“Quail Hunting at Little Hobcaw as Inspiration for Robert Ruark’s ‘The Old Man and the Boy,'” by Richard Rankin

Robert Ruark

Essay by Richard Rankin 

Among Robert Ruark’s (1915-1965) complete body of work as a prolific, high-profile newspaper and magazine journalist and bestselling novelist, perhaps his most enduring literary accomplishments are his two sporting classics, The Old Man and the Boy (1957) and The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older (1961). Created from a series of highly popular, regular magazine columns that Ruark wrote for Field & Stream from 1953 to 1961, both books have remained in print continuously since first published. New generations of readers are attracted to Ruark’s tales about how the Old Man passed down his wisdom and love of outdoor sports to the impressionable “Boy” while teaching him to quail hunt, duck hunt and fish. Ruark’s deep, first-hand knowledge of hunting, fishing, and woods craft lends authenticity to his writing. Told from the ”Boy’s” folksy perspective, Ruark’s prose exhibits the same spare, lively quality that in his other work earns comparison to Hemingway.[1]

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Although both Old Man books are works of fiction, they have long been recognized to be semi-autobiographical. Scholars correctly assume the “Old Man” to be primarily based on Ruark’s maternal, sea captain grandfather Captain Edward Hall “Ned” Adkins (1860-1932), the “Boy” to be Ruark himself, and the fictional setting to be based upon the fields, woods, and waters around Wilmington, where Ruark grew up, and the nearby small Southeastern North Carolina port town of Southport, where both sets of his grandparents lived. The two Old Man books straddle the boundary between two literary genres, memoir and historical fiction.

With so much attention given to the importance of the historical context and the setting of Ruark’s early life in the Old Man books, no one has considered how later circumstances and events might have influenced those books. As a result, a deeply meaningful series of extended hunting experiences in the years immediately preceding and during the time Ruark was writing his Old Man columns have been completely ignored. From the mid 1940s through the early 1950s, Ruark quail hunted repeatedly as a guest of Bernard Baruch (1870-1965)—the Wall Street investor, financier, and economic advisor to American presidents from Woodrow Wilson to John F. Kennedy—at Baruch’s Little Hobcaw Plantation in Williamsburg County, South Carolina, outside the county seat of Kingstree. Bird hunting with Baruch and his black hunting guide and legendary dog trainer, Edward “Ely” Wilson (1907-1999), reconnected Ruark to his past as a young man in the outdoors and was an important, primary inspiration for his “Old Man and the Boy” columns in Field & Stream magazine.

Quail hunts at Little Hobcaw were not the only hunting exploits bringing to mind Ruark’s boyhood. Especially in his second book, The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, frequent references to Ruark’s big game hunting in the 1950s indicate the way in which other contemporary hunting experiences—in Africa and India—also aroused older memories of hunting and fishing. But Williamsburg County, South Carolina, was culturally closer to Wilmington, North Carolina: only 115 miles away and populated with a similar collection of black and white Southerners, bird dogs, and bobwhite quail. Without the context of Ruark’s quail hunting at Little Hobcaw, it is hard to imagine Robert Ruark ever having written either The Old Man and the Boy or The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older.[2]

Quail hunting at Little Hobcaw also provided Ruark with important material for his two books. In particular, Bernard Baruch and Ely Wilson are both mentioned in Ruark’s two sporting classics and were surely two of the many, unnamed “honorary uncles” to whom Ruark dedicated The Old Man and the Boy and upon whom he based his literary “Old Man.” Considering that Baruch was the main “old man” (80 years old in 1950) with whom Robert Ruark was quail hunting during the years while he was writing his “Old Man” columns, and considering the nature of their relationship, Baruch’s role as a real-life model for Ruark’s iconic fictional character makes perfect sense. So while Ruark’s maternal grandfather, Edward “Ned” Adkins, has been rightly identified as the main historical source for the fictional “Old Man,” Ruark’s older fictional protagonist was a composite character drawn from several real life figures, including Baruch and, almost certainly, Wilson.[3]

By the late 1940s, both Baruch and Ruark were both famous in their respective fields. Baruch, who grew up in Camden, South Carolina, the son of a prominent Southern, Jewish family, moved with his family to New York City in 1881 where he gained fame and fortune. Already extremely wealthy in 1905, Baruch purchased Hobcaw Barony, a great Southern plantation outside of Georgetown, South Carolina, where he spent his winters hunting ducks and quail and, for the next five decades, entertained military, national and world leaders including Generals Omar Bradley and George C. Marshall, Senator Robert H. Taft, Clare Booth Luce, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. There Baruch introduced his famous guests to Southern sporting life and hospitality.[4]

