ARTHUR VAN PELT,
THE MAN AND THE LEGEND
By Charles Frank
At a recent board meeting of the Louisiana Outdoor Writers Association, some of the younger members questioned why the most prestigious award our organization gives was named for a man they had never heard of.
Annually, the Arthur Van Pelt award is given to an individual who has had a lifelong record of achievement and dedication to conservation.
Only three current members – Bob Dennie, Dave Hall and me – had known this man who for 17 years had written a series of tomes for The Times-Picayune under the heading All Outdoors. No one has had more of an impact on our craft and its practitioners than this gentleman, yet he has been all but forgotten.
Van Pelt was a child of the depression. Born in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 1882, he grew up when postage was 2 cents and a quarter would buy a moon pie, a soft drink and a po-boy sandwich – ham and swiss, thank you, and a nickel more for “dressed.”
His early notes are hand-written in pencil on paper that is rapidly turning to yellowed dust. Many of his early efforts were unpublished, and thanks to the habits of Hall, himself a legend, many of his ramblings have been preserved.
I met Van Pelt as a youngster when I had just started shooting skeet. The South Louisiana Skeet Club was a single, muddy field in what was then a cow pasture, under the then-newly constructed Huey P. Long Bridge. I was, however, an avid reader of his columns.
I would describe him as small in stature, dynamic, balding, serious but with a twinkle in his eye when he was amused at the lack of knowledge of some of his peers. He was blessed with a breadth of interest and knowledge that was truly astounding.
He was far ahead of his time in recognizing our vanishing coastline, the estuaries that spawned our seafood and the marshes that hosted what seemed a limitless plethora of wintering waterfowl and shore birds. He was one of the first to realize that the migration was threatened, and was among the first to see that the purple martins were visiting in smaller flocks and that the raptors were under siege.
For many years, it appears that he had only limited access to a typewriter. I would also note that he used a typewriter ribbon until it was no longer legible. Another sign of hard times. On graduating from Minnesota State College, he began his journalistic career as an outdoor writer for The Chicago Tribune. In 1913, after moving to New Orleans, he began writing a column for the Item and, later, The Times Democrat in 1914 thru 1916. This paper was the predecessor of The Times Picayune.
He left the New Orleans paper for a position as secretary of the Houma Louisiana Chamber of Commerce for a very short time, but journalism was in his blood. He was eventually appointed sports editor of The Times Picayune, and held this post for the last 17 years of his life.
In the days when syndication was in its infancy, he sent his columns to a number of Louisiana news outlets – the articles were titled Outdoors South, and were published in Houma, Hammond and Colfax.
One rather interesting note was a form letter threatening various papers if they published his work without sending him his fee of $2.50 per month.
He was a man whose abiding interest in all aspects of conservation led him to track legislation in Baton Rouge and to monitor the Corps of Engineers’ efforts to dam a waterway or create a spillway that he felt might have a negative impact on the wetlands he saw being destroyed by some of these projects.
He saw before it became a “cause celeb” that pollution was a major problem. This was an era when oil exploration was running roughshod over the marshes in a burgeoning Louisiana oil and gas industry.
His observations on the migration and nesting habits of such diverse avian species as rails, song, shore and wading birds are extremely interesting. This in an era when birdwatching was more or less relegated to little old ladies in tennis shoes.
His observations encompassed any and all wild creatures – crows and turkeys, deer and raccoons all observed with the hunter’s eye and the journalist’s pen. His file of unpublished short stories is filled with colloquial gems. One vignette from his story on “The Tarpon of Bayou Go-to-hell” is worth quoting.
His Cajun guide, Baptiste, was knocked about and thrown overboard when he hooked a big tarpon.
“I’m feel lak I drink mos’ all dat bayou water an’ I find one bump on my haid lak one big orange. I feel kin’ o’ seek, too, so l jus’ set down an res’. Maybe I tak one leetle nap – I’m not sho’ no, but I wake queek w’en somet’ing mek a big splash – ‘K-swo-oo-sh’ – right by me in de bayou. I jomp up queek an’ look an’ by Jinks, M’sieu, wat yo’ teenk? Again come dat beeg ‘Ka-woosh’ an op’ jump dat ole gran’mere gran’ ecaille again. She’s still raise Hell in de bayou.
