As Arkansans, we are incredibly lucky to have access to some of the most remarkable outdoor spaces—and their accompanying activities—in the country. We are also very fortunate to have stewards around the state who care for and promote everything the Natural State has to offer, from fishing and hunting to mountain biking, canoeing and conservation.
Arkansas Wild is proud to recognize our second annual Legends of the Wild. Nominated by their peers in the outdoor community, these six individuals—Freddie Black, Jennifer James, Forrest Wood, Ed and Sue Hawkins, and Mike Mills—have changed the Arkansas outdoors.
Arkansas also lost three of its most beloved outdoorsmen this year. Jim Gaston, Cotton Cordell and Butch Richenback each made a major impact on the state with their work. They each leave a legacy that will continue to influence us for many years to come.
On the following pages, friends and colleagues pay tribute to each legend and their contributions to the Arkansas wild.
“Oh my Lord, oh my Lord,” Hillis whispered. In the next field we could barely make out a set of dark crimson tail feathers moving through the high grass. We moved quickly toward the wild turkey, along the levee with our backs bent low, in single file, three of us: A farmer named Greg Hillis, a man I was first introduced to as “the Commish,” and me.
We are an odd group, me half their size, trying to keep up in too-large-for-me, full army camouflage that I borrowed from my brother’s closet. The others in proper hunter’s camouflage with 12-gauge shotguns slung over their shoulders, a couple of plastic turkey decoys dangling from their backpacks, turkey callers clenched between their teeth. They climbed up the hill beside the field; I stumbled after them in the oversize rubber boots that they bestowed upon me to save me from the snakes. We sat panting behind a tree trunk while Hillis unwrapped a piece of camouflage fabric attached to plastic stakes and positioned it in front of us as a blind. We waited. “Okay,” the Commish said. “This bird’s gonna get to meet Miss Georgia. He’s gonna have Georgia on his mind….”
It was a series of serendipitous introductions, really, a divine aligning of the stars that introduced me to Freddie Black. I had cooked for his cousin Paul Michael from time to time and during one of those dinners, as I glazed a series of Paul’s freshly hunted wild duck breasts with orange gastrique, he overheard me saying that I wanted to hunt. “Hold on now, Georgia,” Paul said as he sauntered over with a wide-eyed, soulful look, a cigar pressed between his thumb and forefinger, which he pointed at me now, saying, “I’ve got just the man to teach you. My first cousin Freddie Black; we call him ‘the Commish.’”
Paul went on to explain that “the Commish” takes his nickname from the governor-appointed position he had held for many years: commissioner of game and fish for the State of Arkansas, and that he would be honored to introduce me; and then, in the same breath, Paul moved past me, intent on finding three perfect tomatoes for the Panzenella Salad he had been talking about for some time. It was then that Paul's wife, Debbie, leaned over to me, a glass of Bollinger balanced in her left hand, and said conspiratorially, “Down there, the Commish is a bigger deal than the president of the United States.”
Many months later in early spring, I was introduced to Freddie Black at an Arkansas hunting camp, the night before a turkey hunt. He was sitting on a tree stump, holding a large Styrofoam cup filled with ice and whiskey in one hand, and cradling a thick cigar in the other, staring into the fire with a serious expression. He looked up as they introduced me to him, paused, then offered me a drink and a seat by the fire.
“You ever shot a gun?” he asked, still staring into the fire, his voice settling onto his words like molasses. “Um, no, not really,” I said, glancing sideways, feeling the other men at the camp peering at me curiously.
“This 20-gauge should work pretty well,” he said, opening the shotgun leaning against his chair to look down the barrel. “My daughter learned on a four-ten because it doesn’t kick, but it’s hard to kill anything with it. The first thing you gotta decide, do you want an automatic or an over an’ under, which is a double barrel—the classic hunting bird gun. Quail hunters, they all shoot over an’ unders, that’s just kinda the old European influence. For you I would use a 20-gauge. It’s a good turkey gun if you can get ’em close.”
“Okay, that sounds good,” I said, wanting to fit in as much as possible but clearly failing simply by the way I looked in my button-down shirt and J. Crew blue jeans.
