Late one chill October evening in the fall of 1936, four men sat around a glowing cannonball stove in the Roehm Garage near the Bluffton and Sandpoint Roads trading stories about hunting and discussing possibilities of improving it in the county.
Warming their feet at the stove and playing a desultory game of euchre were Ed Roehm, Cliff Clapesattle, Lloyd Bullion and Joe Putnam. Their usual game of euchre had been suffering slightly from lack of attention. They were more interested that evening in a different type of “game.” Then Ed got a sudden inspiration.
“Let’s organize a conservation club,” he exclaimed, slapping a dollar bill down on the table, the first dues-paying member. Three more dropped on top immediately. Then Charlie Engle, who often sat in on those games, was called in and without hesitation added another bill to the pile. Henry Roehm, Ed’s dad, and Charlie Swihart dropped in later and by the end of that evening the treasury of the Southwest Conservation Club was swollen with seven $1 bills.
From that simple beginning has grown an organization that today is one of Northeastern Indiana’s oldest and among the state’s largest and most outstanding conservation clubs. Now, 14 years later, it has a membership of 500, a roomy clubhouse on some 30-acres of land dotted by six gravel pits containing 12 acres of good, clear water, stocked with fish. There are two skeet ranges, two trap fields, a holding pen for pheasants and many other items of equipment.
It’s a story of what sportsmen can do by setting their hearts to it. It is not a tale of high-falutin’ finances, big donations, a lot of effort by a small groups or big projects.
It is a story, rather, of inspired work by a group of neighborhood sportsmen, some more than others, but all, more or less; of bargain seeking for equipment; of a few $2 assessments and a lot of small donations; and of “chipping in,” not only with money, but also with time and effort.
The membership has grown without necessity of membership campaign. The group felt, and still feels, that new members will be more inclined to take interest in the club if they join by desire rather than by persuasion.
But let’s go back to the beginning-that fall evening in 1936. It hasn’t been easy sledding in those 14 years, but neither has it been tough sledding, when you consider the unstinting effort those men put into the club work.
The infant club grew rapidly. Members began talking it over with other sportsmen in the neighborhood of Waynedale, Elmhurst and Southwest Fort Wayne. For the first six or eight months they met in Roehm’s garage, but were growing in numbers so rapidly that they moved into Branstrator’s Trailer Co. next door, now the Peerless Trailer Corporation.
An organization meeting was held at the Elmhurst School and Ed Roehm was named president; Cliff Clapesattle, vice president; Henry Anson, secretary; and Charlie Engle, treasurer. Dues were set at $1 a year. Milt Wysong, then organizing clubs for the Indiana Department of Conservation, was on hand at the time to assist with the details.
The club’s first by-laws were drawn up in 1937 in Ed’s basement, and although re-written several times after, were always based upon good sportsmanship in the field and stream and strict observance of the game laws. The first issue of membership cards carried a pledge to this effect on their backs. The same pledge is on the 1950s cards.
One of the first acts of the members was typical of clubs at that time. They built a brooder house for pheasants and then got in touch with a farmer in the southwest part of Allen County for permission to hunt, particularly in the more prairie-like sections. The response was so favorable that the club posted signs on the properties. Members decided to locate the brooders at the rear of Ed’s home property. Ed would check the birds in the morning and Charlie in the evening.
Hunting and fishing were only two of the bonds that held the members together. There were good fellowship and recreation too. Although the treasury held little money during those early years, the members always managed to hold a stag “feed” about every month.
By the spring of 1938 the membership had jumped to 200 and by the following September the demand for a clubhouse reached peak proportions. So a $2 assessment was levied and a committee was appointed to seek a suitable site. The club members were kept informed of developments regularly at the winter meetings. In November of that year the club was incorporated.
The members first looked with favor upon the Menefee gravel pits at Elmhurst and voted to open negotiations with the owners. But the pits were part of an estate and the heirs couldn’t agree upon selling. So the committee began looking elsewhere. Since they wanted water on the site, their choices were few.
In the meantime, a bargain in lumber for the clubhouse had been offered the club. The City of Fort Wayne wanted someone to clean up the old eyesore League Park, scene of many Central League ballgames and left field home runs.
The city offered the Southwest Club all the lumber the grandstand, fences and Round-Up building contained for $250 if the members would tear them down and cart them away within a month. The members bargained. If the city would furnish a truck for transporting the lumber to the grounds, they would pay for the gas and labor.
With a little more bargaining, the club sold $400 worth of the lumber, more than enough to buy it all and haul it away. The Round-Up, in fair fundamental condition, was taken down and hauled away in sections to make its reconstruction as a clubhouse simpler.
The city’s offer was made just before incorporation and while the members were still in search of a site. So it spurred the site-seeking on. Some anonymous member suggested that the Stuck Pits on Bluffton Road near Waynedale might be available.
They found 11 acres of land, including a water-filled pit, for sale at $250. After contacting several members (“chipping in” was one of the club’s principal financial measures at the time) enough money was raised to buy it. A short time later Ed Roehm bought an adjoining five acres, practically all pit, for $500 and sold it to the club when the treasury had been replenished. A purchase of 14 more acres two years later for $2,500 brought the club’s property up to its present size of 30 acres.