With all its natural abundance and advantages, Hobcaw Barony had at least one serious shortcoming—it furnished only mediocre quail hunting grounds, and for Bernard Baruch, who loved to bird hunt, this situation was unacceptable. In 1910, he acquired his first parcel of prime quail hunting land near Kingstree, South Carolina—forty miles away from Hobcaw Barony or “Big Hobcaw”—acreage he would expand and consolidate into his “Little Hobcaw Hunting Preserve.” Two decades later, Baruch’s quail hunting operation was well established and operated.[5]

For Baruch, both Big and Little Hobcaw were spiritual homes. But increasingly as he grew older, bird hunting at Little Hobcaw absorbed him. In 1946, the widower Baruch began living at Little Hobcaw during quail season with his secretary, nurse, hostess and companion, Elizabeth Navarro, in the fine house that he had originally built for her in the early 1940s. In 1957, after selling the last portion of Big Hobcaw to his daughter Belle Baruch, Little Hobcaw became Baruch’s permanent Southern home. An avid bird hunter until two years before his death at age 95, Baruch claimed that “I think I would have died if it hadn’t been for quail,” acknowledging how bird hunting gave him meaning and purpose in the last two decades of his life. Six days a week for all three months of quail season, Bernard Baruch’s primary pursuit and preoccupation was quail hunting at Little Hobcaw.[6]

Robert Ruark, youthful sportsman, syndicated columnist, famous journalist, bestselling novelist, playboy, bon vivant, big game hunter, and alcoholic—dying of cirrhosis of the liver at age 49—graduated from the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) with an undergraduate degree in journalism in 1935. From there in rapid succession, he worked stints at several small town North Carolina newspapers, as a sailor on a merchant marine vessel, and as an accountant for the Works Progress Administration in Washington, D.C., before landing a job as a copyboy at the Washington Post in 1936. He moved quickly to the Washington Star, and then the Washington Daily News within the Scripps-Howard chain, where his career took hold. Two years later, Ruark married Washington interior decorator, Virginia Webb. World War II interrupted Ruark’s domestic life and journalistic career as as he served first as a gunnery officer and then as press censor for Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. Returning after the war to the Daily News, Ruark first won acclaim as one of the nation’s top newspaper and later magazine columnists and then as a best-selling novelist. By 1950, his yearly salary was $50,000—an amount roughly worth a half a million dollars today. So while not as wealthy as Baruch, Ruark was also rich and famous.[7]

Baruch and Ruark were an interesting and, in some ways, unlikely pair of friends. There was forty-five years difference in the two men’s ages, and, according to one of Ruark’s biographers, their relationship was “complex … and intrigued those who knew [them].” Baruch called Ruark, “Bob.” Ruark called Baruch, “Chief, Boss or Mr. Bernie.” Certain common interests and background transcended the age gap. Both were Southerners. Baruch’s maternal grandfather was a Winnsboro, South Carolina, cotton farmer, and Baruch’s father had been a prominent physician who served as a Confederate surgeon during the Civil War. In 1962, Baruch quipped in a letter to Ruark, “Us Southern Boys are allright [sic], ain’t we?” Both took pride in being gentlemen. Baruch congratulated Ruark on a passage in The Old Man and the Boy that described “the Boy’s” good manners and observed, “Manners was one thing the youngster growing up in the South learned.” Both balanced their roles as rustic outdoorsmen and cosmopolitan socialites. Baruch loved attending the Ruarks’ “wild” New York parties and mixing with jazz musicians, professional athletes, and celebrities like Arthur Godfrey and Lena Horne. According to Ruark, his older friend “smacked his lips over an old-fashioned, and was never too old to admire a handsome leg or well-filled blouse.”[8]

Baruch certainly never discouraged Ruark’s heavy drinking. He once asked his friend “Bob” in a letter from Little Hobcaw, “Are you going to lap up my liquor this winter, or not?” Some years later, Ruark bragged about high times spent with Baruch: “I drank a lot of his whisky and ate a lot of his caviar and listened to a lot of his jokes.” Shortly after Baruch’s death (and shortly before his own), Ruark summarized their friendship by concluding: “I suppose this might sound irreverent, but Bernie Baruch and I had a hell of a lot of fun together in all the years I knew him well.” In all likelihood, if Baruch could have commented from the other side of the grave, he would have laughed and nodded in agreement.[9]

At the center of Bernard Baruch and Robert Ruark’s friendship from the late 1940s until both their deaths in 1965 was their shared passion for quail hunting. In 1946, Ruark made his first trip to Big Hobcaw as Baruch’s guest—whether he bird hunted at Little Hobcaw on this inaugural visit is unknown. According to Ruark, the next six years constituted the heyday of his bird hunting with Baruch. In the fall of 1955, Ruark observed that he had only missed one bird hunting season at Little Hobcaw in “the last eight or nine” years, and once during that time-span hunted twice with Mr. Bernie in the same season. In 1957, Ruark reminisced, “I can run my mind back to eleven years of quail seasons at Hobcaw.” From 1949 to 1957, Ruark mentions travelling to Little Hobcaw to bird hunt in five separate newspaper columns.[10] In one of these columns, from February 1949, Ruark wrote about his admiration for Baruch after a recent stay at Little Hobcaw:

