MINGO NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE, MISSOURI
One of the principal objectives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its protection of migratory birds was to secure within every great waterfowl concentration area of national significance sufficient habitat to save a residual brood stock from overhunting in that particular area. In achieving that end, as well as to get greater reproduction in the nesting grounds and provide adequate wintering grounds for the increased flocks, federal waterfowl refuges fell into three principal groups—the nesting refuges, the intermediate flyway refuges, and the wintering refuges. Intermediate flyway refuges were established along the four principal flyways of waterfowl, preferably not more than 200 miles apart, and in many instances at closer intervals according to the the flight habits and concentration behavior of the birds.
So this is the story of the Mingo NWR. It was expected that during milder winters the Mingo NWR, together with Reelfoot NWR in the northwestern corner of Tennessee and Big Lake NWR in northeastern Arkansas, would provide food for large numbers of wintering mallards. By regulation of the water level, the pin oak flats were shallowly flooded during the waterfowl season to make available an abundance of mast.
Eighteen thousand years ago, the Mississippi River flowed through this area on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. Because of natural events, the river shifted east forming a biologically rich swampland. General Land Office survey notes and plat maps dating back to the 1820s describe a lot of the land in southeastern Missouri as being covered in timber and water. One quote read, “I suppose the main channel of Mingo creek—it is difficult to tell where the main channel is as it is all covered with water which has little or no current. An entirely worthless country.” This was an area subject to flooding from both a major river (Mississippi) and minor rivers (St. Francis and Castor).
Nevertheless, Missouri originally was one of the outstanding waterfowl resting and breeding places in the United States. Three of the 22 principal breeding places which were drained were located in Missouri. They included 41,000 acres in the Little River area and 25,000 acres in the Mingo Swamp area of Southeastern Missouri. The latter was often overshadowed by Big Lake in northeastern Arkansas. Nevertheless, Mingo Swamp was one of the greatest stop-over resting places.
Located where Stoddard, Wayne and Bollinger Counties come together north of the Missouri Bootheel, Mingo Swamp resided in a channel abandoned by the Mississippi River in the olden and golden days. About 25,000 years ago, the Mississippi River ran between the Ozark Mountains and a terrace called Crowley’s Ridge. Then, around 18,000 years ago, the river shifted eastward, slicing its way through Crowley’s Ridge to join the Ohio River further north. The lowland west of Crowley’s Ridge, between Advance and Popular Bluff handled the earlier Illinoisan ice age melt to leave Mingo Swamp. Run off from glacial deposits, during the decline of the Wisconsin Ice Age, pushed between Crowley’s Ridge and the Sikeston Ridge, or at least runoff from their melting rushed between them reforming the landscape, leaving a dense swamp in its abandoned channel. The channel became so clogged with detritus, or rock deposits, that it left a swampy bottomland between rolling hills and limestone bluffs, in which giant cypress, tupelo gum trees, and a score of different oaks flourished. It abounded in the food that waterfowl enjoyed, and it became a favorite stopping-off place as they flew south in the winter, then north in the summer.
At one time, it was the scene of one of the heaviest duck concentrations in the United States, a true duck’s paradise. The flight during the spring and fall migrations was sometimes estimated at a million birds.
Local and out-of-town market hunters shipped hogsheads of ducks and geese to the city markets of Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago, and elsewhere. No blinds were needed as gunners stood beside some large cypress and shot until their ammunition was exhausted. Smokeless powder had not yet been invented, and it has been told that the shooting was so intense that gun barrels became too hot to hold. There were no bag limit and the kill was estimated at so many sacks instead of by the actual count of ducks.
No sooner would one flight be riddled than another would take its place and pitch into the water. Teal, pintails, and smaller ducks were ignored because they could not get the top price of 10 cents paid for prime mallards. Swamp deer were plentiful and campers, whose toughened hides could withstand the hordes of mosquitoes, would pitch camp for weeks at a time, or at least until the waterfowl migration had gone southward or northward, depending on the season, and would feast on deer, squirrel, raccoon, and swamp rabbits, as they shipped thousands of ducks to city markets.