We didn’t talk much after that. We just sat there and sipped from our Styrofoam cups and chewed on the crushed ice. “I’ll pick you up at five tomorrow morning,” he said as I finally got up to leave. Then he paused and gave me a sober look from his dark eyes through tinted spectacles. “Are you sure ’bout this?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m sure,” I said, my voice unrecognizably high pitched. “A’right then. I’ll see you tomorrow,” he said.
Freddie Black never asked me again if I was sure, or ever doubted me at all for that matter. He has a special generous spirit and a passion for the outdoors that is deep within his marrow. It makes him a skilled, patient and encouraging teacher. He did tremendous work as commissioner to improve the state of hunting in Arkansas, including his role in building up the Arkansas Youth Hunt Program. And he inspired me to have the career I have today, which has allowed me to in turn teach other women to hunt around the country. It was the faith he had in an unknown girl who showed up awkwardly to a hunting camp one night that set something special into motion. And I have no doubt he has done that for many people, probably more than he will ever know.
You can most often find Jennifer James in the fields around Newport, Arkansas, where her family has farmed for four generations. Though she was born to farming, Jennifer pursued a more formal education to complement her roots. She graduated from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville with a bachelor of science in agricultural business. That education helped her contribute to the family business when she took her spot at the H and J Land Company in 1994. Through that company, Jennifer, her father, brother, husband and son all work together to produce rice, soybeans, corn, grain sorghum and wheat on approximately 6,000 acres.
Her son Dylan, 15, handles mowing and maintaining roads, turn rows, levees and the yards around the office and house. Her husband, Greg, focuses on rice and handles on-farm improvements and conservation practices like those cost shared through USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) programs.
“Greg doesn’t get the recognition he deserves,” Jennifer said. “I’m the face of the conservation efforts, and he’s the one that gets everything done.”
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Greg started developing the farm for waterfowl habitat. At first, he had personal motivations. He wanted to have a place to hunt waterfowl with friends and family. As he learned more about the compatibility of managing ricelands for waterfowl, he started focusing more on conservation and profitability reasons.
Her brother, Trey, is the corn, beans and sorghum guy. He is involved in deciding the crop mix, where to put it and how to grow it. On the farm, he runs the crew with terrific motivation and great people skills. He also operates a ground rig spraying company independent of the farm.
But her father, Marvin, is still heavily involved as well. “Dad’s been really good at allowing me and Trey to handle most of the day to day operations and planning,” Jennifer said. “But he’s right there for consultation, and he often guides us with that gut feeling you just get after a lifetime of farming.”
Having all of her family involved in the daily running of the farm allows Jennifer to invest more of her time in ensuring the “big picture” future of farming, not just for her farm and family, but for everyone. She has had extensive involvement with the Field to Market program, which allows farmers to benchmark themselves with other growers on measurements including water quality, water quantity, greenhouse gas emissions, soil loss and energy use. The program also allows a farmer to understand how making certain changes in their field practices can affect overall sustainability.
This partnership enables Jennifer to sit at the table with groups like Kellogg’s, Mars and Anheuser Busch to better understand rice end-users and act as a liaison to local agriculture. She identifies as a grower and portrays where food originates in the field to fork process. “I think it’s really important for our end users to know what we’re doing to protect and steward the land. They need to know that we really do care about the health of our land,” Jennifer said.
As an active member of the Arkansas Rice Federation, Jennifer is also the chairman of the USA Rice Sustainability Committee, appointed by the USA Rice Federation chairman. “I’m a farmer first, and I want to stay in business and still be here years from now, so economic sustainability is important. But it’s also important that the land, water, soil and environment are here and healthy so that we can make a living on it,” she explained. “As the chairman, I get to bring that to the table in other discussions and with other audiences.”
You can hear the passion in her voice for both farm and family when she adds, “It’d be fantastic if my son can come home and farm if that’s what he wants to do one day.”
She served on the USA Rice Communications Committee to help craft and mold the perception consumers have of the rice industry across the nation. She was also chairman of the USA Rice National Outlook Conference Planning Committee for six consecutive years, during which she coordinated the networking of 600+ agriculture representatives annually.