Every so often, when the world worries me, I crouch at the knees of Bernard Baruch and ask him how come. When my eyes are glassy, I figure I have learned enough for that year. My eyes are glassy now. Mr. Baruch is in the latter-half of his annual meditative period, which officially opens with the quail season in South Carolina. It ends only when the bobwhites are again protected by law. During that time Mr. B. shuts off his telephone, shoots quail, and thinks. He will not speak for publication, but he will inform. The only difference with this is where you start and the old gentleman [my italics] stops.[11]

In 1951, Ruark wrote an article, “The Brave Quail,” in Field & Stream magazine that recounts hunting at Little Hobcaw with Baruch and Ely Wilson. In 1955, in one of Ruark’s later hunting trips to Little Hobcaw, he wrote a scene-by-scene outline of a recent hunting trip with Baruch at Little Hobcaw, apparently for a short film.[12]

Ruark’s friendship with Baruch gave him access to some of the finest quail hunting on the East Coast. Baruch owned or leased over 20,000 acres of prime quail habitat and assembled a gifted staff of hunting guides, dog and horse handlers, and game spotters and toters to assist him and his bird hunting guests. Until and even after the plantation house was built at Little Hobcaw in the early 1940s, bird hunters motored from Hobcaw Barony to Little Hobcaw for an afternoon of hunting before returning to Big Hobcaw to enjoy outstanding meals, rich fellowship, and overnight lodging. After Elizabeth Navarro moved into Little Hobcaw, she added cooks and house servants there as well.[13]

Little Hobcaw’s staff was constantly working to enlarge and protect the quail population so there would be plenty of birds to shoot. Assistants patrolled the woods to keep poachers out, adopted a predator control program, and practiced regular burning to improve quail habitat in the pine woods. According to Ruark:

The preservation of [Baruch’s] quail is a local industry…. Cats, run wild, are exterminated. Bounties are paid on varmints. At the end of the season the woods are burnt free of underbrush, so that the little birds will not be trapped in the matted grasses. Poaching is more of a sin in that neighborhood than voting Republican. Clutches of eggs are lifted from the wet spots to higher ground.[14]

Baruch’s plantation manager at Little Hobcaw was a prominent local farmer named Dave McGill, who appears to be about fifty years old in a 1952 photograph taken with Baruch. McGill reported to Baruch, and the rest of the hunting staff reported to McGill. Dave McGill and Ely Wilson, the brilliant African-American dog trainer and handler, guided for Mr. Baruch during bird season. They took “the Boss” out every afternoon except Sunday, beginning the hunt at 2 pm. Clyde Gamble, Julian Hannah, Henry Nelson, and James B. “Braxton” Lovette, Jr.—all local white farmers—guided Baruch’s hunting guests.[15]

Little Hobcaw bird hunters traveled afield on horseback, riding on descendants of the wild horses or “marsh tackies” that originally lived on the South Carolina sea islands. These horses were so agile and athletic that one of Baruch’s former hunting guides remembers them loading into horse trailers without benefit of a ramp. Instead they jumped into their carriages just like a dog might spring from the ground into the back of a truck bed. [16]

Little Hobcaw’s total hunting territory was broken up into four or five main land parcels or hunting tracts. Each bird hunting team concentrated exclusively on one of these separate properties and directed quail hunts there. A hunting guide took only one hunter in his party, never more, and headed a team that included himself and two black assistants. On a typical day of bird hunting at Little Hobcaw, Baruch and his guests comprised several different parties, each quail hunting simultaneously but separately, on scattered properties. After the hunts, Baruch and his guests reunited. [17]

Every hunting staffer had defined duties; none was allowed to carry a gun or to shoot. Guides rode in front, directing and controlling the bird dogs, and signaling when bird dogs pointed. The two assistants helped bird hunters on and off their horses, held the horses steady during shooting, and gathered dropped birds that the dogs retrieved. One black assistant watched where the downed birds fell. The other observed where the flushed single birds flew and lit. Doc Meyers, one of Baruch’s assistants, had the special task of carrying a wooden shotgun shell box in the field to provide Mr. Baruch with spare ammunition. The wooden shell box had another use. Whenever Baruch mounted his horse Toby, Meyers placed the wood shell box on the ground to act as a step to make it easier for Mr. Baruch to climb back in the saddle.[18]

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Little Hobcaw’s kennels were well stocked with fine bird dogs, and Ely Wilson was head dog trainer. In the Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, Ruark claimed, “The two people who knew most about dog training—working dogs, I mean that I ever met were the Old Man and a fine black gentleman named Ely Wilson. Wilson was better than the Old Man, if that’s possible.” Ruark was fortunate enough to hunt with three of Baruch’s all-time finest dogs: Sam, who belonged to guide Henry Nelson, and Joe and Spot, who Ely Wilson trained for “the Boss.” Joe was a mixed-breed bird dog with no special pedigree who, according to Ruark, “on his good days … could make a bum out of anything with Ch. [the Abbreviation for “Field Trial Champion”] in front of his handle.”[19]

