E13 PRESIDENT GLOVER CLEVELAND THE SERENE DUCK HUNTER
From our beginning, there have been but few presidents who were fond of waterfowling. George Washington was an avid fox hunter and also hunted deer, turkey, and waterfowl on his 8,000-acre Mt. Vernon estate that bordered the Potomac River. He wrote often in his journal about waterfowling, which he called “ducking” or “gunning” and mentions taking “Pilot,” his “water dog,” “a ducking” with him. A visitor wrote about Washington’s land in 1785, “Shooting the canvasback was one of his favorite recreations.”
At his death, he possessed seven long fowlers, used for waterfowl, quail, ruffled grouse, wild pigeons, and turkeys. His favorite was his muzzleloading, 48 1/2-inch barreled nine-gauge, half-stocked, flintlock fowling piece made by Richard Wilson of London. Its design and balance between the half-stock with its heavy butt and its long barrel was ideal for waterfowling.
Rutherford Hayes, the nineteenth president, was a good wing shot, and nearly every autumn before he became president visited the St. Clair Flats or the fine shooting grounds near Sandusky Bay, Ohio, for a week or two of waterfowling. Teddy Roosevelt was more a big game hunter, but also did a little waterfowling. Warren Harding, our twenty-ninth president, hunted waterfowl frequently in Texas.
Nevertheless, there were only two presidents that were avid waterfowlers: Presidents Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. As our twenty-second president (1885–1889 and twenty-fourth president (1893–1897), President Cleveland’s love for hunting began after his father’s death, when, at age 18, he went to Buffalo, New York to live with his uncle, who owned 500 acres around Grand Island. Here he developed his love for hunting, which lasted throughout his life and consumed his spare time. It only intensified after the Civil War when he was in partnership with Oscar Folsom in Buffalo. Folsom, besides being an attorney, was an avid sportsman. The two hunted waterfowl frequently, especially in the marshes and on the shores of Grand Island. At this time, Cleveland was still a bachelor, always finding time to hunt and fish, in addition to attempting to get into politics, which he did, becoming mayor of Buffalo and governor of New York. By 1884, he was being groomed for a run at the presidency.
Some of his hunting grounds were substantially the same that Benjamin Harrison used. Termed the “Great Presidential Game Preserves,” or the “Presidential Hunting Preserves,” it was so named because of the fondness which many of our chief magistrates had for seeking recreation there in the pursuit of ducks, geese, swans, quail, snipe, reed birds, and occasionally turkeys. It laid south of Washington and took in the Potomac River and the Chesapeake Bay to the sea. One of Cleveland’s favorite spots on the Potomac was Wide Water, Virginia along the shores of Aquia Creek, long the favorite of gunners in its immense marshes. All about the place was excellent shooting.
From government’s beginning, according to the New York Sun, presidents had used these grounds for their outings with rod and gun. Cleveland, it was said, loved fishing the most. However, the Belvidere Republican reported October 19, 1907: “Former President Cleveland is said to be as fond of duck hunting as ever, that being his favorite recreation when he was president.” The Boston Sunday Post reported May 12 1907: “Next to the fame attached to the ex-presidency, Cleveland is known to the world as a shooter of ducks.”
During his first term, Cleveland shot waterfowl frequently with Captain Evans, familiarly known as “Fighting Bob.” They occasionally sneaked away down the Potomac seeking brant, canvasbacks, and Canada geese and hunted at Currituck and Albemarle Sound. At Currituck, he hunted at two famous clubs: Swan Island Club and Ragged Island Club. They also made their way down to the Santee Gun Club in South Carolina.
Cleveland was such an avid waterfowler that his sobriquet was “Cleveland the Sportsman.” He frequently sought relaxation from the trying duties of his office by taking to the gun and hunting along the shores of the Potomac and the Chesapeake Bay and other localities for waterfowl, not so much during his first term, but more so during his second.
He became what he himself called a “serene duck hunter.” Without neglecting his business or shifting official burdens to less able shoulders, he seized every opportunity to get near Nature. He spent more time hunting and fishing while in office than any other president, so much so the press constantly criticized him. He responded, “I regard these criticism and persecutions as nothing more serious than a gnat sting. I just like to become an ordinary citizen every once in a while.”
