massive stone arch, erected by one of Kirk’s four children, John Kirk, who also designed and built his own house just down the gravel road from the lodge. The arch is the entrance into the family cemetery. Catherine Bailey was the first to be buried there in 1978, followed by her husband in 1983. Their twin daughters will someday be buried alongside their parents.

Etched on Bailey’s headstone is perhaps the most perfect description for the tall, lanky hunter: “A Good Shooter.”

“When my daughter Kathy was just a little girl, Daddy brought in a bag of quail one day,” Kirk said. “She got so excited and said, ‘Granddaddy is such a good shooter.’

Daddy was so tickled and said he wanted those words on his tombstone.”

Also buried adjacent to the family cemetery are at least a dozen family pets, several of Bailey’s beloved bird dogs and three of his horses.

THE LEGACY

Through the decades that Bailey walked his wooded wonderland, he had a fun way of making hand-painted signs to mark special spots where specific memories were made. “Ann’s first quail” records the place granddaughter Ann Sharbrough had her first hunting success.

The signs also served as reminders of specific hunting stories. There was another reason for Bailey’s signage, including his favorite: “One-Hoss Wagon.”

“I’ve got these signs out here also because if I tell somebody a good place to hunt is down by the One-Hoss Wagon, he’ll know exactly where I mean,” Bailey told Nancy Darnell in an interview for The New South magazine in 1974. “If I said, ‘Go down to the north field,’ he might not know what I was talking about.”

Bailey’s original signs have long disappeared, thanks to weather and wear. But his family, several years ago, had new signs made with plans to place them where Bailey once tacked them to the trees.

The land and the lodge remain a part of a rich legacy passed from Bailey to his daughters, his grandchildren and the generations of family to come.

“I wouldn’t take anything for growing up in Coffeeville, and the farm keeps us connected with Coffeeville,” Kirk said. “It’s not just a farm, though. It’s so much more to me. Even before the lodge was built it was such a treat to go to the land.”

“And now Daddy’s grandchildren love it so much too, they take care of it and spend time there. It’s a special place.”

The Ebb and Flow of the Quail Population

The bobwhite quail may be best known for its distinctive call of “bob-WHITE.” But it’s also easily recognizable. The ground-dwelling bird is a streaked or mottled reddish-brown and white with a gray tail. Males have a distinctive dark brown cap and face with a white eye stripe and throat. Females are a bit different: The white is replaced by a yellowish brown, and the cap and face are lighter.

The quail population in Mississippi reached peak numbers in the 1940s and remained high through the early ’70s. Then it began to decline, and in the past three decades, the quail population has dropped tremendously. There are several reasons for the decline: predators, diseases, parasites, pesticides and, primarily, the loss of quality habitat.

The best habitat for quail is a mix of bare ground, native clump grasses, annual weeds and woody cover. The birds also rely on seeds and insects for food. Humans working to improve the habitat can reverse the ebb of the quail population.

There is some good news. The bobwhite quail population is currently on the rise in Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

And in Yalobusha County at Quail Hills where John Provine Bailey hunted his entire life, the occasional quail is still heard and seen.

Source: Mississippi State University Extension

Oxford, Mississippi | United States

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