While Ruark bird hunted at Little Hobcaw on “one exceptional day when Joe found everything except Adolf Hitler,” Wilson dismounted from his horse and briefly placed bird dog Joe in the saddle as recognition and reward for his performance. According to Ely, “This dog is too good to have to walk between coveys.” Wilson’s mock-serious display made for great entertainment. Would any guest hunter ever forget the time Ely Wilson reversed the normal order of things and let Joe ride on his horse while Wilson walked alongside, pretending to exalt his bird dog? Putting Joe in the saddle was just one example of Wilson’s brilliant ability to transform bird hunting into spectacle, thus making the experience unforgettable.[20]

In another “Old Man and the Boy” column, Ruark and Ely Wilson conducted one of their best and quickest bird hunts at Little Hobcaw, also hunting behind the brilliant “semi-mongrel” bird dog Joe. Rainy conditions made it easier than usual for Joe to smell birds, which “were all over the place, leaving a musk as heady as any skunk’s.” Joe, the bird hunting mutt, clearly outperformed all the other fancier, pedigreed bird dogs hunting with him. Ruark collected his limit of fifteen quail in 45 minutes while being careful not to shoot more than three birds out of any single covey.[21]

On his 1955 visit to Little Hobcaw, Ruark hunted with the legendary English pointer Spot. Years later, Ely Wilson claimed that Spot “was the best dog I ever saw. In his day I would put him up against any dog in South Carolina.” Then Wilson paid Spot the ultimate compliment, adding with apparent sincerity, “Spot was the greatest dog that ever lived.” In deference to the pointer’s former greatness, when the dog was too old to hunt, Wilson let Spot ride in front of him in the saddle throughout the hunt and put him down on the ground when the other dogs pointed. Unlike the earlier humorous gag with Joe, this time Wilson was genuinely caring for his most illustrious bird dog, now too feeble to bird hunt without assistance.[22]

For the most distinguished visitors like Winston Churchill and celebrities like Robert Ruark, Baruch excused the charismatic Ely Wilson from his personal hunting party and directed him to act as the special celebrity hunting guide. Not only because of Wilson’s abilities as a bird dog trainer and handler, but also because of his good character, charming personality, and sense of humor, Wilson exerted enormous influence at Little Hobcaw. Some of the most famous people in the world regarded Ely Wilson as their friend. Robert Ruark, for example, described Wilson as his “friend,” “a fine black gentleman” and “a very kind man.” Sir Winston Churchill recruited Ely Wilson as his regular evening drinking partner, and on one night with Churchill’s encouragement, Wilson imbibed so much that he became badly inebriated and had trouble driving home. As tokens of their gratitude toward Wilson, Little Hobcaw’s hunting guests frequently corresponded with him and sent him gifts. Sir Winston sent a box of cigars. General Omar Bradley an engraved cigarette lighter. Wilson kept these gifts and letters in a special box at his home.[23]

Despite occasional assignments to hunt with the rich and famous, Ely Wilson’s primary duty was bird hunting with “the Boss.” Baruch, McGill and Wilson formed a remarkably effective hunting team. For his part, Baruch was a superb quail shot and remained so until he quit hunting at age 93. His shooting prowess was all the more outstanding because he was practically deaf by this stage in his life—probably from years of shooting without ear protection. Anyone who has ever bird hunted knows that hearing the birds flush is just as important as seeing them in enabling a shooter to locate his target. Baruch shot by sight alone.[24]

Unlike Bernard Baruch, evaluating Robert Ruark’s quail shooting at Little Hobcaw involves separating fact from fiction. In his 1951 Field & Stream article, Ruark claimed, “My personal record of 15 out of 18 shots was set on a basis of no sleep at all for two nights, due to work and travel,” and, apparently, suffering from a hangover. But in The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older Ruark admitted, “I have long believed that one day I killed fifteen quail with thirteen shots. This is an outright falsehood, although I tell it frequently. It actually happened, but it happened to Mr. Bernie Baruch. I stole it callously.” In another newspaper column, Ruark revealed, “The last time I was down I shot 19 times and killed three birds on the first day which caused [Mr. Bernie] great amusement.” Also, in another passage from Ruark’s 1951 “The Brave Quail” article in Field & Stream, he appraised his marksmanship more realistically. There he admitted Ely Wilson’s consternation when they bird hunted and “I am in my usual state of firing much and dropping little.” More than likely, Robert Ruark was an average to above average quail shot.[25]

Whether he hit or missed, Ruark knew the thrill of bird hunting, and no one ever wrote about it with greater insight or verve. In his “The Brave Quail” article, he beautifully describes the moment when a bird hunter approaches the pointing dog.