Having unusual physical strength, he handled with equal ease his Scott hammerless, 8-pound, 12-gauge for squirrels, quail, woodcock, and bay snipe, or his Parker 10-bore, 10-pound, of the hammerless pattern, for ducks.
Another shotgun was an engraved, hammerless, Model 1883, Colt 8-gauge boxlock, presented to Cleveland by the Colt Company while he was governor of New York. Measurements of the gun indicate it was made for a man with short arms. It weighed 11 3/4 pounds and had 34-inch, modified-choke, Damascus barrels. Standard barrel lengths, however, were 28, 30, and 32 inches.
To test his manhood, he shot the enormously heavy engraved 8-gauge and let go both barrels. The recoil knocked him flat in the bottom of the blind; nevertheless, he killed the swan. He used eight drams of black powder in his 8-gauge. It was the only and last time he ever fired the gun. It was the only 8-gauge double that Colt ever made in this model.
A fine wing shot, Cleveland was a persistent gunner. On the Chesapeake Bay and the Carolinas, where he so often hunted, he often times sat in a blind from dawn to dusks, scorning the customary midday return to camp, quitting only when he limited out. Standing 5’ 11” and weighing almost 260 pounds, he was an imposing, picturesque figure.
On March 26-27, 1886, he hunted a weekend at the San Domingo Ducking Club on Gunpowder River, north of Maxwell’s Point on Chesapeake Bay. General Farnsworth, of New York, who was in the boat with Cleveland, said the President “handles a breechloader very well, and that he brought down seven redheads at one shot.”
In January 1892, he hunted woodcock and ducks at Orange Island, later named Jefferson’s Island, in southwest Louisiana, with his good friend, Joe Jefferson, a nineteenth-century comic actor, best known for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle, a role he preformed for about 40 years.
Cleveland was not fond of fine weapons in his hunting trips. It was said he preferred shooting America-made guns. However, that does not appear to be necessarily so. At Orange Island, he shot his double 12-bore, 8-pound Scott at shore birds, woodcocks, and quail and used a heavier 10-bore, 10-pound Purdey for shooting geese, swans, and ducks.
It was during his waterfowling trip to Orange Island that Cleveland first became known to the country generally as a “crack shot and the lover of breech-loading, double-barreled shotguns and the outdoors.”
During the interval when Harrison was president and before Cleveland began his second term, Cleveland preferred shooting three double-barreled shotguns. For shooting shore birds, quail, and woodcock, he shot either his $80 Colt 12-bore or his hammerless, 12-bore Scott mentioned above that cost him $125, the former being one of his favorites. For his first term, his favorite ducking gun, however, was his 10-bore, 10-pound Parker also mentioned earlier. There were few better duck shooters than the President.
He loaded his shotguns with heavy charges of powder; four and one-half drams of black powder in his cartridge for ducks and an ounce and one-eighth of No. 1 shot on top of the powder he thought was about the correct amount. He shot with great deliberation, and usually let a duck get well up and away before shooting.
On March 10-11, 1892, Cleveland shot ducks at Spesutia Island Rods and Gun Club on the western side of Chesapeake Bay. In company with H.W. Maxwell, of New York, the two occupied a double sinkbox in the Spesutia Narrows, one of the most famous ducking grounds on the Chesapeake. On March 15-16, 1892, President Cleveland, with a party from New York and Brooklyn, once again went to Spesutia Island. For two days, in a blind with decoys and baited corn, he and Maxwell shot 50 ducks, 25 each. On the second day, they shot 18 ducks. Here the President shot a Greener 10-bore, hammerless double gun.
Shortly after being elected to a second term on November 22, 1892, Cleveland and his entourage, including Charles Jefferson, son of Joe Jefferson, left Washington and went by the steamer yacht Sunshine to a secluded, picturesque place on Broadwater Island, known by many as Hog Island, there to hunt ducks, brant, geese, snipes, and saltwater birds with the Broadwater Island Club, which consisted of wealthy Philadelphians.
