By Bruce Schultz
At first glance, the Oak Grove Hunting Club doesn’t appear to be anything more than a simple white structure like many of the other buildings in Cameron Parish. Even on the inside it’s not swank.
But the 64-year-old establishment has been a refuge for the rich and famous. Captains of industry, political muckety-mucks and the highest levels of military brass have hunted ducks and geese here.
Any conversation about Oak Grove inevitably leads to its founder, oilman W.W. “Win” Hawkins of Lafayette. Those who knew the irascible raconteur recall his big booming voice, his Santa Claus laughter and his tendency to refer to friends as “little brother.”
Geologist Bill Rucks of Lafayette, whose wife Margaret was Hawkins’ niece, said Hawkins used that term of endearment for a good reason. “He couldn’t remember anyone’s name,” he says. But he could make people feel at ease, and he never met a stranger, Rucks said.
In fact, Hawkins’ affability resulted in a plum assignment during World War I as a general’s aide, according to Rucks.
He was known best for his story-telling talent, Rucks said, and Oak Grove’s guests relished Hawkins post-dinner sessions of yarn spinning. His tales were spawned from a large stockpile of experiences.
He helped chase Pancho Villa around Mexico in 1916 with the 69th Rainbow Division of the National Guard. Hawkins, born in Greenville, Ala., also played semi-pro baseball in Bay City, Texas, and he was one of the original oil pioneers in the fields of East Texas and Arkansas.
The club’s manager, David Broussard of Baton Rouge, recalled that Hawkins cussed like a sailor.
“But he did it in a way that didn’t offend,” Broussard said. “Usually when he used that kind of language, he was telling a story.”
“He could tell one story after another,” Rucks remembered. “He could walk into a place and everyone would leave where they were to hear him tell all these stories.”
One story was about an Oak Grove guest from New York City who was wearing just about every item of Abercrombie and Fitch hunting gear made. On an afternoon goose hunt, Hawkins was taken aback at the sight of this city slicker, on his first hunt, trying to load a shotgun down the muzzle.
Hawkins frequently regaled guests with stories about World War II. Somehow, he had convinced military officials to allow him to recruit his hunting guides for a Coast Guard unit that he commanded along the Southwest Louisiana coastline. His troops patrolled the beaches on horseback, watching for German submarines and helping U.S. airmen from Chennault Air Base near Lake Charles who had to ditch their planes in the forbidding marsh. The unit became known as the “Cajun Coast Guard,” and the Oak Grove Hunting Club was its headquarters.
The threat of German subs in the Gulf of Mexico was a sinister reality, and several civilian ships were sunk by torpedoes along the Gulf Coast during the war. In fact, a Coast Guardsman flying out of Houma sank a German sub, the U-166, near Last Island in August 1942 after it torpedoed several freighters in the Gulf of Mexico. Rumors circulated that Evangeline Maid bread wrappers were found floating near the sunken U-166, only adding to stories that some suspected local residents helped supply the German subs with fuel and food.
And another story circulated that a group of U- boat sailors sneaked into Lake Charles to take in a movie. In fact, a group of 26 Polish refugees had entered the U.S. illegally through Big Constance Bayou in Cameron Parish, according to a 1942 article in Collier’s magazine. After the war, the Cajun Coast Guard disbanded and the men returned to their usual work in the marsh, raising cattle, guiding hunters, trapping, shrimping, and fishing. Twelve years after the war ended, and angry woman named Audrey made a surprise visit to the Southwest Louisiana coast, killing 534 people and leaving more than 40,000 homeless. The hunting club, like hundreds of other homes in the area, was washed away, and it was rebuilt a few miles farther to the west beside South Cameron Elementary School.
Insurance agent Buddy Short of Lafayette has fond recollections of his five years when he was Hawkins’ right-hand man at Oak Grove in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
“I often think how special that was ,”Short said. “You couldn’t pay me enough for those years.”