Closer to home, Jennifer is an active board member for the Arkansas Rice Farmers where she advocates on behalf of growers across the state on local and federal levels. She is also active on the Jackson County Farm Bureau Board and was appointed by the Arkansas Secretary of Agriculture as the Young and Beginning Farmer representative for the Arkansas Agriculture Board.
Leading by example, Jennifer and her family work diligently to implement sustainable farming practices throughout their operation. They utilize polypipe irrigation methods, which decrease water and energy use by 20 percent. Their involvement with the H2O initiative helps encourage other farmers to be proactive and apply responsible irrigation methods on their farms as well.
The James family has contributed mightily to Arkansas farming and its environmental sustainability. Through Jennifer’s engagement in advocacy and outreach efforts, they are spreading conservation conscious farming methods across the country and bringing an understanding of farmers’ roles in conservation to the table.
This is a story about a man who is famous from coast to coast. However the people of Arkansas got lucky when he decided to set up shop right in his own back yard, and call the “Natural State” home his whole life.
This is a true country gentleman who always has, and continues, to affect lives while creating a culture. He didn’t change a culture, he created one and I was lucky enough to be around and watch it happen.
Folks, here comes Forrest Wood. That name alone sounds like a hero right out of an old western movie doesn’t it? But this is a living hero, cowboy hat and all.
So I was about to get the shock of my life as I pulled up to the Ranger Boat plant one morning in 1971. This company was only a few years old with an uneventful beginning in downtown Flippin, Arkansas. That was where, in the back of a gas station, four or five people, led by Forrest Wood, built a half-dozen fiberglass boats and Ranger was off and running.
The operation showed promise so Forrest moved out of the “grease rack” to a small building just outside of town. This new location must have employed several dozen people now and there must have been a good number of boat orders in hand, when that small plant burned to the ground. That was May 4, 1971, and May 5 was when I showed up and not being aware of the fire until I saw the results, I was as I said, floored.
On this particular day Forrest and I had planned on floating Crooked Creek for some television content and that brought me to the Ranger headquarters. Now I’m meeting him on a charred concrete slab and that’s where I’m at when I see his pickup headed my way.
Now when he bails out of that truck wouldn’t you expect to hear some…“What a disaster this is”…“I give up”…etc.? That’s how most people would have reacted. Not Forrest though. His four wheels are now up on the slab and he says, “I told those guys to clean this place up but they went too far.”
I would quickly learn that his papers with the new boat orders had been saved, and the plans to rebuild were in the works. He was spending more time making everyone feel comfortable about the future than he was worrying about what had happened. That’s what a great leader does, and yes, we still went to Crooked Creek.
Of course the plant was rebuilt and over the years the product that came out of its doors has arguably done more for the growth of bass fishing than any other product that I know of. Sure, Forrest is retired now but he will always be the heart and soul of Ranger Boats.
But let’s dig a little deeper. Forrest was born right there in Flippin, next to the White River in the Ozarks and economically speaking, times were really tough. You see, the big dams that would change the lay of the land in that part of the Ozarks, were several years away. So Forrest, whose goal was to become a farmer, was spending a lot of time behind a mule-pulled plow. I guess the greatest thing he would ever do was done during his high school days. He fell in love with Nina Kirkland.
Now you know how romantic those cowboy movie stars are. Well Forrest fit the mold. He took Nina smallmouth fishing on their dates. Must have worked—they married in 1951, and raised four beautiful daughters.
But back to the ’50s and Forrest’s dreams have hit a roadblock. Farming has hit rock bottom and Forrest and Nina are finding it hard to make ends meet. Matter of fact they have added some debt to their problems.
So here is how he handled those tough times and as the old saying goes, “let this be a lesson to you.” Forrest, from day one, has always worked his fanny off. He is a relentless man when it comes to getting it done, and doing it the right way. He normally works slow and steady, thinking everything through and is as honest as the day is long. The combination of all those things got him through the ’50s and the toughest stretch of his life.
