Near the turn of the century, concerns about Missouri's dwindling wildlife resources were coming to a peak. Many cities and counties already had placed local ordinances on the books dealing with hunting seasons and bag limits. What they failed to do was make any serious effort toward enforcing those rules.
The same was true on the state level. In 1895, the first state fish and game office was created, and Jesse W. Henry was appointed as the first state fish and game warden. However, the state failed to appropriate any operating funds or pay any salaries. And so it went for several years.
The Walmsley Act of 1905 was Missouri's first organized effort to protect and manage our fish, game and forestry resources. The act created the Missouri Game and Fish Department and provided it with funding and personnel.
The old department operated for 31 years. Several hundred different faces came and went, most of them working diligently to protect the resources and educate the public about the need to do so. One of these was Charles P. Palmer, a quiet cornerstone in the foundation of what we know today as the Missouri Conservation Department.
Charles P. Palmer was born Nov. 10, 1879, and raised on a northeast Boone County farm between the communities of Centralia and Sturgeon. Palmer attended Central College in Fayette for four years and went on to receive a law degree from the University of Missouri in 1902. Because he did not wish to be in an office or court room all day, every day, Mr. Palmer never became a practicing attorney and returned to the family farm to work the land, keep livestock and raise wildlife.
He married in 1904 and, during that same year, purchased a pair of Virginia white-tailed deer. Deer were not common in north Missouri, so the fact that they were being raised on the Palmer farm was known throughout that part of the state. He sold a few to local restaurants and a few to zoos and, in a short time, the demand grew to the point that he could not fill all requests.
Palmer also sold deer to game reserves in Virginia, Missouri, Kansas and even New York. "Every state seems to be interested in retaining what little wildlife there is left," he once said. "I believe I would be safe in saying that within a few years, there will be enough deer in Missouri so that there will be an annual open season." His vision came true in 1944, and look at us now!
Palmer raised other wildlife on the farm, as well. Under permit from the state, he and his family raised prairie chickens, ducks and geese, which were not sold, but allowed simply to wander off the farm.
During the early 1930s, Palmer became involved with the field trial organizations around the state and for 10 years hosted the state field trial championships. In 1936-37, the farm was the site of the national championships. His son, Charles Jr., says, "I remember every riding horse in the area being borrowed to fill the needs of the number of shooters participating in the nationals. I also remember traveling with my father to an area near West Plains to pick up quail and pheasant for the trials.
"We had a 1930 Chevrolet and would remove the back seat to have enough room to haul the birds home. We would release the birds on the farm where the trials would be, and then Dad would patrol the area, to keep the locals out until after the trials."
In late 1934, the state appointed Palmer as a special deputy commissioner of the Game and Fish Department, and he held that position through 1936. Deputy commissioner was the title of the times for game warden, and a "special" was one who was hired (for $4 a day) on an as-needed basis. During his time on the farm and his work with various wildlife organizations, his concern for the welfare of the still struggling wildlife populations grew.
Citizens of the state, disgruntled over what they viewed as failures of the Game and Fish Department, successfully voted the approval of a constitutional amendment that abolished the old agency and created the new Conservation Commission.
This is not the end of Palmer's story for, at the age of 58, he was one of only 16 former Game and Fish Department wardens hired by the new Conservation Commission. On Feb. 15, 1938, he took his place among 43 others. They became the first group of conservation agents in Missouri.
As a new agent, Palmer worked in district 15, which then consisted of Boone, Callaway, Cole and Osage counties. Not a bad place to be, except for the fact that he was the only agent in those four counties!
His duties as an agent included not only enforcing the new wildlife laws of the state, but educating his neighbors and others of the need for the new laws. He found many landowners willing to improve the habitat on their land for wildlife, and he also signed up landowners who wanted fish stocked in their ponds and lakes. He found himself in the public schools educating young students through the Nature Knights program about conservation, and writing newspaper articles on issues relating to conservation in his district.
His new position now took him off the farm, but his love of the outdoors and for wildlife made the new venture well worth it. His wife, Mary, daughters Helen and Rachel and son, Charles Jr., assumed the extra responsibilities on the farm during his absences. As the Conservation Department grew, more agents went to the field and Palmer's district became smaller. The original four counties changed to two, Boone and Howard, then finally to only Randolph County.
His responsibilities did not decrease, but by having smaller districts, he could focus his attention. Work loads were still heavy. His daughter-in law, Mildred, remembers him coming home well after dark, many times with boxes of papers or receipts to sort out. The family would sit for hours and help him sort fur record receipts, making sure that names and numbers all corresponded. The agent's position became a family affair. That tradition continues today.
For years, agents wrote a monthly narrative spelling out their observations as well as their activities for the month to their immediate supervisors. In April 1944 Agent Palmer reported the arrest and conviction of a Howard County resident on a charge of having a deer carcass illegally. This is the first deer known to have been killed in Howard County in many years and was thought to have been one of a pair observed frequently near the Boone/Howard county line during the past winter.
In November 1945, he participated in a road check on Hwy. 19 near Montgomery City. Agents contacted 252 hunters who had in their possession 1,383 rabbits, 343 quail and 32 squirrels. Most hunters reported hunting in Audrain, Monroe and other northeast counties.
Agent Palmer reported that the fall of 1947 was fairly quiet. "Early fur prices are not attractive enough to induce many illegal hunters or trappers to go out after game prior to the opening of the fur season this winter." In March 1948 Palmer wrote, "I have always thought the under-the-ice fishermen were the hardiest of the lot. That is until I ran across a 20 year-old boy during a late March cold snap. He was stripped and wading in four feet of water to anchor his trotline across Perche Creek."
Palmer is remembered by those who knew him as a quiet yet determined man. Dedicated? He had to be, for he earned $1,620 annually, plus a small allowance for using the family car and three days off per month, not to include weekends or holidays. During those years there were no health or retirement benefits.
He gained the respect of all he came in contact with, successfully promoting conservation and gaining support for the Conservation Department. Mildred, when asked if she thought he ever had any regrets about his life, said, "No regrets. I never heard him say, 'I should have been a lawyer.'" Palmer's son and his wife continue to operate the family farm.
When Palmer retired Feb. 15, 1955, at the age of 75, the local newspaper ran a small article that read, "Charles Palmer, conservation agent for Randolph County, turned in his badge and retired from the Conservation Commission ending a distinguished 17-year career as guardian of Missouri's wildlife and forestry resources."
Palmer died July 29, 1957. He was one of many who laid the ground work and built the foundation for today's Conservation Department. We will continue to remodel the field of conservation, but it is impossible to go forward without taking a look back, to learn where we came from.
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