The first railroad was completed in Southeast Missouri in 1880. Known as the Cape Girardeau and Southwestern, it ran from Cape Girardeau to Puxico, bringing from the Mingo swamp area and adjacent tracts a great amount of lumber which was loaded onto boats and shipped up the Mississippi River to St. Louis and also sent by way of Cairo, Illinois, and up the Ohio River to eastern markets. Ten years later, the vast cypress and tupelo forests fueled a booming lumber industry. When the sawmills moved in, the hardwoods and cypress were sawed into lumber. Fires in the spring and fall ravaged the wildlife habitat, and most species of game virtually disappeared. Ducks and geese passed over and, after viewing the destruction of their traditional feeding and resting place, moved on to safer sanctuaries. Agricultural interests organized a drainage district and beginning in 1917 bonds for this drainage district were sold. Soon the swamp area was a ribbon of ditches that drained the famous waterfowl haven of its last gallon of water. The drainage of some 20,000 acres in the basin was never successful. The wooded swamp was 10 or 11 miles long and 2 to 4 miles wide. Before drainage it was covered with several feet of water during all rainy seasons, and a considerable portion was normally submerged the year around. Monopoly Lake and Beaver Pond, in the west-central portion of the swamp, was the deepest. The swamp itself was wooded and 10 or 11 miles long and 2 to 4 miles wide.
An ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch advertised September 1, 1918: “We have 800 acres in Mingo swamp which is now being drained which we offer for sale with terms, in tracts of 40 acres and up at $1.00 per acre; now is the time to save some money and more money buying this alluvial land at the cheapest price ever known. Write your wants and what you can pay down; remember, drained lands in Southeast Missouri have advanced more rapidly than any land in the United States; fortunes are made here every year.”
Logging operations commenced in the late 1880s. Pin oak flats were cleared, and acorns and smartweed no longer furnished the wandering webfeet with food to sustain them on their northern and southern migrations. With water and food a total loss, the migrants changed their flight route. Man had sent to oblivion one of the finest waterfowl areas in all America.
Rehabilitation was undertaken in 1947 when the Federal Fish and Wildlife Service moved in. Some of the land was purchased outright and other parcels of the refuge were acquired through condemnation proceedings and long, drawn-out court action. Finally, all the desired land (21,676 acres) was owned by the federal government and rehabilitation was begun.
A start toward restoring the swamp to its original use, the great hereditary grounds of migratory waterfowl in the United States, was underway in 1934 with funds from sales of the $1.00 Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp. The U.S. Biological Survey pointed out that large areas which had suffered from unwise drainage and from drought were being reclaimed in a national restoration program designed as a partial offset to the rapid decrease in the numbers of waterfowl. The program of restoration was carried out under an allotment of $18,500,000 from emergency funds from the U.S. government. This money was used for the acquisition, improvements, and administration of wildlife refuge areas and additional funds totaling between $500,000 and $1,000,000 annually were anticipated for later use from the sale of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp.Twelve great nesting refuges for waterfowl had been surveyed and work begun, with a combined area of approximately 300,000 acres. It was expected that these refuges, when finally conditioned, would be utilized by waterfowl, and would produce several million ducks each season. It was also estimated that for the then present generation the production on the entire north-central breeding area would be 30,000,000 annually.While no official word had been received in Missouri by January 1935 regarding the acquisition of waterfowl resting and breeding areas, nonetheless, information had been received that those two areas were then in the process of being acquired as wildlife refuges. The two sites named were the Elsberry Drainage District in Lincoln County and Mingo Swamp in Stoddard County. Other areas in Missouri, which had been examined and had received some recommendation for use as refuges, included the Squaw Creek Bottoms in Holt County, the cut-off lakes in Chariton County, and the Proctor Creek area of the Lake-of-the-Ozarks. However, one month later, three survey parties were working on proposed waterfowl refuges at Isom Lake in Tennessee, Mingo Swamp in Missouri, and the Chautauqua Bottoms in Illinois. The main surveyor reported that excellent progress was being made, and it was hoped that the survey work would be completed shortly. Once the survey was done, acquisition of land could begin.
