Georgia native was a writer, mentor and champion of the outdoors
By W. Glenn Titus
Any budding outdoor writer seeking a role model would do well to study the late Charlie Elliott’s life.
He is best known for nearly a half-century of entertaining and informative stories in Outdoor Life, but that is just part of the story. He also made sterling contributions to America’s natural resource management as a forester, wildlifer, bureaucrat and model for Ed Dodd’s comic strip character Mark Trail. To his parents, at the time he dropped out of college to simply hunt and fish, his future accomplishments would have been unbelievable.
Looking back, Charlie’s bend as a sprout and his youthful experiences give numerous clues to his future endeavors. At the tender age of 5, Charlie would sneak away to fish with “Uncle” Joe, a black man who farmed next door. From the old man he learned to catch catfish, make a toy gun and catch rabbits with a box trap.
“School was something forced on my rebellious nature,” Charlie would later write. “I had to attend when I’d much rather have been fishing for bluegills or trying to kick a cottontail rabbit out of one of the brush piles along the creek.”
The Alcovy River Swamp near Covington, Ga., was a favorite haunt where Charlie spent most of his free time hunting and fishing. Here he would often stay overnight in a large hollow tree so he could be hunting at the crack of dawn. He carried his .22 rifle, fishing line, hooks, sinkers, knife, matches and salt to procure and prepare his dinner â€“ usually rabbit, squirrel or an occasional quail.
While he wasn’t a particularly good student in school, he devoured outdoor adventure books and kept copious natural history notes on his observations — a practice of great value to his future writing career.
When Charlie finally got into forestry school he fell in with friends, loved the rural campus at the edge of Athens and learned horsemanship in the ROTC cavalry — a most valuable skill for the future wilderness adventure writer. During his first year he attended all classes and labs, but during the second year that changed — his field adventures took precedence. In his junior year Charlie lost interest in most of his courses, skipped classes and finally “quituated.”
He wrote outdoor columns for several newspapers including the Atlanta Constitution and dozens of articles for a variety of magazines including fiction for Good Housekeeping. More than 15 books boast his byline including “Southern Forestry,” “Conservation of American Resources,” “A Key to Georgia Trees” and “Mr. Anonymous,” a biography of hunting buddy and Coca-Cola executive Robert W. Woodruff. Those are only a small part of his contribution to his home state of Georgia and our nation.
As a professional forester Charlie helped create the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and later was named the first director of the Georgia park system. From there his bureaucratic career continued as commissioner of the Natural Resources Department.
In 1943, as the first director of the Georgia Game and Fish Commission, he shifted the emphasis from law enforcement to wildlife management and job titles from game warden to wildlife ranger. That action immediately put him in hot water with legislators who used the patronage wardens to, among other things, tack up campaign posters and provide political fish fries.
“The politicians didn’t like it. They threatened to do everything from cutting off all appropriations to doing away with the department entirely. But the governor stuck with us and the furor gradually subsided,” Charlie said.
But with a change in governors, the political pressure on the Game and Fish Commission was so heavy, Charlie resigned as director to devote himself to freelance writing.
Charlie Elliott had a world of friends, and no wonder — he was fun to be with, a man of his word and a caring yet unflappable personality. Friends played a large role in his life, opening significant opportunities to advance his career. In a 1996 letter to Judd Cooney about his OWAA experience Charlie wrote, “the essence of what OWAA has meant to me, it would have to be the influence and inspiration of those fellow members and friends whose trails seem to parallel my own.”
A friend and fishing buddy encouraged Charlie to get into the magazine writing business. Elmer Ransom, an established writer, introduced Charlie to members of the Augusta Writers Club. Charlie credits these “old masters” with giving the most important advice and concepts of his literary efforts. Edison Marshall instructed, “Write it down!”
“That is one of the most valuable bits of advice I ever received about writing,” said Charlie.
He devotes several pages in his autobiography, “An Outdoor Life,” to writing skills and working with editors. He tried to pass along this knowledge to every young or budding writer who had an interest in the game. Charlie’s counsel was a tremendous help to both my career and my turkey hunting. Perhaps all the OWAA members he mentored should get together and compare notes.
Charlie’s travels in search of hunting, fishing and conservation stories took him from the Arctic Circle to the tip of Argentina and many places in between. Much of his adventurous globetrotting was as a charter member of the Braniff Outdoor Council led by Buck Rogers and “Uncle” Homer Circle. From the position of Southern field editor for Outdoor Life, he retired in 1972 but continued with the magazine on a freelance basis.
Charlie’s mind was exceptionally sharp at 93 years young. He was in a nursing home in April 1999 when Don Pfitzer, my wife Oleta and I met him for a drive to the wildlife center and public hunting area near Mansfield, Ga., named in his honor. Before we picked him up, I told Don one of Charlie’s favorite stories from an Oklahoma turkey hunt we shared. “Let’s see if he remembers,” I said. He was in the car but a few minutes when, without prompting, he told the story in nearly the same words I had told it to Don.
Our trip to the Charles Elliott Wildlife Center was a great treat. The Wildlife Division of Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources put together a variety of outstanding innovative multimedia conservation education exhibits. The main one included Charlie’s office complete with his desk, books, bear skin rugs and his other wildlife trophies. A counter sits at the entrance with a numbered outline of the office. Push the button that corresponds to the mountain goat and Charlie’s voice comes over the speaker telling the story of that trophy.
What a fitting memorial to a caring teacher whose work continues to entertain and help us understand the value of wisely managing our natural resources.
Charlie Elliott’s autobiography, “An Outdoor Life,” is currently out of print, but there is a possibility of another printing. Contact Charlie’s friend at the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, Alesia Rast, at 543 Elliott Trail, Mansfield, GA 30055, or 770-784-3057, for updates.
A legend in his own right, Glenn W. Titus is a freelance writer, photographer and 46-year member of OWAA who makes his home in Troy, Mont.