In order to climb out of the hole, Nina and Forrest packed up and went to Kansas City for about a year. They worked hard, saved enough to pay off their debts, then returned home. At that time Forrest went to work in the construction of Bull Shoals Dam.
This is so ironic to me. Forrest is pouring concrete into this giant of a project, Bull Shoals Dam. That dam will turn the White River into a trout fishery like no other, and the trout fishing will then change the lives Forrest, and a nation full of bass fishermen, forever.
Yes, he will become a legendary river float-trip guide but that’s only the beginning. That river was brutal on the wooden jon boats that were used on those float trips. So our hero decided he could build one out of fiberglass. Forrest had been tinkering around with that material in the mid ’60s and he turned out a winner with that first glass riverboat. Now instead of lasting one or two years like a wooden rig, the fiberglass model could last for many years. Maybe forever.
Still one step to go. One very large step. Forrest started showing some talent with his fiberglass work. About this same time he was showing some real vision and had a pretty good sense about the bass fishermen’s needs as well. In 1968 he built the very first Ranger Bass Boat and folks, that takes us back to the grease rack in the back of that filling station in Flippin.
Now this is how I think we should end this. Forrest Wood, at a young age, had the goal of becoming a farmer and raising cattle. His beloved river, the White, lead him to building boats, where he became famous and successful enough that he could go back to farming and raising cattle. Talk about holding on to your dreams.
Have you bushwhacked through thick brush, become snagged and tangled by thorny vines and slapped in the head by branches while trying to get to a scenic vista? Now imagine attempting that on a bicycle. Sometimes taking the trail less traveled can be treacherous—unless it’s a trail maintained by volunteers like Ed and Sue Hawkins.
I first met the pair at an Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Series (AMBCS) race in Mena. I’ve had the privilege to ride on the wheel of Sue and enjoy Ed’s sweet potato pie topped with homemade yogurt and cookies that he sends to our ladies mountain bike weekends. Their story and the incredible change they’ve introduced to their adopted state is astonishing.
The junior high school teachers from Tuscon, Arizona, always loved the outdoors. They spent their summers backpacking and canoeing across the Rockies. Ed was very involved in the Sierra Club—even serving as the chairman of the Grand Canyon chapter. They sought to live in an environmentally sound way and became intrigued with the “back-to-land” movement. They began hatching a plan to become self-sufficient farmers. In 1980, (Ed, 40 and Sue, 32) they found the perfect place to realize their dream—a 40-acre homestead in the Ouachita National Forest.
Life in the Natural State was a lot different than the life left behind. They raised farm animals and bees. Sue made cheese and bread and canned the vegetables they grew. Just as they thought it couldn’t get any better, Sue discovered she was pregnant with their son, Nicholas. Reality soon modified the plan. Needing a dependable income source, they purchased more land to raise cattle and chickens. And in 1991, Sue returned to teaching middle school.
Both avid runners, they began competing in local races. Soon, Sue was organizing events. Ironically it was members of the running community, Mike and Sue Kelsey, who introduced Ed and Sue to off-road cycling. They loved the sport but there was a problem: no trails.
Their property is surrounded by national forest. At that time, the area contained fire roads and hiking trails. Existing trails didn’t allow bicycles. Wanting more places to ride, they started building trails. Soon, Mike decided they needed more help and organized the Ouachita Cycling Club (OCC).
Eventually the cyclists, hikers (Friends of the Ouachita Trail) and the National Forest Service came up with a plan. They would open some trails to bicycles for a five-year trial period. In an effort to introduce riders to the Ouachita Trail and the Womble, The Ouachita Challenge was born. Before long, they realized that the trails were getting a lot more use and cyclists were gathering and volunteering to work on the trails. The plan was deemed a success! The Ouachita Challenge continues today raising thousands of dollars and bringing hundreds of new riders to the area.
Ed and Sue enjoyed many victories in AMBCS races, and national and international competitions. Ed has one gold medal and three silver medals in the 2002 to 2005 Union Cycliste Internationale World Cup races. He raced in 14 National Off-Road Bike Association events and won five first-place medals and three second- and third-place finishes. His medals were recently on display in the Different Spokes exhibit at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock.
