My kingdom for a quail

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

In South Georgia, nature is bent into multimillion-dollar game bird plantations by barons of the pine barrens, models for Tom Wolfe’s ‘A Man in Full’

Coolidge — It’s a good morning on the quail plantation.

Sun is brilliant. Sky is clear.

Warm as toast.

And, over a breakfast of grits, scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits, coffee and orange juice, served by live-in servants Hayward and Yvonne Wiggins, Charles Loudermilk, 71, is musing on his place in literary history.

Founder and chairman of Aaron Rents Inc. and worth $100 million, Loudermilk is dining with a reporter and his slender, gracious 42-year-old wife of a year, Courtney, on the glassed sun porch of their 20,000-square-foot, columned mansion. The mansion is at the end of a live oak-lined driveway, in the middle of his 4,500-acre quail hunting “plantation,” Woodhaven.

Maybe the inspiration for Charlie Croker, the main character in Tom Wolfe’s new novel, “A Man in Full,” isn’t Atlanta real estate mogul Tom Cousins.

Maybe it’s Charlie Loudermilk.

Cousins, like Croker, is a real estate empire builder. Croker owns the fictional quail plantation Turpmtine. Cousins owns the 6,900-acre quail plantation Nonami.

But Loudermilk, like Croker, attended Georgia Tech and injured his knee playing football. Not only that, says Loudermilk, “I have a ‘trophy wife’ who is 39 years younger than me.”

Courtney smiles, reaches over and tugs her husband’s sleeve.

“It’s not 39,” she says. “It’s 29.”

Loudermilk, whose creased face is still impish, tucks his chin, bites his lower lip and flares his cheeks in a comic grimace.

“OK, 29,” he says, shrugging.

For a few minutes he chats about Atlanta politics, picks at his eggs and sips coffee, then puts both hands flat on the table and looks at the reporter:

“Let’s play some golf.”

On his own course, of course.

Just as Tom Cousins has at Nonami.

We thrum by golf cart past the accouterments of life as a baron amongst the pine barrens.

Past the bronze Jaguar sedan, across the garden-pebble driveway, over neatly trimmed grass, under the leafy canopy of Spanish-moss-draped live oaks, past the golf club house to the first hole of a 10-hole course that would distinguish most country clubs.

“My friends call this ‘Ye Olde Course at Coolidge,’ " says Loudermilk.

With a stiff swing he lofts a ball that lands short of the green and recalls what good friend John Portman once told him about his golf game.

“He told me I play like the Japanese — I hit it straight every time.”

Of course, when the well-known Atlanta architect was here during quail season, Loudermilk told his golfing buddy what he thought of his hunting habits. Portman refused to hunt. He said he couldn’t “kill little birds.” That comment got in the newspaper. So Loudermilk sent Portman a note.

“I called him a candy ass,” says Loudermilk, laughing.

Explore2022: Charles Loudermilk, Atlanta businessman and philanthropist, dies at 95

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

The trick is to get invited

Life is different down here.

Mainly, you have to be richer than Croesus to fully appreciate it.

Or be related to Croesus.

Or at least be his investment banker.

You have to belong.

The rest of us drive through the red hills of southwest Georgia, and outside our car window, the sweep of the landscape suggests an Erskine Caldwell portrait: pine forests, peanut and cotton fields, and small towns with names such as Moultrie, Cotton and Ochlocknee.

But, out there, past the line of slash and longleaf pine, behind discreet “Posted: Keep Out” signs along miles of well-tended fence, is another world.

God’s Big Acres.

It’s the area between Albany and Thomasville known as the “Plantation Belt.”

For some of the richest people in America, this is their country club: a patchwork of more than 80 plantations of vast acreages — 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 — that translate into square miles devoted to the bobwhite quail, “The Prince of Gamebirds.”

On these plantations — with names such as Nilo, Nonami, Pineland, Pinebloom, Abigail, Wild Fair — there remain some of the last vestiges of the antebellum plantation South, cultivated by people with fortunes difficult to fathom.

Millionaires, billionaires, magnates of virtually every industry.

Some come from old money. The Mellon family, for example, owns Pineland. Nilo plantation is owned by the family of the late head of Olin Industries, John Olin.

Others are the showpiece sanctuaries of a new generation — the trophy rich: Charlie Loudermilk; Tom Cousins (Nonami); real estate developer John Varner (Wild Fair); businessman and Zell Miller crony Virgil Williams (Southern Heritage); Ted Turner (Avalon, in North Florida); the Smith family, owners of the Atlanta Falcons (Seminole); Leslie Wexner, chairman of the Limited (Abigail).

It is a hospitable world.

The trick is to get invited.

Because, mostly, it is an intensely private realm where the network is the net worth. It is a place made more circumspect of outsiders since the publication of Wolfe’s “A Man in Full.”

Elements of the novel, with its vivid scenes of the privileged rich shotgunning birds and watching horses mate, portray the plantation as a kind of below-the-gnat-line “Bonfire of the Vanities.”

Outsiders seeking access are usually met with a cordial “thanks, but no thanks.”

Wita Harbert, the widowed owner of Pinebloom, agreed to let a reporter and photographer tour her plantation. A sprawling 12,000-acre spread 12 miles south of Albany, its proportions are staggering.

At one point, Pinebloom is 10 miles across. Its acreage of woods, pastures, farmland, lakes and painstakingly maintained quail habitat is networked with 100 miles of dirt roads.