The Mingo NWR was established in 1945 under authority of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, created to add an important link in the chain of Federal waterfowl refuges in the country. Bankruptcy of the Mingo Drainage District in the 1930s when landowners could not pay taxes. Consequently, drainage efforts were never completely successful. This set the stage for federal acquisition of land and subsequent restoration of the swamp and its productivity. The clearance of title to many of the lands proved to be a lengthy process. However, the great need for a flyway refuge in this part of the Mississippi River Valley was so apparent that no thought was ever given to not continuing the effort. However, by 1949, acquisition of land had almost been completed. Only a few parcels remained to be acquired by settlement or actions of the federal courts. After all the land had been acquired, a dike was built, and the saucer-like depression filled up and Mingo was essentially restored to its original state as it was years ago. Once that happened, the refuge contained approximately 15,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods, 1,275 acres of cropland and moist soil units, 700 acres of grasslands, and 5,000 acres of marsh and water. Two great marshes resided within the swamp, Monopoly (2,008 acres) and Rockhouse (903 acres) Marshes.
In 1951, the famous old Mingo swamp, covering 22,000 acres in Southeast Missouri, was being developed by the U.S. Department of Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service into a migratory waterfowl refuge of major importance. In 1953 and 1954, the ducks started again to use their traditional resting and feeding places in the Mingo swamps. Rice and corn were planted in the refuge and left standing to help feed the birds stopping there. Water was diverted from Castor River to flood about half of the sanctuary’s 22,000 acres; water level was regulated through gates and distributed through ditches. Other small grains were also planted, and 130,000 mallards became guests again, and the population of waterfowl built up to 200,000 birds by January 1955; 130,000 were mallards. The first shooting season for Duck Creek, part of the old Mingo Swamp reclaimed by the state, was in the fall of 1955. The federal and state governments, through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Missouri Conservation Commission, made this a public shooting area. In the old days during high water, overflow from the Castor River made its way through the swamp to Little River on the east.
The season of 1955-1956 for the states of Missouri, Arkansas, and Illinois was for waterfowlers the best duck shooting they had had in 20 years. The hatching and rearing season in the northern states and Canadian provinces was outstanding. There were millions of ducks and geese in the three states and more to come. The 70-day season was the most liberal allowed in recent years. And the season of 1956-1957 would be the same. It would be another 20 years before such phenomenal flights of waterfowl migrated their way southward again. Weather and water don’t often join forces to supply such a bonanza, and the enthusiastic nimrods enjoyed it immensely.
The. refuge was located a few miles northeast of Puxico, Missouri, on State Highway 51. Adjacent to Mingo, nine miles northeast of Puxico and 24 miles northeast of Poplar Bluff, was the state Duck Creek Wildlife Management Area. It was also on State Highway 51. No hunting was permitted in the Mingo NWR but for the duck season of 1955-1956, the Duck Creek Area in parts of Wayne, Bollinger and Stoddard Counties was opened for the first time to duck hunters.
