Dorchester is reclaiming its heritage Ducks, jobs, habitat are added

December 20, 1992|By Peter Baker | Peter Baker,STAFF WRITER

CAMBRIDGE -- Looking across the banquet room at the VFW Post on Route 50, one sees a good-natured group of waterfowlers. Some among them wear animal-pelt headdresses, some wear jackets and ties, others wear muddy boots, and a fair number of each group frequently amble to the bar.

It is stag night during the three-day Grand National Waterfowl Hunt.

And, although there are some monkeyshines, the business of the Grand National is real and it means good waterfowling and big money for Dorchester County.

In 10 years since the first Grand National, a resident population of more than 1 million ducks has been created, a minimum of 112 jobs has been made available with a payroll estimated at $1.4 million and the local economy has been boosted by some $55 million.

According to Grand National Waterfowl Association officials, this business of duck rearing and hunting is the fifth-largest industry in the county.

A decade ago, such was not the case, said James S. Bugg, one of the founders of the Grand National and now a member of its executive committee.

"The initial idea started when a group of people here tried to do something about the unemployment in Dorchester County, the lack of industry, the lack of jobs," said Bugg, president of Decorating Den, a national franchise operation. "And also there was an interest in trying to attract tourism to the area.

"My suggestion at the time was that why don't we try to show our best side."

Dorchester County, of course, is acknowledged to be a great place to work the water or to hunt or fish, an area of a thousand salt marshes and hundreds of tidal creeks off five major rivers.

"Dorchester is probably one of the most famous counties in all of America for waterfowling," Bugg said. "It was the sport of kings all during the 1920s and 1930s, when all the DuPonts had hunting lodges here and W. D. Chrysler and on and on and on . . .

"Look at the rosters of the old hunting clubs that were here, and the famous people that came from all over the world to hunt were just unbelievable."

For many years, however, that boom of hunting activity was just so much bust. The duck population dwindled from too much hunting pressure and loss of habitat, and fewer hunters were drawn to the salt marsh edges.

The Grand National has brought the boom back through a privately funded duck program and a great deal of networking among the heads of national businesses, prominent politicians, star athletes, actors and actresses, old money and hard work.

"We actually dumbed ourselves into a major industry," said W. Ladd Johnson, chairman of the North American Waterfowl Foundation and a member of the Grand National's executive committee.

The first Grand National, Bugg said, was patterned after the One-Shot Antelope Hunt in Wyoming and the Grand National Quail Hunt in Oklahoma. In that first year, the late Roger Maris and Dale Robertson were the headline celebrities, and the purpose was to "show that Dorchester County is a great place to work as well as to live and play."

And if a leader of industry had a factory to relocate or a plant to be built, then all the better. And while the money men were looking things over, there were ducks to hunt, tomahawks to throw and interesting people to meet.

Warm up the hot stove with Will Clark of the San Francisco Giants, talk decoy carving with Dave Butz, formerly of the Washington Redskins, re-sail the America's Cup with helmsman Buddy Melges -- or talk sports, politics or business with any of 200 other prominent men.

"We don't put a lot of pressure on them," Bugg said. "We just hope they will say, gee, this is a neat place and [realize] if they owned a factory or a plant here it would give them a chance to come back often."

The key to it all is rearing and releasing ducks, which is a year-around pursuit of the members of the Grand National Waterfowl Association.

A decade ago, four landowners in the county were creating habitat and releasing ducks. Now 125 farms in the area are involved. Where once there were fewer than 10,000 ducks released each year, now between 130,000 and 150,000 are released annually.

"The first year I owned my Poverty Point Farm, we shot 14 ducks," said Bugg, looking back over almost two decades. "There just weren't any ducks around."

By Johnson's estimate, there are now well more than 1 million resident ducks in addition to the migratory ducks that winter in Dorchester County.

"Our harvest is only about 10 percent annually," Bugg said. "So what we are doing is a really great thing for the ducks, and the ducks really needed the help.

"But the big thing is that we also are taking marginal land -- Dorchester has a lot of land that is kind of sinking, so to speak, over the centuries and saltwater is claiming it -- and by putting up dikes and barriers we are retrieving this land."

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