The first purchase, however, cleared the way for the League Park deal and in no time at all the members were busy leveling off a hill near the pits for the clubhouse. They had in mind the idea of building a good foundation nearer the pits for the house later, but this idea was never carried out. The members later chose the site for skeet field instead. They used Ed’s wrecker and slip-scraper for the leveling and, according to the accounts, they “got throwed too many times.” The wrecker also came in handy for pulling several old car bodies out of the pits.
The land was too rough and rolling to haul the lumber directly to the clubhouse site, so they unloaded near Winchester Road. On Decoration Day, 1939, a gang of them celebrated by hauling it on foot the quarter-mile from the road to the grounds. Reports are they ate “plenty of Mulligan stew afterwards.” They ate it with relish-until someone chanced upon a slight observation. They had piled the lumber upon the exact side of where the house was to go.
The clubhouse was soon erected under the full-time supervision of a carpenter, paid with money received from the sale of ball park lumber. He was fully assisted by members, who swarmed over the grounds on evenings and weekend. John Dehner furnished much of the construction equipment at cost.
They set up the sides of the old Round-Up, adding siding, insulated the walls, then, lined the interior with plywood. At first 30 by 60 feet in size, the later addition of garage and kitchen in 1942 brought it to 30 by 84 feet. Otto, caretaker at the League Park for many years, was moved to the grounds with the buildings and stayed on for two years. The club has always had a caretaker.
The members tried to do most of the work themselves, but at times it proved too much. Laying 1,000 feet of gas line from the road to the clubhouse was on such job. Working by lantern, they stayed at it one night until 1am to finish up. The next day they tried it out. Every joint leaked-the couplings were too short. They let the gas company take over then.
The gas leak and lumber trekking were only two of the many problems they had to solve. But the clubhouse took shape rapidly and in the spring of 1940 a dedication ceremony was held at which the flagpole was raised. The Winchester Road drive was used until 1943, when an entrance was constructed on Bluffton Road at the other end of the property.
In the fall of 1940 the club staged its first Hunter’s Jubilee. Held every year since, with the exception of three war years, the event last year drew more than 7,000 persons. It is stages for two reasons: to add a little to the coffers and to afford a little shooting practice for hunters before the season opens.
A huge tent full of exhibits of hunting and fishing equipment was set up last year for the visiting sportsmen to inspect. Through a public address system the visitors are enlightened about the club’s activities and given tips on sports. Emphasized are such items as courtesy on farms, sportsmanship, taking only the limit and no more, and safety in the field.
The Southwest sportsmen now have two skeet ranges, two trap fields, and a Targo range on which to exercise their prowess. More “chipping in,” along with income from earlier jubilees, saw the first purchases of second hand ranges and fields and the Targo range. Such donations were also the source of funds for two ping-pong tables for indoor recreation.
In 1940, the year after they moved the pheasant brooders to the grounds, the members erected a holding pen at a cost of $500. They attempted to add their bit to a knowledge of pheasant-raising by holding birds over to see if the mortality rate of year-old birds was led than that of eight-week-old birds. The deal cost the club money, since the feed cost was far more than the Department of Conservation, with which they cooperated, could allow them.
The quail and pheasant raising program has expanded yearly and this past year saw members releasing 372 quail and 175 pheasants. When the birds are ready, members drive them out to the country and release them wherever they sight good cover and where hunting is permitted.
The club has always had one of the best bird-raising records in the country. Even back in the days when they were penned in the back of Ed’s home they raised 198 of the 205 received. Individual members also raise quail in brooders at home.
A family of foxhounds has been kept in steady use since 1940 by many members who take particular enjoyment in their utility in the field.
The pits have been well-stocked with fish (blue gills, red ear, bass, and channel cat) and this year one was cleaned out for trout. Two pits were fertilized twice. Except for those three war years, the members have annually haled and distributed fish to Northeastern Indiana lakes from the rearing ponds they developed on the grounds with the cooperation of the Department of Conservation.
The grounds have been landscaped and living fence of multiflora rose bounds the area. The clubhouse was swung around this year to face Bluffton Road on a cement basement foundation.
The club offers trees free to anyone who uses them for conservation purposes and has been doing so ever since moving to its present site. This year some 6,500 trees were given away. Pond fishing is always available to members and their families. Five registered trap shoots are held each season.
The club sponsors Boy Scout Troop #27 at the Justin Study School. Each year, a Christmas party is held for the members’ youngsters. During the winter season both ladies’ nights and stag nights are held.
Many well-known citizens, sportsmen and conservationists have visited the club.
The club is active in state conservation work as a member of Conservation United of Indiana and is represented during sessions of the Indiana General Assembly to promote passage of conservation bills. Locally, its civic interest is exhibited by its membership in the Allen County Council of Conservation Clubs and the Citizens Advisory Council of Fort Wayne and Allen County.
One secret of the high interest the members have in their club lies in its active committee government organization. Members are urged to make concrete suggestions to each committee, and the committees, in turn, are pressed to present a specific list of activities as their share in the club’s program.
So the Southwest Conservation Club has come a long way from the days of garage and basement meetings when fish fries were the social activity and pheasant raising the sports activity.
It is steadily growing and expanding its interest to wider ranges. Its present program, in addition to all the before-mentioned, includes a share in the effort to create a Department of Conservation in Indiana that is free of partisan politics and more secure in continuity of personnel through the years. Its members are becoming more aware, year-by-year, of the broad scope of conservation and its importance to the people of their community.
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