“Bet I don’ wan’ to ketch her no mo’ M’sieu, no, I jus’ wait ’til she come up again, den I yell at her, ‘Git away. Passe, ole gran’ ecaille, passe! Yo’ go, jus’ w’ere dat leetle bayou go, yo.’
“No suh, m’sieu, I don’ lak to ketch dem gran ecaille no mo’. Not in dat bayou Go To Hell anyway. It don’ soun’ so good to me, dat name. I migh get drag’ down to de en’ o’ dat bayou. Den’ where I am, me?”
A howl of appreciative laughter greeted the end of Baptiste’s story. The Lady Veru rocked with merriment, but Baptiste did not join in. He was plumb serious about it all.
I am carried away on wings of nostalgia when I read, “An idle breeze from the sea wends its way across the darkening marshland. It rustled through the harsh brown grass and made little ripples on a lagoon, hidden among protecting groups of green cat-tails. Overhead, mallards headed north, going inland for their supper of rice, talking among themselves in chuckles and whispering chatter as they passed. A cypress dugout, low lying, hardly disturbing the water’s surface as it passed, skirting the edge of the wide, deep stream and entering an intercepting bayou. The paddle of her passenger, with silent, expert strokes shot the craft forward to turn into the channel, entering a reach due east and west.”
He wrote of the Houmas Indians, with their blue-black hair and brown eyes, attesting in many cases to their mixed lineage. He wrote of Le Temple, La Isle d’Jean Charles, of Bay Negresse, Coon Road and Lac Felicity, with a depth of feeling that catches at the heart.
He wrote with compassion of the people of the Houma, Choctaw, Acolakusa, Laeusa, Avoyle,Tangipahoa, Okelousa, Bayogoula and Quiuepissa – tribes that at one time dominated the lower Mississippi Valley, now mostly vanished in the mists of time.
He could evoke the pathos and the feeling of decaying vegetation and the fresh sweet smell of clover in the spring, of gentle fall evenings and harsh winter squalls – all while writing another column on hunting or fishing in his beloved Louisiana wetlands . Van Pelt also gave of himself to service organizations, as president and board member in the Louisiana Sportsman’s League, the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, the Grand Isle Tarpon Rodeo, as secretary of the Houma Chamber of Commerce, and served several years in the State Department of Revenue.
In many of these and other hook-and-bullet groups, he was a founding member, sought for his expertise in many venues.
His birding activities were all encompassing. He recorded his astounding display of the depth of his knowledge of species. He listed dates and sightings all through the years, giving dates of first sightings and frequency of recurrence.
In 1944, he wrote, “Man armed with the wisdom attained in a few thousand years has set the whole world writhing in the throes of war. Kindness, generosity, friendship between nations has been put aside. Destruction, tragedy, and horror in a thousand forms have taken their places.”
During the war years, he reported game was plentiful but ammunition was scarce. His articles are graced with wonderful photographs, yellowed with age but recording an era that fewer and fewer were there to remember: trawlers dancing on wooden platforms to dehead drying shrimp for shipment to the armed forces, chairmakers like Adolph Naquin of Lake Jean Charles who like his forebears plied a trade now vanished, Grand Isle’s stately palm trees, long vanished and replaced with moss-festooned live oak trees. These are the scenes he recorded indelibly on those of us who read his words. No detail of the passing scene was too mundane to be recorded.
Dugout pirogues, shrimp boats and deer hunters, snipe hunts and old men in “straw kadies” (flat-brim straw hats worn for dress) stand beside their work or pole by in ditches that led from the pot holes of a pristine marsh. His work was monumental.