This is it. He kicks, and the world erupts around him. The noise has something of the sound of an exploding land-mine, something of the rapid belch of an Oerlikon 20-millimeter. It is otherwise indescribable. Small birds burst from the ground. They take off in all directions. They are traveling at more than 40 miles an hour, and they present a target as large as a big orange.[26]

In The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, written after several African safaris, Ruark declared that he had lost his enthusiasm for killing big game, but his obsession with quail hunting never diminished.

It occurred to me that I had had enough tigers and lions, and that I would rather watch elephants than shoot them. Unfortunately, this does not seem to apply to quail. Concerning quail I am still as bloodthirsty as the day my first bobwhite scared me so bad I threw up and had to be put to bed for two days.[27]

Robert Ruark not only enjoyed bird hunting at Little Hobcaw, he also relished the high life as Baruch’s guest. A hamper containing “a bottle of Scotch and a bottle of bourbon, plus a hot thermos of bouillon, and a box of cigars” always was brought on the hunt, and Ruark was free to consume these goodies and treats at the hunt’s conclusion. Afterwards, Baruch and his hunting guests drove back to Big Hobcaw where “a hot bath, a tray of hot canapes, and a shaker of cold martinis would be waiting beside a roaring fire in the bedroom.” After bathing and dressing for dinner, Ruark and other guests ate “an enormous dinner,” sat “in front of the great fire,” and soaked up “the old gentleman’s [my italics] wit.”[28]

Living abroad and maintaining a busy travel schedule after 1957, Ruark came to Little Hobcaw less regularly. He and Virginia began living part-time in Palamos, Spain, in 1953, and afterwards Ruark spent considerable time away on writing assignments or on safari in Africa or India. Even so, he and Baruch kept up a steady correspondence with quail hunting as a main topic, and Ruark remained keenly interested in Little Hobcaw. Baruch regularly asked Bob if he was coming to hunt, and “the Chief” also made reports back on the current quail population and bird dog performance. Ruark remarked in one letter “that I am there in spirit even if my corporeal presence will be in Tanganyika.” In 1963, only two years before his death, Ruark purchased a large tract of land in Virginia and informed Baruch that “I am planning to build a modest Hobcaw Junior on my acres this fall.” When Bob and Mr. Bernie were apart, quail hunting together at Little Hobcaw was often on their minds.[29]

In 1951, Ruark wrote his first article about bird hunting at Little Hobcaw, “The Brave Quail,” in Field & Stream two years before he started his “Old Man and the Boy” columns in the same magazine. “The Brave Quail” article anticipates the “Old Man” columns and shows how hunting at Little Hobcaw revived memories of his boyhood bird hunting. Ruark’s prose ranges effortlessly from the present to the past and back to the present. For instance, he begins by recounting his bird hunting at Little Hobcaw and then recollects “my old Llewellin setter Frank, long gone to his fathers” and “training a pointer puppy named Tom, who was fast as Jackie Robinson.” After recalling these bird dogs of his youth, Ruark switches back to present and talks about Ely Wilson’s best dogs at Little Hobcaw. [30]

The 1951 “The Brave Quail” article would not be the last time Ruark wrote about Frank and Tom, and it shows how Little Hobcaw’s bird dogs inspired Ruark to remember and write about bird dogs that he owned as a boy. Both Frank and Tom and several other hunting dogs also appear as major figures in The Old Man and the Boy. In “Old Dogs and Old Men Smell Bad,” the blue-tick Llewellyn setter Frank is paired with Sandy, “a big lemon-and-white setter with one red eye.” Tom also makes an appearance later in the same chapter. Frank and Sandy surface in the same book in “November Was Always the Best” and “You Separate the Men from the Boys,” and Tom joins these two other bird dogs in “To Seek a Bear and Find a Boy” in The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older. [31]

In 1953, toward the end of his most active six-year period of hunting with Baruch at Little Hobcaw, Ruark began writing his “Old Man” columns for Field & Stream. He penned the columns while he traveled all over the world on assignment and to big game hunts. Unlike “The Brave Quail” article, which moves back and forth easily between Ruark’s contemporary experiences at Little Hobcaw and his fond remembrances of boyhood bird dogs, the “Old Man and the Boy” columns concentrate mainly on Ruark’s semi-autobiographical, fictionalized youth spent around Southport and Wilmington. He no longer makes as complete or as direct a connection between Little Hobcaw and his youthful hunting past as he does in “The Brave Quail,” although the influence of Baruch and Ely still occasionally appear and become explicit through brief references to them.