As exciting as this is, they believe building is more satisfying than winning. Trail advocacy, maintenance and the involvement of others in the sport are their legacy.
Recognized by the Arkansas Trails Council and the Friends of the Ouachita Trail in appreciation of the years of volunteerism, they remain humble. “This couldn’t have happened without the contribution of the National Forest Service, the Arkansas State Parks system and local clubs. Because of these parties, we have stellar trails and Arkansas has become a cycling destination,” said Ed.
Now that Arkansas boasts many miles of wonderful trails, maintenance is the concern. “These trails will not survive without volunteers…and we need more of them,” said Ed. Consider this a call to action.
The couple has also begun working with the American Foundation for the Prevention of Suicide (afps.org). Almost every family is touched by mental illness on some level. This hit home last June when they lost their son, Nicholas to suicide.
“It’s often the stigma of mental illness that prevents people from seeking help. This organization is working diligently to produce education materials to gain awareness of this illness. Through the ‘Out of the Darkness’ events, they are funding researchers striving to learn more about the brain and mental illness,” said Sue.
The couple continues to work on trails and attend rides around the state. They promote the sport and spread the message to get people of all ages on a bicycle. Ed believes that riding reduces stress levels and improves self confidence and self image. He’s printed up flyers of Albert Einstein riding a bike that says, “E=MC2. I thought of it while I was riding on my bicycle.”
I first met Mike Mills at a coffee shop in north Fayetteville, just on the outskirts of Highway 412. Although the setting was slightly off—you’re more likely to find Mike somewhere deep in the Buffalo, nestled near his shop, the Buffalo Outdoor Center (BOC), or peacefully roaming the region—the meet was as comfortable and productive as first engagements go. Mike and I were meeting to establish a partnership between my company, Fayettechill, and his nonprofit, the Buffalo River Foundation (BRF). For me, it was an exciting and new kind of professional collaboration. For Mike, it was simply another movement in a series that had been going on for four decades, one in which community growth and environmental conservation were the focus of the energy and effort of all involved.
Rather than discussing lofty ideals, Mike guided the conversation toward simple goals that would guarantee a beneficial partnership. We set forth a series of apparel-centric social initiatives that focused on creating art that heighted the beauty of the Buffalo. The design would be screen-printed on our shirts and sold at a price that included a direct donation to the BRF. Together we created a link that would allow individuals to support, experience and represent an important piece of the region’s outdoors.
In the years since meeting Mike, I’ve found that this is not typically an easy feat—accomplishing socially altruistic goals intermittently using traditional business practice. It is often financial concerns that take up the bulk of our time, money and attention. That, or more personal needs often absorb and direct the mass of what we make of our lives. But not always. Mike’s life demonstrates that a more balanced approached toward social contribution is available. When you take it slow, with quality and community in mind, each step forward is mindfully and intentionally crafted.
Mike is truly a legend, and certainly of the wild variety.
His ability to center his efforts on the big picture is remarkable. As a result, Mike is an active and storied section of the Ozarks’ history. In 1976, after completing graduate school at the University of Arkansas, Mike founded the BOC, and in doing so set the basecamp for serving, welcoming and guiding more than 1.7 million guests around the Buffalo River region. As a result, the BOC and its associated rental services have been a consistent source of tax revenue, employment and donations that have made positive, community binding contributions to Arkansas’ outdoor culture.
None of this happened by accident. After founding the BOC, Mike served as the director of tourism for Arkansas Parks and Tourism from 1982-1986, where he learned the professional inner-workings of the outdoor industry at an accelerated rate.
At first, his goal with the BOC was plainly to survive. He didn’t set out to make a fortune but rather wanted to position himself such that he could live and work outdoors, motivated by the serene sense of happiness that always accompanies experiences in nature.