In May 1894, he ventured to Bodie’s Island, North Carolina by the lighthouse tender Violet with four guests aboard. At the wharf in Washington, D.C., before leaving, 350 rounds of ammunition were delivered for their hunting trip. They killed 385 “snipe,” with the President bagging 144.
After receiving an invitation to hunt with General E.P. Alexander, on December 17, 1894, he visited for the first time Georgetown, South Carolina on the government steamer Wisteria for one week of duck hunting on South Island and North Inlet, anchoring at Winyah Bay, a coastal estuary at the confluence of three rivers. Here he and his friends remained, shooting ducks and shore birds in the marshes of South Island and also shooting four days at the Annandale Game Club where “there are no finer hunting grounds to be found anywhere.”
About 1895, Cleveland switched to smokeless powder, ordering 1,800 “ducking shotshells” from William Wagner, Washington D.C. and specified they be loaded with Wolf Walsrode powder, a German company, to the displeasure of the American powder and shell manufacturers. He liked it because it didn’t cake in the shell, and it had no tendency to absorb moisture and could be stored for years. It also didn’t heat the barrels of his shotguns as much as black powder, and thus didn’t damage them as much. He also was using either his Colt 12-gauge or his Scott 12-gauge for duck hunting, more so the latter as it was a heavier double gun.
In March 1895, he hunted off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. Hunting all day, he shot 16 brant and one Canada. Overall, the group secured 50 brant, 41 ducks, and 12 snipe.
At age 59, in February 1896, he went to Wide Water, Virginia, below Quantico, located 46 miles down the Potomac, on the steamer Maple. One of his favorite hunting grounds was at the “Arkandale property.” This was the famous thousand-acre estate of Colonel Withers Waller, who it was said had the best blinds for duck hunting on the Potomac. Here Waller baited with corn, which he did also for the President. Cleveland’s last hunt there was in 1899, as Waller died January 1900.
In 1897, following the second of his two terms in office, Cleveland retired at Princeton, New Jersey. For several years, he went quail hunting every season and always found time to duck hunt, as he often hunted about Silverton and Mosquito Cove for redheads and canvasback. He also stayed at the Chadwick Hotel on Chadwick Beach when he hunted Barnegat Bay.
Cleveland was an honorary member of the Santee Gun Club in South Carolina. He hunted there frequently, beginning in December 1897, as a guest of General Alexander, one-time chief of the Confederate artillery forces at Gettysburg. On November 24, 1898, Cleveland and two others bagged 160 mallards.
On February 17, 1902, at Back Bay Gunning Club on Currituck Sound, the former president and five others killed 200 ducks and 30 Canada geese in one day. In two and a half days, the party killed 300 ducks and geese.
In November 1902, Cleveland and a party of friends were once again at the Santee Gun Club for a week of duck hunting. The Indianapolis Journal reported he killed 80 ducks, which he shipped to his wife in Princeton. On the way home, he visited the Back Bay Gunning Club and killed 100 redheads and mallards.
In 1904, hunting on the Bush River of the Chesapeake Bay, he took home 20 canvasbacks and redheads. His eleventh and last trip to the Santee Club was in March 1907. After shooting several days, the former president and his party shot over 200 ducks. “Without half trying. Cleveland killed over half of these.” It would be Cleveland’s last duck hunt.
Two other clubs where Cleveland hunted were the Canaveral Club in Florida, whose membership was limited only to the 1890 class of Harvard, and the Bowley’s Quarters Ducking Club on the Chesapeake Bay. Tradition has it that he wrote his acceptance speech for his first presidential nomination at the clubhouse.
Like Harrison and Teddy Roosevelt, Cleveland was a dedicated conservationist. In 1894, he signed the Yellowstone Protection Act, making the park the first wildlife refuge in the nation. In 1896, he added over 21 million acres to the forest reserves and established the Grand Canyon and Mount Ranier as national parks.
He was considered one of the three greatest presidents the country has ever had, along with Lincoln and Washington. Once called “the greatest duck shooter on the face of the earth,” Cleveland died June 24, 1908. A friend lamented at his grave site, “He loved God’s out of doors and all that it contains.”