The nighttime sky was full of snow geese, their forms illuminated by the street lights of the town. There were thousands, and their high-pitched calls drowned out the nearby traffic. I was standing out in our motel parking lot, spellbound by this amazing spectacle.
The next morning Ginger and I took a drive out into the countryside surrounding this small town. This was open farm country, and the flooded fields held thousands of ducks and geese. We pulled over from time to time to marvel at the throngs of waterfowl.
The day before we had visited the Little Chef, a small restaurant, housed in a World War II-style Quonset hut, for a very good Thanksgiving dinner. We were surprised to see Joe Orvin and a group of his duck hunting buddies from Sumter. They were equally surprised to see us here in Stuttgart, Arkansas.
Stuttgart claims the title of Rice and Duck Capital of the World and has held the World's Championship Duck Calling Contest since 1936. The contest is the Saturday evening highlight of the Wings Over the Prairie Festival that is held annually on Thanksgiving weekend. Contestants must make the right calls, in a limited time, to be named champion.
Saturday morning was bitter cold, and Ginger and I had already been to Macks Prairie Wings and the Museum of the Grand Prairie before heading downtown to walk Main Street and take in the variety of outdoor-related vendors housed in tents along the street. We could hear duck call vendors and some contest participants practicing their routines up and down the street that was bustling with people.
The contest participants in Stuttgart are the state champions that are eligible to participate in the World Championship Contest. South Carolina has sent a contestant to Stuttgart every year since 1968. That first South Carolina State Duck Calling Contest originated in Sumter. It was an idea proposed by Jon Wongrey at a meeting of the Sumter County Fish and Game Association. At the time, Jon was the secretary of the association.
Jon Wongrey is an outdoor writer, book author and lifelong resident of Sumter. Jon is a meticulous record keeper and has volumes of letters and documents that he has kept in bound notebooks regarding the origin of the state contest. He has brochures from the first and second state contest that were held at Burnt Gin in Sumter County. The first contest was held on Oct. 19, 1968. The winner was Ed Lawrance from Columbia. That contest and the next was sponsored by the Sumter County Fish and Game Association. There have been other sponsors of the event.
The second contest, also at Burnt Gin, was won by Mickey Lowder of Summerton. Mickey also won the next two state contests. The state contest was moved to Camp Mac Boykin, then Mill Creek. I attended one of the early contests at Mill Creek in the '70s with a group of my duck hunting buddies. The state duck calling contest has moved to various locations and recently has been held at Georgetown during the Winyah Bay Heritage Festival. This year's contest was to be held at the Palmetto Sportsman's Classic in March, but that event was canceled. A new location has not yet been decided for the contest.
Back in the '60s, Jon was unhappy working at his family restaurant in Sumter and wanted to do something different. He loved hunting and fishing, so one day in 1967 he walked into the office of The Sumter Item and managed to convince them to hire him to write an outdoor column. His column was named Outdoor Corner. After a short time in Sumter, Jon moved on to The State newspaper and was hired as the first full-time outdoor writer for a South Carolina newspaper. Jon stayed at The State until 1975. While there, Jon was awarded the National Conservation Communication Award in 1970 and won the Best Outdoor Column for Southeastern Outdoor Writers Press Association in 1974.
Jon moved on as a full-time freelance writer in 1980 and has written numerous books and many articles for 14 different outdoor magazines. His first magazine story was for the South Carolina Wildlife magazine, which is somewhat ironic to me. A recent article in that magazine focused on duck calling and the state duck calling contest. A duck calling contest is decided by someone making the right call. In my opinion that story might have failed, in many ways, to make the right call.
Email Dan Geddings at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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