If you ask Mike why he’s so passionate about the Buffalo, he will tell you that the peace you find while floating down the Buffalo River is truly, in his mind, a piece of heaven. He has traveled down the Buffalo more than 100 times and notes that he has yet to experience a trip in which he hasn’t found that peace where he is able to breathe in the air, take in nature and feel a deep sense of passion for the wild world around him. It is clear he is motivated by these moments and looks to share them in one way or another with all who visit the Buffalo River region.
From my perspective, Mike has built his success on two axioms: Community engagement and high-quality service and products. Although Mike admits that it took him some time to learn that relationships were a key to successful business, he has been acting in a community relationship-oriented manner from the get go. He shares his knowledge and resources for the sake of others’ well being, characteristically at a fair rate, and always at first-class quality.
Beyond guiding the BOC with his principles, Mike’s legendary status has been more recently substantiated in a whole new direction through the BRF, the nonprofit aimed at protecting and improving a national treasure. After a long history with conservation efforts, projects and organizations throughout the Natural State and beyond, Mike found himself surrounded by a serious network of leaders in the outdoor community and in ownership of a small easement in the Buffalo River watershed. This scenario set the stage for Mike to evolve the slowly dissolving Buffalo River Stewardship Foundation into the BRF to become a reinvigorated and realigned nonprofit collective of eco-conscious and proactive individuals. In relatively short time, Mike developed the BRF into a small, but nimble in the effective sense, team of leaders in the Buffalo River region. Mike says they are just getting started, and 2016 promises to be their most ambitious and substantial year to date.
The Ozarks are prepared for success and prosperity in the 21st century and a large part of that is the result of Mike Mills’ efforts. It’s a story that has been spinning more than 40 years, and is of no doubt of legendary status. It’s good to know first-hand that Mike doesn’t plan to reduce the ambitions of his outdoor activities down any time soon. The best thing we can do to support Mike is to take a step back, see what he has spun and learn how we can best work together to preserve the hidden gems of the Ozarks.
Ask Jim Gaston “How are you doing?” and he would reply, with that mischievous Gaston grin, “I got up today!” What he really meant was that he was alive, going to get as much out of life that day as possible and he said that right up until the end.
Jim Gaston was a legend in his own time. He understood tourism as an industry before the state did. He was a marketer and he even understood that before the state did. Jim was always one step ahead. Advertising, the Internet, social media were just a few of his cutting-edge legacies. He was there before us all and telling us we should be there too. His greatest accomplishment was taking a small trout-fishing camp on the White River to "America’s #1 Trout Fishing Resort" and dragging tourism in the state of Arkansas with him.
Jim was never afraid to speak his mind. With a very quick wit it was unwise to counter him, his small-town antidotes would always come back in a flash. Many a politician found that out the hard way. I remember when his e-newsletter would be comments from “Manford” his favorite dog. Written from a dog’s point of view, they could be critical of us humans, chastising, loving, stating simple principles or very to the point. Manford even had his own website and the brains of Jim Gaston.
His passions were a life-long list. He was an aerobatic pilot. His instructor, Marion Cole, said his instincts were the best he had ever known. After entertaining at many airshows and walking away from two crashes he hung up his wings. Then he went on to building jeeps, the kind with big tires, big engines and lots of rock-climbing ability. One, he called Snoopy, had this phrase painted upside down on the back: “If you can read this please turn me back over.” It was just Jim.
You may know of his generous support of the Arkansas State University Mountain Home campus. It changed the college. Perhaps you have seen some of his collections in the Gaston’s restaurant—bicycles, small outboard motors, antiques, watches and pens. His photography was focused on his travels from around Arkansas to around the country and world.
He experimented with different mediums just because they were there. His book, An Ozark Perspective, presented a small sample of his work. What ever Jim chose to do, he did it to the max!
Jim was dedicated to the trout fisheries of the White River. He received many honors—the Legacy Award from the Outdoor Hall of Fame, of which he was also a member—Executive of the Year from Arkansas Business, Tourism Hall of Fame, and too many others to list here.
I was there the night Jim received the Tourism Person of the Year award at the Arkansas Governor’s Conference on Tourism. As he stood at the podium in his seldom-worn gray suit, he thanked the audience for the honor and told them that the best thing that ever happened to him in his life was meeting his wife Jill, and then sat back down.
