Missourians have never had the wealth of outdoor treasures and opportunities that we enjoy today. However, we must never forget that it wasn't always this way, nor are we guaranteed that the abundance we now take for granted is permanent.
In the not-so-distant past, seeing a deer or turkey was rare. Unregulated harvest, coupled with habitat destruction, had devastated fish, forest and wildlife resources.
By 1900, concerned sportsmen and conservation-minded people began forming associations and clubs with the objective of restoring and enhancing fish and wildlife populations. The efforts of these groups coalesced into the Missouri conservation movement. This movement culminated in the passage of Proposition 4 in 1937, which took politics out of conservation by creating a bi-partisan conservation commission appointed by the governor.
Later, these groups gathered the signatures necessary for a public vote on the "Design for Conservation" sales tax that provides 1/8 of one cent of sales tax devoted to conservation. Passed in 1976, the "Design for Conservation" sales tax was a landmark achievement that made Missouri the national model for the progressive management of fish, forest and wildlife resources. In short, it made every Missouri resident a stakeholder in those resources.
The Cameron Hunting and Fishing Club was one of the many organizations that helped the Conservation Department become what it is today.
The club actually started as the Cameron Sportsman's Club, which was organized in 1882. Its primary interest was competitive shooting.
The Cameron Sportsman's Club evolved into the "Cameron Fishing and Hunting Club" in 1928. The new organization, with 15 charter members, expanded its mission to include the management of a 28-acre railroad water supply reservoir southwest of Cameron. The new club leased the lake from the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company for $5 per year. The club managed the lake for hunting, fishing, ice skating, and swimming.
Dr. A.D. Templeman, the club historian, said that, by 1933, the club had become inactive because the " . . . old club members found it uncomfortable to try to hold the lake (Burlington Reservoir) exclusive."
Claire F. McClean, co-founder and president of the Cameron Fishing and Hunting Club, approached Eugene (Gene) L. Hills one day while fishing at Burlington Lake to discuss the situation. McClean did not want to see some "out-of-town" club take over and prevent local citizens from using the lake and suggested that a club of younger men assume the lease.
Gene Hills recruited local sportsmen to attend a meeting about the Burlington Lease. On July 7, 1933, the new "Cameron Hunting and Fishing Club" was born at the American Legion Hall. It had 29 charter members, and Gene Hills was named president.
The new Cameron Hunting and Fishing Club assumed the lease of Burlington Reservoir in 1933 and immediately sponsored many site improvements, including the construction of privies, a shelter house, boat docks, and picnic tables. They also stocked the lake with bass, crappie, bluegill and channel catfish.
Each club member was responsible for maintaining detailed catch and harvest records. Also, kerosene lanterns were hung over the water to attract insects for fish to eat, and rolled oats were scattered over the water for fish food.
Club membership was open to anyone residing in Daviess, Clinton, Caldwell or Dekalb counties. However, 60 percent of the membership had to be Cameron citizens. Later, the club offered junior memberships to boys younger than 16-years old for 50 cents per year.
Membership brought privileges, but members had to live up to the club's code of ethics. These read: "All club members shall conduct themselves in a manner becoming all sportsmen, and shall carefully maintain strict cooperation with other club members, landowners, game conservation agents, law enforcers, for the building of pleasant and wholesome relations between such parties."
The Cameron Hunting and Fishing Club of 1933 came together to promote the raising, distribution, and conservation of fish and wildlife. However, the volatile political atmosphere concerning fish and game laws in Missouri was brewing up a storm. Within the next few years, the club would find new purpose. Under the leadership of Gene Hills, the club took an active role in conservation advocacy and helped reshape the future of Missouri's forest, fish and wildlife resources.
On Sept. 10, 1935, Roland Hoerr, Nash Buckingham and E. Sydney Stephens organized a statewide meeting of sportsmen scheduled at the Tiger Hotel in Columbia. The purpose of the meeting was to create a "Restoration and Conservation Federation" to take politics out of conservation in Missouri. The Cameron Hunting and Fishing Club endorsed the federation on September 25, 1935. The meeting was successful in forming the goal of establishing a bi-partisan Conservation Commission.
Soon, the club campaigned for the federation throughout northwest Missouri. It started by obtaining signatures for a petition to get amendment No. 4 on the ballot. It then informed northwest Missourians about the proposed amendment through advertising, literature distribution and town hall meetings. Conservation ideas were not popular at the time, and club members worried about their safety. Shortly before his death, long-time club member Bill Free said, "We watched each others' backs, and had well planned escape routes from the meetings."
Voters approved Proposition 4, which became an important milestone for sportsman's clubs and the Restoration and Conservation Federation, and for the state of Missouri. It gave the new bi-partisan Conservation Commission the authority to accomplish goals and objectives with a common conservation vision and mission.