As previously noted, while scholars rightly believe the “Old Man” to to be primarily based on Ruark’s grandfather Captain Ned Adkins, these brief references to Bernard Baruch and Ely Wilson suggest that they were also models for Ruark’s iconic “Old Man” character. In one of his Field & Stream columns that became the Old Man and the Boy chapter “Lazy Day—No Women,” Ruark makes a direct link between the “Old Man” and Bernard Baruch. Ruark describes in the following way the “Old Man” while he was lounging on the Cedar Bench, a prominent gathering place beside the Southport harbor: “The Old Man was meditating real good when I arrived. He had his hat pulled down on top of his nose, like the pictures you sometimes see of Mr. Bernie Baruch sitting on a park bench.”[32]

This direct comparison between the “Old Man” and Bernard Baruch confirms that the pair was connected in Ruark’s mind and even raises the strong possibility that Baruch was a much more important model for the “Old Man” than previously recognized, perhaps second only to Ruark’s maternal grandfather Ned Adkins as a prime subject. Ruark often referred to Baruch as the “old gentleman,” expressed his admiration for him, and sought his advice. With their age difference and Baruch’s role as mentor and counselor, it makes sense that Ruark would have associated Baruch with his grandfather. Like Captain Ned Adkins, Baruch loved to bird hunt, and he was Robert Ruark’s main bird hunting companion and host in the years immediately before and during the time that Ruark wrote “Old Man and the Boy” columns. How could Ruark not be reminded of his grandfather while bird hunting with Bernard Baruch, and how could he not have thought about Bernard Baruch as he remembered his grandfather? Ruark based the “Old Man” in part on the “old gentleman”—Mr. Bernie, that is. Baruch himself seems to have understood that he was an important influence in Old Man and the Boy. In a 1957 letter to Ruark, Baruch observed, “I like the dedication especially ‘all the honorary uncles black and white.’”[33]

Certainly, Ely Wilson was another one of the “honorary uncles” to whom Ruark dedicated The Old Man and the Boy and another likely source for Ruark’s fictional grandfather. As mentioned earlier, in The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, Ruark remarked that the “Old Man” and Ely Wilson were the two best bird dog trainers he ever knew. This comparison and other internal evidence suggest the way in which Little Hobcaw’s legendary dog trainer also became a basis for the “Old Man.” In “Old Dogs and Old Men Smell Bad” (The Old Man and the Boy) and “Dogs, Boys and the Unspared Rod,” (The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older), Ruark describes the way in which both the “Old Man” and Ely Wilson disciplined two different, rambunctious bird dog puppies with such similarity that the two accounts may well have a common origin. Here is the passage about Wilson, which was nonfiction, telling about the way he broke a bird dog puppy:

Wilson was better than the Old Man, if that’s possible, and I seem to remember now that he used to cut himself a whippy switch when a particularly headstrong puppy persisted in running up birds or failed to respect another dog’s point. Ely, a very kind man whose animals adored him, would take this limber switch, and in the words of the Carolinas simply “wear out” the youngster while saying “Whoa!” with every lick.

This was momentarily unpleasant to the puppy, but very shortly, when Ely hollered, “Whoa!” the dog associated the word with a limber stick and whoaed. His dogs still retained the high spirits that made them superb in their business, which was quail finding.[34]

And here is the other passage about the fictional “Old Man” training a headstrong puppy:

The first thing the puppy did was point a rabbit, jump him, and chase him. He came back, his tongue hanging out, looking triumphant. All the “Whoas!” I’d scream hadn’t made a dent in his eardrums.

“Whip him,” the Old Man said. “Whip him good. Wear him out. And say, ‘No!’”

I cut an Indian-arrow switch and beat him pretty good. The next rabbit, he jumped at, ran a little ways after, and then came back and lay on his back, all four feet in the air, and said, more or less, “Beat me, boss.” I beat him, but not very hard. And that was the last of the rabbit trouble….

[All] the days he lived he never had another stick to his hide and rarely a command. He never ran another rabbit, and after the first “Whoa,” when he was working with the old dogs, he never crowded a point. He would backstand until you needed a bulldozer to move him.[35]

While it is possible that Ruark’s grandfather and Ely Wilson both subscribed to exactly the same puppy training technique, more likely Ruark had witnessed Ely Wilson’s disciplining young bird dogs on several occasions at Little Hobcaw and ascribed it to the fictional “Old Man.” If so, then Ely Wilson was another real-life “”honorary uncle” upon whom Ruark based the “Old Man.”

Sometimes the “Old Man’s” advice sounds identical to the way things were done at Little Hobcaw. For example, in “November Was Always the Best” (The Old Man and the Boy), on the opening day of quail season, the “Old Man” argues that there is no use to quail hunt in the morning. Instead, he declares, “You’ll find you’ll kill all of your quail in two hours—between three and five o’clock—with very few exceptions. All-day hunting just tires you and the dogs.” However, in “Stoicism Is Bad for Boys” (The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older), on the opening day of quail season, Ruark has the “Old Man” and the “Boy” ready to go hunting on a Saturday morning, only to have hard rain postpone their morning bird hunt.[36]

Why would Ruark have the “Old Man” reject Saturday morning hunting on general principle in one chapter and have a downpour delay their Saturday morning bird hunt in another? The explanation lies in Little Hobcaw’s unusual daily hunting schedule, which was afternoons only. Bernard Baruch’s habit differed from the more typical practice throughout the two Carolinas of bird hunting both mornings and afternoons, with lunch breaks in between. Ruark appears to have inserted Little Hobcaw’s uncommon daily hunting schedule into his fiction and put Bernard Baruch’s bird hunting wisdom in the “Old Man’s” mouth in one chapter, while the “Old Man” followed the more conventional regional hunting custom in the other. In all likelihood, the historical Captain Ned Adkins bird hunted with his grandson Bobby either mornings or afternoons, just like most regional bird hunters, and just as the “Old Man” and “the Boy” were planning to do in their opening day morning hunt in “Stoicism Is Bad for Boys.”