The image of Cotton Cordell sitting behind an overly cluttered desk, with chips of wood scattered across his pants and his hands whittling away at a new lure is shared by many. It’s a mental picture: An old man who never really appeared all that old, mostly because he had an indelible smile etched on his face, sitting at his desk and whittling. Through that smile his lips were always telling a story and those around him were almost always laughing.
In January 2015, Cotton Cordell passed away at the age of 86. His legal name was Carl Richey Cordell, Jr. But to the millions of fishermen who still have his lures in their tackle boxes and scattered on the front decks of their boats, he was known simply as “Cotton.”
He was responsible for such classic baits as the Red Fin, the Gay Blade, the Hot Spot and the Big O. Lures that still carry the name that many associate as just a brand name—Cotton Cordell. But to those who knew him, he was more than just a name on a package.
Jerry McKinnis, one of three B.A.S.S. owners and longtime host of the Fishin’ Hole, said the fishing world lost one of its true greats. “He was possibly one of the biggest lure designers there ever was,” McKinnis said. “He was responsible for so many great lures, and he was just an all-around good guy. I think a lot of us may have taken for granted through the years just how important he’s been to fishing.”
Nicknamed “Cotton” because of his white-blonde hair, Cordell worked as a fishing guide and commercial fisherman in central Arkansas during the late 1940s before entering the lure-making business.
There are people in this world you run across who forever give you the impression that no matter how much notoriety, how much money, how many accolades come their way they will never change. Cotton Cordell was one of those people. His dusty little shop with the cluttered desk with half-carved creations and pants littered with shavings was about as glamorous as he would ever want to be.
Cordell was inducted into the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 1988, the Arkansas Outdoor Hall of Fame in 1997 and the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2002.
His first lures were actually what many referred to as buck-tail jigs. The initial ones came from World War II Air Force survival kits. He would buy the kits from military surplus for 25 cents, throw away everything but the jighead inside and then wrap it with dog hair cut from his English setter.
“Back then we didn’t have any deer around here,’’ Cotton said many times. “So I’d just take a wallop of hair from my dog. I had the baldest dog in the country.”
The idea that Cotton Cordell Lures was started on the back of an English setter was humorous to him. But it was a constant reminder that with hard work and some creative thought he could get places in the world as long as you stayed positive. And he was never afraid to make a change to a lure if that’s what the anglers wanted. The best example of that is the Cordell Spot. It was the first of the lipless crankbaits and shows how creative Cotton actually was. Even in those days, a crankbait was supposed to have a lip to make it dive.
Today, there are countless lipless crankbaits, virtually all of them with rattles in them. The most popular of those, Rat’L Trap, centers its name on the rattles the bait makes. But for Cotton, the original Spot was never supposed to rattle. The bearings in the bait were glued there as ballast and weight for the bait to get down in the water column. He would find out how important those weights-turned-rattles would be by accident. He had sold a gross of Spots to a tackle store in Mississippi. When the tackle store owner called and wanted to return them, Cotton gave him a call. “He wanted to send them back because they didn’t rattle,’’ he said. “I told him, ‘they aren’t supposed to rattle.’ He told me, ‘they are if I’m going to sell them.’”
Fishermen were buying the Spots, but before they would purchase the bait, they would drop it on the floor to knock the ballasts out of the glue. If they didn’t break loose, they’d put them back in the package and try the next one. Others were taking the baits home and hitting them with hammers, if they didn’t rattle they would bring them back. “We stopped putting glue on those weights after that,’’ Cotton would say.
There were many of those stories Cotton would tell while sitting at his desk, whittling and smiling, and of course creating the next thing that could take the world by storm, with or without rattles.
Even in his older days, he never lost the fire for creating lures that fish would bite. “I would almost bet that up until the day he passed, he had a piece of wood in one hand and a pocket knife in the other,” said Bobby Dennis, a current product development and marketing specialist with Luck-E-Strike who worked for Cordell from 1972 to 1980. “He was always whittling on something, working on that next idea. He was one of the last true hands-on guys who understood the lure-making process from start to finish.”
