The Camp House
By Anneharris J. Rahe
The grumble of the four wheeler motors and the swishing of the tall grass as we made our way to the abandoned, dilapidated structure alerted any present wildlife of a foreign approach. I hopped off my ATV, shielding my eyes from the bright sun overhead as I questioned the saggy house with my eyes.
“This is the old Ramsey place,” my dad said, dismounting his own vehicle.
The humid air was full of dust, pollen, and bits of dry grass and the earthy, vegetal scent mixed with gasoline fumes and rotting wood triggered a sneeze. I’d been coming to The Swamp Club hunting camp in Geiger, Alabama, once a year for Thanksgiving my entire life, but this was my first experience wandering the wooded hunting lands and fields in springtime.
The dry weather of the past month kept us from slugging through muddy, rutted lanes and swampy fields, but the wasps, flies, and other insects were as rampant as ever. I’d pulled my socks up over my jeans to keep the ticks from vacationing on my ankles, or worse, farther up my legs. Dad thought I was playing the wimp, but after that tick cozied up on his ear drum that one time, I was thoroughly terrified of the nasty vermin.
Unlike my fellow college classmates, I was not spending spring break doing keg stands at the beach. Instead, I had come home for a little down time and asked my dad if we could drive down to the Camp House (as we called it) to practice shooting and ride the four-wheelers. We drove the 2.5 hours from Birmingham early one weekday morning, loaded up with a case of bright orange clay disks, a couple of shotguns, and a cooler of refreshments and snacks.
Alone time with my father was always special. Time with him at one of my most beloved places and activities with him that I knew he enjoyed, and even more, enjoyed teaching and sharing with me, were priceless. No binge fest in Destin could match this day.
As a member of the Swamp Club, my father was part of a small group of men who brought their families out to this sparsely populated area of Sumter County on Thanksgiving Day to eat, drink, and socialize before giving thanks for all our blessings of the namesake holiday. So instead of china-placed dining room tables, we gathered in jeans, sweatshirts and boots out in the country to eat on paper plates at wooden picnic tables near a bonfire with a collection of other Swamp Club families. I’ve never loved a tradition so much and cannot imagine spending my November holiday any other way.
My father and his best friend are charter members of the club. As the youngest members at the time, they joined with ten older men from Tuscaloosa to form a club on the land that the elders had hunted off and on since the 1940’s.
The old shack where we heated potluck dishes- assigned in advance by the “lady in charge”- held four beat up refrigerators and equally beat up ovens along with a few mismatched microwaves. To enter the kitchen from the side door, stooping was required for even the most vertically-challenged guest. The slanted, lean-to had been added on and covered at some point in the camp’s long existence, and the squatty door frame seemed more like a large window than an entrance.
The core families had been coming for generations, the oldest guests recalling times when they traveled by mule-drawn wagons. Cars existed then too, of course, but the long back roads from the highway were often unpredictable and mired with deep, gummy mud and water. Being a swamp delta of the Bodka Creek which fed into the Noxubee River and finally the Tombigbee River, the area was prone to flooding, and drainage was anything but prompt. As a teenager, I drove down with my older sister in my dad’s old Durango and we failed to navigate our way through the deep mud pits, despite our very clear instructions to keep up momentum and stay in the ruts. A rescue from my father and uncle was required, and my sister and I piled into my Uncle Bill’s truck, while my father skillfully spun the Durango’s wheels out of the problem area and on to the Camp.
While female family members arrived each Thanksgiving morning for the day – and only the day– the male members usually arrived the weekend prior, to hunt and hang out awaiting the delicious sides of sweet potato casserole, creamed corn, and green beans, and endless desserts their dear womenfolk would bring Thursday morning. The men provided the meat: fried turkey, ham and the occasional freshly butchered deer were their forte.
As a child, I’d flee from the van upon arrival, and commence searching for lizards that peeked out of the bumpy, bulging shingle-sided walls and scurried quickly from our prying fingers. We prized the few times when we grasped one of the flailing reptiles, both delighted and repulsed when the tail detached and the lizard fled to safety.