Whenever Robert Ruark bird hunted at Little Hobcaw, boyhood memories and his present hunting experience converged, thus adding depth to the author’s literary creativity. The two Old Man books were products of two different periods of Robert Ruark’s life as a sportsman: the first as a boy at home around Southport and Wilmington, and the latter as Bernard Baruch’s adult guest at Little Hobcaw. Both Old Man and the Boy and The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older have long been appreciated as Southern hunting classics. What has been overlooked, however, is the profound way in which bird hunting at Little Hobcaw influenced Ruark to recall his past. And how the few overt references to Bernard Baruch and Ely Wilson suggest their roles as additional characters upon whom Ruark based the “Old Man.” With bird hunting at Little Hobcaw as both inspiration and source, The Old Man and the Boy sprang to life in Robert Ruark’s imagination.

 

[1] Robert Ruark, The Old Man and the Boy (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston: 1957) and The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston: 1961).

[2] Robert Ruark, “The Old Man and the Boy,” Field & Stream, Vol. 102, No. 5 (September 1997): 140; David E. Petzal, “The Great One.” For references to big game hunting in Africa and India, see Robert Ruark, The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1961), “Stories Grow Taller in the Fresh Air,” p. 76, “You Got to Hurt to Be Happy,” p. 98, “It Always Rains on Saturday,” p. 127, “You Don’t Have to Shoot to Go Hunting,” pp. 147-164, “Lions and Liars,” 165-171, “Fishing Is a State of Mind,” pp. 175-189, “To Seek a Bear and Find a Boy,” pp. 237-239,“ “Nobody’s Too Old for a Physic,” pp. 247-253, “Only One Head to a Customer,” pp. 255-261, “Greedy Gut,” p. 266.

[3] Jim Casada, editor, The Lost Classics of Robert Ruark (Long Beach, California: Safari Press, Inc., 1995), pp. Xi-xxv; David E. Petzal, “The Great One: Why Robert Ruark Should Still Be Read,” Field & Stream, Vol. 112, No. 6 (October 2007): S5-S7.

[4] Margaret L. Coit, Mr. Baruch, passim; Mary E. Miller, Baroness of Hobcaw, p. 11; John Culler, “Ely,” South Carolina Wildlife, Vol. 20, No. 3 (May-June 1973): 4-6; Nelson Bryant, “Wood, Field, Stream: Quail Hunt in Mud and Rain,” New York Times, March 7, 1975; Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail,” p. 60.

[5] Lee Brockington (Senior Interpreter, Hobcaw Barony) Interview with Richard Rankin, May 26, 2017; Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail,” Field & Stream.

[6] Margaret L. Coit, Mr. Baruch, pp. 647-649; Mary E. Miller, Baroness of Hobcaw, p. 151; Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail,” p. 60; Robert Ruark column, Reno Gazette-Journal from Reno, Nevada, September 1, 1955.

[7] Emma Williams Glover, “Robert C. (Bobby) Ruark, Jr.,” 1994, NCpedia, www.ncpedia.org/biography/ruark-robert-bobby; Jonathan Martin, “Robert Ruark (1915-1965),” North Carolina History Project, northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/robert-ruark-1915-1965/.

[8] Hugh W. Foster, Someone of Value, pp. 80-81; Bernard M. Baruch to Mr. Robert C. Ruark, September 12, 1962, and Bernard M. Baruch to Mr. Robert Ruark, October 30, 1957, “Bernard M. Baruch Correspondence,” Robert C. Ruark, Jr., Papers; Robert C. Ruark, “The Baruch That Ruark Knew,” New York World Telegram and Sun, June 23, 1965.

[9] Bernard M. Baruch to Mr. Robert Ruark, October 30, 1957, “Bernard M. Baruch Correspondence,” Robert C. Ruark, Jr., Papers; Robert C. Ruark, “The Baruch That Ruark Knew.”

[10] Robert Ruark column, Arizona Republic, August 7 and August 23, 1953; Robert Ruark column, Reno Gazette-Journal from Reno, Nevada, September 1, 1955; Robert Ruark column, Detroit Free Press, December 24, 1957.