In support of the new Commission, the Cameron Hunting and Fishing Club focused on educating and motivating the public about wildlife conservation and sound wildlife management through educational and competitive events, such as trap shoots and fishing derbies.
The club signed a lease in 1938 with the City of Cameron for the recently completed #2 Cameron City Reservoir, a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project that increased waters they managed for fishing to nearly 100 acres.
When Japan's Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, the lease was temporarily canceled at the recommendation of the state defense council as " . . . a precautionary measure against possible subversive activities. . . ."
The Cameron Hunting and Fishing Club negotiated with the city to reopen the reservoirs to Cameron citizens and club members under strict guidelines. The club hired a caretaker and coordinated a registration system that required anglers to purchase an annual permit for 25 cents. Anglers had to sign in and out at the caretaker's residence daily, making it possible to keep track of who entered and left the premises. In 1943, the caretaker distributed 165 annual permits at the reservoirs.
Also in 1941, Dr. Templeman, president of the Cameron Hunting and Fishing Club, and Gene Hills, president of the Clinton County Chapter of the Conservation Federation and Cameron Hunting and Fishing Club member, organized the first Northwest Missouri Wildlife Conference. On April 17, 1941, more than 200 people, representing 17 counties, crowded into Goodrich Hall in Cameron for this conference. Keynote speakers for the event were Conservation Commissioner E. Sydney Stephens and the first Director of the new Conservation Commission, I. T. Bode. The lead sentence in the Cameron Sun weekly paper's article about the conference read: "Pronouncing it a success in every way; State Conservation officials lauded the first annual Northwest Missouri Wildlife Conference . . . the best ever held in the state. The verdict was based not on the size of the attendance . . . but on the conference's territorial inclusion--probably the largest in Missouri history."
Grassroots meetings like this were critical to maintaining the momentum of the conservation movement in the state. Proposition Number 4 was soon challenged in the legislature with Proposition Number 5 and Resolution Number 16. The club wrote a letter on May 20, 1941, urging its local representative to vote against Resolution No. 16, which would repeal Proposition No. 4.
The club played a role in conservation advocacy on other issues as well. In July 1941, the club wrote letters to U.S. Congressman John J. Cochran and to U.S. Senators Bennett Champ Clark and Harry S Truman opposing the proposed construction of dams in the Ozarks. They maintained the dams would have negative impacts on fish and wildlife populations.
Gene Hills, who was a postman, Boy Scout leader, sportsman, and author of the weekly news column "Backlashes and Misses," received the Master Conservationist Award from the Conservation Department in 1943. His dedication to passing Proposition No. 4, organizing the first Northwest Missouri Wildlife Conference and helping advance the conservation movement made him a very deserving recipient of this prestigious award.
Over the years, the club's role and scope in conservation expanded. The club negotiated an additional lease when Reservoir Number 3 was completed in 1961. The City of Cameron solicited the experience of club members to serve on a Reservoir Board. They also leased several ponds from private landowners in the area to rear Conservation Commission fingerling fish to a stockable size. Thousands of catfish reared in these ponds were stocked in area lakes and ponds and local streams, including Grindstone and Shoal Creeks, and Grand River.
All club-managed grounds were used to promote outdoor sports, including youth fishing rodeos, fishing clinics, field days, and competitive shooting events. The club eventually purchased a clubhouse. The facility was decorated with various wildlife mounts and was outfitted with an indoor shooting range. The range accommodated up to six shooters and prompted the club to sponsor firearms safety programs for youths and adults.
In 1973, the club organized and sponsored a "Junior Rifle Club," an affiliate of the National Rifle Association, designed to promote shooting safety and ethics to young sportsmen. Eventually, the club's meeting records began to dwindle. Newspaper clippings show the club's occasional involvement in National Wildlife Week and other local events. Ironically, the Missouri Department of Conservation, established through the hard work of the Cameron Hunting and Fishing club and other sportsman's clubs in the state, had the public support and resources to assume many of the management and outreach activities that gave the club purpose. In a way, the club's demise was, in fact, its final measure of success.
When the membership finally failed, the clubhouse was sold and the numerous taxidermy mounts were donated to the Cameron High School Science Department. Proceeds from the sale of the clubhouse and the remaining account balances were placed in a trust fund to finance scholarships for local youth pursuing careers in conservation.
Bill Free left a large portion of his estate to the Cameron Hunting and Fishing Club scholarship fund to help future conservation leaders through college scholarships. In fact, the authors of this article were beneficiaries of the scholarship fund, which has been administered by lifetime club member, Floyd Packard, for many years.
Sometimes it's easy for us to take for granted the plants, animals, habitats and outdoor opportunities we have when they are not in short supply. Thanks to the historic efforts of conservation-minded citizens and sportsman's groups like the Cameron Hunting and Fishing Club, we have witnessed conservation successes that are the envy of the nation. As long as the public continues support of Missouri's Design for Conservation sales tax, those "Good Ol' Days" will be with us for a long time to come.
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