While my mother and other women were busy setting out appetizers and heating dishes in the slow-heating ovens, my sisters and I piled onto the four-wheeler with my dad and set out on our adventure. Hunting was postponed until late afternoon when the families had departed so we were free to bump and bounce through the clearings and over makeshift paths, squealing with delight when the cold wind pierced our cheeks, holding tight to each other or our father’s waist.
Neither blustery cold nor drenching rain kept us away on this day. Tarps were carefully stretched out above the tables in the clearing behind the house or a furious, smoking fire kept us somewhat warm on those occasions. I much preferred weather of that sort as opposed to muggy, mild temperatures because somehow, even in west central Alabama, that just didn’t seem right on Thanksgiving day.
A large pile of cut logs formed a stout wall on the right side of the house, and it was there that we climbed and perched for a multitude of pictures. Shortly before our early afternoon meal, the whole group would nestle together for the annual obligatory picture. The official photographer of the group would set the timer on her camera and jog laboriously over to the wood pile amid shouts of “Run, Meg! Run!” before the camera snapped.
The final ritual after we’d filled our bellies to uncomfortable proportions was to head out to the large swath of land cleared by the unsightly but necessary power lines to shoot skeet. It wasn’t until high school that I began participating in the actual shooting, but as a child, I loved to watch the “grown-ups” take their turn. My dad never seemed to miss a target, and my little heart beamed with pride with each hit.
It was that pride and the desire to follow in my dad’s footsteps that led me to seek out an occasion to visit the Camp House that spring break day and practice my shooting without a dozen watchful eyes upon me. After shooting the .28 gage shotgun (which made hitting the flying disks more difficult but lessened the powerful kick back on my scrawny shoulder), my dad and I ventured out on the four-wheelers to explore the land I had come to love so much.
I followed behind my dad as he directed us to the old broken house a little ways down the road which I would soon learn to be the previous home of a family named Ramsey.
“Watch where you step,” he said as we entered the slumped dwelling. “Let me go first. I’m not sure how much this floor will hold. And there could be nails, so be careful.”
Half of the roof had caved in on one side and the inside was bare of furniture. As I stepped lightly over broken beams and clutter, I noticed the inner walls. “Why are the walls covered in newspaper?”
“That’s what people did for insulation if they couldn’t afford anything else,” he said as we each scanned the peeling pages still left clinging to the interior.
“Really?!” I was astounded by this information, having never heard of such a thing in my privileged surroundings.
“It was very common for poor folks, especially during the Depression.”
But it was soon clear that this particular family had not wallpapered their home during the Depression. The clippings were dated June 1962, February 1963, and so on, revealing that a family had been living in this tiny three room shack as recently as the 60’s. My mind struggled to imagine it.
After a few more moments of awed examination, we emerged from the sad, deserted dwelling and mounted our ATV’s to return to the Camp House and then back to Birmingham. On the drive home, my mind juggled the images of the Ramsey house and tossed around stories of who they were and where they had gone. Had they been tenant farmers who fled when a better opportunity arose? Or had they simply died, their home left empty and the land sold off? How did they come to live in that place or farm that land? What changes had they seen and how much hardship had they endured?
My dad could not answer those questions for me. I was never clear on how he came to know even the name of the long-gone residents. My experiences of frolicking in this country outpost had suddenly taken on a new meaning. At some point the land had been sold and a logging company had purchased it to lease to businessmen hunters, and this was how I came to know it.
I cannot drive down the back highways of Sumter County, past catfish farms and cotton fields and down the long quiet drive towards the Camp House now without thinking of the Ramsey’s and what became of them. I still love arriving each Thanksgiving morning and spending the day in typical fashion (only now I sip on Blood Mary’s and help in the kitchen) but my historical curiosity is peeked. Geiger, and Sumter County as a whole, have become so much more than playful traipses to the hunting camp. This place, and all others in Alabama, that are long passed over and forgotten have become rich pieces of history to explore and examine. I have my dad to thank for that shift in my perspective. I will never visit any location without delving into its history. And I love that.