In order to describe Harry “Butch” Richenback, you cannot simply paint a verbal portrait of one man. You must understand that he was two different men. Not only that, these two personalities were polar opposites that somehow defied the laws of conventional thought, emotion and perhaps physics, to blend seamlessly into one larger than life individual. He was a student, a teacher, a Marine, a mayor, a youth baseball coach, a champion duck caller and the most revered duck call maker in history. He was not a father, but rather a father figure to countless children over the span of many years. He was often loved. He was often hated. He was always Butch.
His exterior was tough. Imagine if General George S. Patton had been a duck call maker instead of pursuing a military career. His hard-nosed, no nonsense approach to his craft made his calls the standard in the industry. An apprentice of legendary call maker Chick Major, he founded Rich-N-Tone Calls in 1976. He was an innovator who designed calls that were smaller and easier to use. They had a unique shape with a mouthpiece inspired by a Coke bottle. He used a Mylar reed rather than the rubber version being used at that time. He is also credited with turning the first call made of acrylic. Each call was perfect. Any imperfections and the call would be sawed in two and discarded.
He approached duck calling competitions with the same intensity. He won the Junior World Championship in 1957, the World Championship in 1972 and the Champion of Champions contest in 1975. However, it was his coaching of competitive callers that produced an even greater legacy. He was a molder of champions. His calls have won over 100 World Championship Titles and countless state, regional and youth contests. For Butch, calling competitions were serious business. There was no time for mincing words when evaluating a caller’s ability. If you did not want Butch’s opinion, then you better not ask. Brutal honesty was his only form of communication. Whether you were a competitive caller or simply a hunter in search of the perfect call for the field, it was his way or the highway.
Despite his gruff exterior, tough talk and moodiness, Butch had another side. Where most individuals with these qualities tend to avoid children, he had a soft spot for them. Following honorable service in the Marine Corp, Butch was the director of the Stuttgart Youth Center from 1969 to 1994. He instituted an annual Youth Duck Calling Clinic in 1969. The clinic lasted four weeks, and the kids would then take the World’s Stage prior to the World’s Championship Contest to perform their newly acquired skills for the crowd of proud family and friends. During the clinics and youth seminars he performed throughout the country, it was not uncommon to see Butch give a call to a kid in need. In his eulogy of Butch, Marion McCollum, owner of Mack’s Prairie Wings, said, “Butch gave away a fortune in duck calls to kids over the years. A fortune!” The kids flocked to him in such a way that he was labeled, “The Pied Piper of Stuttgart.”
Butch was equally involved in working with the youth baseball team in Stuttgart. He coached high school, as well as, several parks and recreation teams, and American Legion. He often reached into his own pocket to pay for equipment if the funds were not there.
Butch loved Stuttgart and sat on the city council for eight years and was elected mayor in 1994. He held that position until health issues forced him to step down in 2006. After suffering heart attacks, his condition had deteriorated severely. He received a heart transplant in 2006. This did not keep Butch down long. With his second chance in life, he quickly resumed his work and continued working with the youth. After a valiant fight, Butch would succumb to a rare form of lung cancer on June 29, 2015.
I can personally say that Butch was a friend and mentor to me. That will always be one of the true honors of my life. I spent many hours with Butch watching him work on calls while helping me become a better caller. We traveled together and passed the time talking about the art of duck calling and life itself. I, like many competitive callers around the country, have my fair share of “Butch stories.” These stories are swapped around the campfire like young boys trading baseball cards. His direct, unrelenting approach to life created many comical scenarios that have reached near mythical stature. They could easily fill a best-selling book if ever compiled.
Butch lived in a modest home and was a man of modest means. He didn’t worry about monetary investments. He invested in the lives of thousands of children. Many of these are adults now with children of their own. These investments will continue to produce dividends for many years to come.
Butch Richenback was inducted into both the Arkansas Game and Fish Hall of Fame and The Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame in 2005. He was also given the Duck’s Unlimited Jerry Jones Sportsman Award in 2012. He remains the most respected duck call maker in history. He is a true legend, truly missed.