[11] Robert Ruark column, The Washington Daily News, February 16, 1949, as quoted in Hugh W. Foster, Someone of Value: A Biography of Robert Ruark (Agoura, California: Trophy Room Books, 1992), pp.80-81.

[12] Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail,” Field & Stream, December 1951; Robert Ruark, “Subject: BARUCH–Quail,” February 21, 1955, “Bernard M. Baruch Correspondence,” Robert Chester Ruark, Jr., Papers.

[13] John Culler, “Ely,” South Carolina Wildlife, Vol. 20 (May-June 1973): 4-6; Mary E. Miller, Baroness of Hobcaw, p. 151.

[14] Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail.”

[15] “Dave McGill at Little Hobcaw,” Belle W. Baruch Collection, Georgetown County Digital Library, http://www.gcdigital.org/cdm/landingpage/collection/p163901coll005; Margaret L. Coit, Mr. Baruch,

  1. 649; Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail”; James Braxton Lovette, Jr., Interview with Richard Rankin, June 3, 2017; John Culler, “Ely”; Nelson Bryant, “Wood, Field and Stream”; Robert Ruark column, Reno Gazette-Journal from Reno, Nevada, September 1, 1955.

[16] James Braxton Lovette, Jr., Interview; Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Robert Ruark, “Dogs, Boys, and the Unspared Rod,” The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, pp. 200-201; Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail,” pp. 61-63.

[20] Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail,” pp. 61-63.

[21] Robert Ruark, “If You Can’t Lick the Weather, Join It,” in Jim Casada, ed., The Lost Classics Of Robert Ruark (Long Beach, California: Safari Press, Inc.: 1995), p. 9.

[22] Robert Ruark, “Subject: BARUCH–Quail,” February 21, 1955, “Bernard M. Baruch Correspondence,” Robert C. Ruark, Jr., Papers; John Culler, “Ely.”

[23] Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail”; Robert Ruark, “Dogs, Boys and the Unspared Rod,” The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, pp. 201-202; John Culler, “Ely”; Nelson Bryant, “Wood, Field and Stream.”

[24] Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail,” p. 61.

[25] Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail,” pp. 61, 64; Robert Ruark, “Lions and Liars,” The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, p. 167; Robert Ruark column, Reno Gazette-Journal from Reno, Nevada, September 1, 1955.

[26] Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail,” p. 58.

[27] Robert Ruark, “You Don’t Have to Shoot to Go Hunting,” The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, p. 158.

[28] Robert Ruark column, Arizona Republic, September 4, 1959.

[29] Alan Ritchie, Ruark Remembered–By the Man Who Knew Him Best (n.p.: Sporting Classics, 2006), pp. 57-72; Hugh W. Foster, Someone of Value, pp. 143-155; Robert Chester Ruark, Jr., Papers, “Bernard M. Baruch Correspondence,” especially Robert Ruark to Mr. Bernard M. Baruch, September 20, 1956 and May 22, 1963.

[30] Robert Ruark, “The Brave Quail,” pp. 57-64.

[31] Jim Casada, “Robert Ruark: A Man of Startling Contrasts,” Sporting Classics Daily, March 11, 2015, sportingclassicsdaily.com/a-man-of-startlin-contrasts/; Dr. Troy L. Kickler, “The Old Man and The Boy,” North Carolina History Project, northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/the-old-man-and-the-boy/; Robert Ruark, “Old Dogs and Old Men Smell Bad,” pp. 95-108, November Was Always the Best,” p. 222, and “You Separate the Men from the Boys,” pp. 228-231, all in The Old Man and the Boy; Robert Ruark, “To Seek a Bear and Find a Boy,” The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, pp. 236-237.

[32] Robert Ruark, “The Old Man and the Boy, Field & Stream,” Vol. 102, No. 5 (September 1997): 140; Robert Ruark, “A Word from the Boy,” The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, p. 9; Robert Ruark, “Lazy Day–No Women,” Old Man and the Boy, p. 118.

[33] Bernard M. Baruch to Mr. Robert Ruark, October 30, 1957, “Bernard M. Baruch Correspondence,” Robert C. Ruark, Jr., Papers.

[34] Robert Ruark, “Dogs, Boys, and the Unspared Rod,” The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, pp. 200-201.

[35] Robert Ruark, “Old Dogs and Old Men Smell Bad,” The Old Man and the Boy, pp. 107-108.

[36] Robert Ruark, “November Was Always the Best,” The Old Man and the Boy, pp. 217-224; Robert Ruark, “Stoicism Is Bad for Boys,” The Old Man’s Boy Grows Older, pp. 277-286.

Comments

  1. A well-deserved salute to an often overlooked writer of life connected to the outdoors. Hunting is not very PC now, but so many southern boys grew up and into that life from leftover days of putting food on the table from parents born on farms around the same year as Mr. Ruark. Who knows, for Ruark and Baruch their idea of Heaven may have been endless fertile fields filled with quail ready to be flushed in an explosion of wings.

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