For the first half of the 1960s, drought years returned just like during the 1930s’ Dust Bowl Years. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 11, 1962, painted a dismal picture of the duck season just closed. The “Outdoor Column” writer wondered whether federal and state refuges were “protecting our waterfowl or building snares to entrap it.” The column went on to state:
No doubt the drought in the Canadian provinces took its toll. The season was curtailed and the bag limit cut to the bone. The sale of migratory bird hunting stamps (duck stamps) dropped about 50 per cent in the Mississippi flyway. But there are other major factors in this duck decline. Federal migratory bird refuges all over the United States are being purchased, or are now in operation and have been for several years. In these federal areas, waterfowl are fed and pampered and enticed to stay as long as possible. Corn, rice and other crops are raised on a share-harvesting plan. The cornstalks are flattened down, the rice left in the fields is flooded, and there is often green winter wheat and soybeans to feed the birds. These combination refuges and shooting areas are quite numerous all through the United States. Mingo and Duck Creek in southeast Missouri will serve to illustrate the point. Old Mingo Swamp always had been a concentration point for tens of thousands of mallards and other ducks. It was later drained and ditched, and waterfowl found other places to feed and rest on their migratory flights. It was subsequently acquired by the Fish and Wildlife Service and restored as far as possible to its one-time greatness. Mingo Wildlife Refuge, as the name implies, is simply that and no shooting or molesting of waterfowl is permitted. The Conservation Commission of Missouri then built Duck Creek Shooting Area immediately adjacent to the federally protected area. Here some 70 blinds, accommodating four persons in each, were constructed. Boats, outboards, and decoys, as well as the blinds, are on a rental basis and tens of thousands of ducks have been killed at Duck Creek that found rest and refuge at Mingo. Unfortunately, the birds do not know when they cross over to the firing line, and this example holds true on scores of federal and state combination waterfowl areas. It is highly questionable whether reproduction can keep pace with the kills that are made on these places of high waterfowl concentration. If Thoreau could comment on this operation, he might use one of his gems: “There is no odor so bad as that which arises from goodness tainted.”
In 1961, prolonged drought, intensive farming of land to the edges of the bone-dry potholes, and the burning of nesting cover in the Canadian provinces summed up the duck shortage that was predicted for the southern flight that fall. Mallards, the dominant species in the Mississippi flyway, had a long and hazardous journey between the prairie provinces and the Southland. The migration flight covered more than 3,000 miles and each year they found fewer sloughs, marshes, and wetlands in which to rest and feed before they continued their southbound travels. Fortunately, the Mingo NWR, an age-old stop-over, was ready that fall for the meandering migrants, according to A.O. Manke, refuge manager. “The area will not produce enough food for wildlife naturally, so the supply is augmented through a combination water-level manipulation and farming,” Manke said. “Water levels ordinarily are fluctuated about three feet during the year. The water level is lowered to 334 mean sea level shortly after July 1 each year. This exposes about 600 acres of open mud flats which are aerially seeded to Japanese millet. This strain of millet has a wide tolerance margin and will thrive in mud, water, or high ground. It will mature in 60 days and will produce about 1,000 pounds of food per acre. Since the practice of sowing millet on the mud flats has been initiated, waterfowl use in these areas has increased tremendously. In each of the past two years, we have had about 1,500,000 waterfowl-days-use in the area where millet was grown. A commercial plane is employed for the seeding operation, and it takes less than a full day to seed the 600 acres. The millet is sowed at the rate of 20 pounds per acre. An additional 150 acres of millet is sowed by the tractor farming method. Other plantings are made by neighboring farmers on a share-crop basis. The farmer gets two-thirds of the crop and leaves one-third standing in the fields to feed wildlife. The crop rotation plan is used and corn, soybean, and a wheat-vetch combination is standard procedure. The wheat-vetch combination is sowed in the fields after the soybeans are harvested. This combination serves as ‘goose pasture’ during the fall and winter months. Some 350 acres of corn and 1,000 acres of the wheat-vetch combination is planted each year. About 200 acres of rice is planted and 50 acres are left standing for the ducks. Rice, of course, is a highly preferred duck food and even the harvested fields provide a wealth of duck food because of the wild millet and smartweed that is a by-product of the rice crop. Ladino clover is planted in the areas too rolling or too wet for row crops. Some 400 acres are in Ladino. It is a high protein plant and is widely used in refuges and shooting areas where geese stop. It also is relished by rabbits, deer and other grazing animals. Timberland flooded each winter at Mingo Wildlife Refuge some 6,000 acres of timberland are flooded. This flooded timber probably produces more duck food than any other single crop.”
No one expected Mingo to ever reach its one-time greatness, when waterfowl darkened the skies, but, at the time and years thereafter, it held promise of attaining a reasonable resemblance to the olden and golden days that sportsmen talked about and yearned for but probably will never be see again.
This refuge encompasses the only remaining large tract of the linear basin that was formed when the Mississippi River abandoned its former channel roughly 18,000 years ago.