He wrote in 1953, “Away to the south, where the waters of all the Mississippi Valley pour out into the Gulf through a score of mouths and passes, the small geese (blues and snows) gather in myriads to feed, loaf and grow fat on marine vegetation just off-shore. The delta of the Mississippi, where the great river ends in a series of passes spread like the fingers of a giant hand, furnish ideal habitat for the whole goose tribe.”
His work deserves a book, not just a resume. His yellowed photographs need to be preserved.
Van Pelt told well the story of the great storm of Sunday, Oct. 1, 1893, which killed almost a thousand vacationers on Isle Dernieres when the Grand Hotel there vanished in the swirling mists that followed this monster of all hurricanes.
His description of the approach and final destruction are lyrical. He wrote with the passion of belief that the written word should create a mental image that was lasting. Poultry shows, tales of rod and gun were mixed with observations on bird watching that make a wonderful read. He knew the people. The rich and famous and the hunter, the trapper and the fishermen – they all considered him a friend.
The woodcock’s love song and the splash of a striking bass, the tight line when a speck or red hit the bait were recorded with equal enthusiasm.
His neatly handwritten notes recorded observations on the annual migration of bird life.
Typical are his notes of April 6-7,1942: “Mass bird migration observed in northern gulf, 60 miles off the Louisiana coast. A low, overcast sky, and slowly falling barometer, fluctuating winds – southerly shifting to northerly. Late p.m. 6 April broad winged hawk, warblers alighting on rigging, then flying off northward. At 9 p.m. hundreds of small birds flying around lights, some striking rigging and falling into water. Many reached with dip net. Ducks heard 10 to 10:30 p.m. Lights thrown upward reveal thousands of birds about 200 feet above water. Believe flight coming from Yucatan Peninsula heading for Texas and Louisiana coasts. Western and scarlet tannagers, purple martins, orchard orioles and Florida gallinule (purple gallinule), vermillion flycatchers, tree swallows, night hawk, hooded and yellow warblers, redstarts, black and white, yellow throat, Nashville, and blackpole warblers, olive sided and yellow bellied flycatchers (and all of this observed in failing light and strong winds, seas so rough that the Oregon lost 800 foot of line and anchor).”
This is a quite a foray into the nesting colonies of sea birds on the barrier islands, and the tiny nests ruby throated hummingbirds. No observation went unrecorded, always on loose pages of paper with penciled details underlined and carefully dated.
My own memory is of a more lasting tribute to this giant of all outdoor writers. It is the Van Pelt oak tree that marked the entrance to a humble trenasse that led into what was once the most outstanding bass fishing I’ve ever had in all my years of trying to land a record “green trout.”
If you take Highway 90W to Houma and bend around south to Bayou DuLarge, in about an hour and a half you’ll be in the small community of Theriot. Look closely, or you’ll surely pass it by.
About 3/4 of a mile past Theriot, you’ll reach the Falgout Canal (also poorly marked). Launch your flat boat here, and it’s about a mile to Lake DeCade. Bear slightly to the north of west, and you’ll see a gnarled old live oak that marks the entrance to the Linnus Canal.
When I was a young man, this was the way to get into Lake Penchant. We called it at that time Lake Penance because it was a brute of a trip on bad roads (now paved) and a rather long ride over choppy water to get to the Van Pelt Oak.
Van Pelt wrote about this paradise, and we caught a heck of a lot of big bass there. The Linnus brothers charged a buck to lift a plank that retained the water level of the lake.
The spring fishing was wonderful, but getting through that ditch was an experience I’ll never forget. The banks were just a foot or so away from our pirogues – we left the flat boat with the Linnus brothers – and paddling through that narrow ditch was hell.
The damned place was covered with water moccasins – big cottonmouth suckers that frequently struck at our paddles. The spring lake water was dotted with floating islands of blooming water hyacinths that by mid summer made fishing there impossible. But, oh that spring fishing was something else. We cast flies at the striking largemouths, and it was not unusual to land several 5- and 6-pounders each morning.
My last trip there, the lake was lined with summer camps, and water skiing had taken over. Bass fishing was a long-lost memory. Only the Van Pelt Oak had stood the test of time, a lasting memorial to a great outdoor scribe.