Hawkins took a liking to Short because of their mutual love for golf. He recalls that Oak Grove hosted investment brokers from Lehmann Brothers brokerage house in New York, generals who graduated from West Point, Hollywood studio executives and corporate leaders.
Short once watched two big wigs swap $24 million in stock over a handshake at the hunting club.
Another time, he said, he sat behind a man who intentionally watched a Monday Night Football game between the Dallas Cowboys and St. Louis Cardinals. The cowboys lost 39-0, Short said, and he later found out that the gentleman sitting in front of him was the Cowboys’ owner, Clint Murchison, who wasn’t fazed in the least by the game’s outcome.
Jack Nicklaus came to the club after a PGA tournament in Lafayette, Short said. But Nicklaus was so frustrated with his low percentage shooting that he had started packing after the first morning’s hunt. Hawkins asked him where he was going. Nicklaus hem-hawed and replied he needed to leave and prepare for an upcoming tournament in Hawaii.
“Mr. Hawkins, to tell you the truth, I just can’t hit those birds,” Nicklaus said.
Nicklaus apparently had gone through both of his boxes of shells and his guide’s box without ruffling a feather, Short said, and apparently The Bear’s competitive spirit wouldn’t allow him to be humiliated by a bunch of birds for a second day. But Hawkins took Nicklaus under his wing and gave him a few pointers on leading a bird, and the next day the golfer-turned-hunter started connecting on his shots. He enjoyed the hunting so much that he suggested to Hawkins that he would like to stay for a third day’s hunt, short said.
“Naw little brother, you just like everybody else,” Hawkins told Nicklaus. “You come here for two days and you just stay for two days.”
Well-known outdoors writer Grits Gresham of Natchitoches started hunting at the club in the early 1950s.
“I hunted it quite a bit off and on,” Gresham said. “I hunted with win quite a bit. He was a very good shot. For as long as I could remember, he hunted every day of the season.”
Gresham recalls that one morning Hawkins was wrapping up a hunt and he was riding back to the camp in a mud- boat beside screen actor Robert Taylor.
Gresham said that Hawkins, in his usual gregarious nature, asked Taylor “’How ya doin’? How was the hunt? I’m Win Hawkins.’”
Taylor quickly responded: “’Glad t’meet you. I’m Bob Taylor.’”
And Hawkins, oblivious to Taylors stardom, asked “’What kinda business are you in?’”
Short said Hawkins and Taylor became best of friends after that, probably because Hawkins considered Taylor as a regular guy.
Taylor thanked Hawkins in a letter for a hunting trip in 1957, and he promised to practice hi shooting before returning.
Taylor continued in the letter, “Your chow down at the club didn’t do me any good either: I still feel like I gained 15 pounds. Also by way of taking your advice, I plan on getting myself a tame duck to keep here at the house with whom I can spend a lot of time. If I look him in the eye often enough, I may get in the habit so shooting them will be easy. Again Win, thanx for a wonderful time and my kindest regards to you and all the boys. As ever, Bob.”
The club’s president, Stephen Pol of Baton Rouge, said celebrities have been frequent guests at the club. “But it isn’t any big deal,” he said.
He says Baton Rouge businessman Richard Lipsey still gets dogged by club members for bringing a Turkish ambassador who insisted on wearing a bright yellow raincoat in the blind.
According to a story that has become legend, a group of generals, including Eisenhower, were at the club when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and they all came running out of the club, practically in their underwear, upon hearing the news. “That’s what Hawkins said.” Pol chuckled. “He said they were there the morning of the bombing.”
Pol said Hawkins loved to tell the story about a novice hunter at the club who wouldn’t shoot at birds that flew around the blind within range. Finally, the guide, who had been calling and calling, asked the fellow why he had passed up several good shots, and the guest replied, “I’m waiting for you to put them on the water.”
Pol said one of Hawkins’ favorite stories was actually a joke about a man who took his wife deer hunting that ended with the line, Will you at least let me let the saddle off before you shoot him again?”
“But it would take Mr. Hawkins 10 or 15 minutes to tell it’” Pol said.
Short said a regular visitor at the club was big-game hunter Herb Klein of Dallas who helped organize the making of a documentary about duck hunting at Oak Grove, called “The Cajun Blues,” featuring Oak Grove guide Dallas Brasseaux. Short said Klein arranged to have the film presented for the local residents at the South Cameron High School Gymnasium.
“To them, this was a major event,” Short said.
Hawkins’ passion for waterfowl hunting was something his wife Mabel didn’t understand. Rucks said she preferred to remain in Lafayette to stay on the local society circuit, referring to her husband’s waterfowl obsession as “Win and his ducks.”
“He loved to hunt.” Pol said. “When he got pretty old, we had to carry him in the blind and carry him out.”
Ducks Unlimited recognized Hawkins’ enthusiasm in 1982, naming a 235-acre marsh project in Manitoba, Canada, for him. Hawkins flew to Canada (the only time he rode on an airplane, according to Rucks) with an entourage from Louisiana to attend the dedication ceremony. He was also named as a DU trustee emeritus in 1986.
Manager David Broussard said many of Hawkins’ rules and traditions are still in effect. For example, the club allows one hunter per guide.
“That was a tradition Mr. Hawkins started, even though it takes more blinds and more boats,” Broussard said.
Many of the employees who worked for Hawkins are now under Broussard’s management.
The club leases 7,200 acres of freshwater marshland from the Miami Corp., which holds a membership at the club. Each of the nine stockholders gets three two-day hunts a season with 16 guests.
State Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Jimmy Jenkins is a member, and Gov. Mike Foster has conducted fund-raising hunts at the club.
Every morning of the season, hunters are awakened by waiters dressed in coats, who greet the early risers with juice, coffee, fruit and sweet rolls, along with a few advisory comments about the day’s weather.
After the morning outing, hunters are treated to a brunch of quail on toast around the main dining table that seats 20.
The first night, hunters dine on choice steaks, followed by a duck dinner the second night.
“A guest here will remember two things,” Broussard said. “He will remember the food, and he remembers his morning in the marsh.”
Henry Mouton of Lafayette will attest to the excellent cuisine.
“I ate 17 pieces of fried chicken there one day,” he said.
Oak Grove literally is an exclusive club. Without being a member or knowing someone who is a member, you can’t hunt here.
“We don’t sell hunts,” Broussard said. “It’s all private.”
And the cost of a membership? A share of the clubs stock is $50,000, and members must pay their guests’ bills.
Pol said changes have been considered, but with great resistance. He said some thought was given to providing afternoon recreation, but that was rejected to allow for leisurely afternoons.
Jery Plauche of Lafayette recalls going to Oak Grove as a guest in the early 1980s.
“I was a lowly bank teller, only 25 years old,” he said. “It was me and the entire board of directors of the old Guaranty Bank.”
He said Hawkins went out of his way to put him at ease, and they talked for hours about hunting. Hawkins talked about some of the notables who hunted at Oak Grove, including Eisenhower, and Plauche talked about the spectacular hunting at the Atchafalaya Delta.
“He realized I was a fish out of water,” Plauche remembers. “He went way out of his way to make me comfortable.”
When it came time for dinner, as usual Hawkins sat at the head of the table, and he made sure the seat next to him was reserved for Plauche.
Next morning, Plauche said, a formally- attired attendee nudged him awaker, called him by name and advised, “’It’s 4:30, its 42 degrees and the wind is out of the southwest. Would you like juice or coffee?’”
Plauche’s hunt was less than spectacular. He said he killed only one bird, a hooded merganser, but his memory of those two days has outlived most of his hunting experiences.
Hawkins died in 1987 at the age of 97.
In his final years, after he lost his eyesight and could no longer hunt, Hawkins had his guide, Blackie Cormier, take him into the marsh, but not to hunt.
“He just had to go one more time just to hear the sound of the birds’ wings,” Short said.