“The Harberts really aren’t interested in press,” says plantation manager Larry Moon, an affable bird dog trainer, his face handsomely craggy from years of working outdoors.

“Celebrities don’t come here. But many of the guests are rich. When John (Wita’s late husband and builder of the Birmingham-based Harbert construction empire) was here, he liked entertaining — but he really liked to hunt.

“And who he really liked to hunt with was somebody who could make a million-dollar deal.”

Pinebloom’s owners have made 20th-century accommodations to the corporate jet set — oil company executives, for instance — and family friends, including a posh guest quarters called the Swamp House and a 5,700-foot, paved and lighted airstrip large enough to land a DC-10.

There are stories from the old days, when U.S. Steel owned Pinebloom (Harbert bought it in 1981), that one jet would land carrying company executives, take off, and another jet would land from Las Vegas. Its payload: chorus girls.

Then they’d all meet at the Swamp House.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Old manners intact

The main house — refurbished to period splendor with antiques and paintings by a French designer who lived on the grounds for six months — was built in 1846 by slave labor. The white Greek Revival manse is the former home of Alfred Holt Colquitt, a Confederate major general, and later Georgia governor and U.S. senator.

Many manners of the period are intact, too.

One fixture of the mansion is the 81-year-old butler, Will Rudolph, whom the Harberts kept on after they bought the plantation from U.S. Steel.

“Mr. Harbert immediately liked me,” says Rudolph. “If he really wanted to know what was going on at Pinebloom, he’d ask me. He told me I was a member of the family.”

In the mansion’s downstairs study, there’s a photograph of Rudolph and Wita Harbert standing in front of the mansion’s azalea garden and holding by the feet a dead wild turkey Wita shot for Thanksgiving.

We eat lunch (vegetable soup and corn bread sticks) at the Skeet House, a mannish, dark-paneled clubroom with a fireplace and virtually every variety of local game — turkey, deer, bass, wild boar — mounted on the wall. We are served by black help dressed in white smocks and aprons. Lunch is summoned with a dinner bell.

The most symbolic fixture and tradition of a quail plantation is the hunting wagon: a polished wood rig with pneumatic tires, two expensive leather car seat benches, pulled by mules in requisite handsome leather and brass-knobbed harnesses.

At Woodhaven, Charles Loudermilk’s mule driver, Willie Johnson — an employee on the plantation almost as long as the 17 years Loudermilk has owned it — wore a dusty cap that says: “Every Day’s Just Another Slice of Honey Dew Melon.”

J.L. Jackson, 62, has been driving the hunting wagon at Pinebloom for 16 years. He’s wearing a nondescript cap. By reputation he is gregarious.

“The Harberts like him on the wagon because he’s very entertaining to the guests,” Rudolph says. “He’s always telling stories and making jokes.”

But ask him about his job, and his answers are short.

You like quail hunting?

“It’s fun.”

Ever shoot quail yourself?

“Sometimes.”

Are you a good shot?

“Pretty good.”

For guests, dinner at Pinebloom is served in the elegant main house dining room, 7:45 p.m., sharp, by a butler and three maids. During quail season (which began Nov. 15 and runs through February) quail is often the main course; otherwise, it’s rib roast or chicken.

Coat and tie required.

Strictly enforced.

The protocol at Pinebloom is such a mix of Yacht Club, good ol’ boy, gun-blasting blue blood manners nobody except the owners seems to exactly fit in.

When author Wolfe visited, having been introduced by Atlanta friends, and former quail plantation owners themselves — Atlanta real estate mogul Mack Taylor and wife Mary Rose, head of the Margaret Mitchell House — Wita Harbert was impressed.

Wolfe was outfitted in his trademark off-white plantation suit, and she told him over iced tea: “I really enjoyed ‘Bonfire of the Vanities.’ "

But then the subject turned to hunting.

“He told me he had been practicing shooting skeet in New York and only hit two out of 200,” recalls Harbert. “I told him, ‘Honey. You better not go shoot quail. You don’t have a chance.’ "

A bird dog’s life

No visit to Pinebloom is complete without paying respects to the bird dogs. Pinebloom has a kennel of 50 pointers and retrievers (not far from the pasture with the plantation’s 20 horses and mules).

But, only in their eternal repose do you get a true sense of the bird dog’s caste.

In this world a good bird dog — which can cost $20,000 — is revered.

A great dog is enshrined.

Underneath towering live oaks a few hundred yards from the main house, Moon walks through the dog graveyard, surrounded by a short white picket fence. In front of the graveyard is a life-size bronze dog.

Dogs are buried in pine caskets. Each grave is marked with an elegantly simple, engraved granite headstone.

There are humans with less dignified graves.

One headstone reads: “We Un of Pinebloom. 6/24/85-3/6/98.”

“That was Mrs. Harbert’s favorite dog, a black Labrador retriever,” says Moon. “He used to ride on the hunting wagon with her. She took him back to Birmingham, he got loose and was hit by a car.”

Moon sent to Birmingham for the body.

We Un came back to Pinebloom. So did Mrs. Harbert.

“She said a few words at his funeral,” says Moon.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Nurture, not nature

A quail plantation is anything but a nature preserve.

On a quail plantation, nature is bent to the owner’s single purpose. And that purpose is to propagate wild quail.

At whatever cost.

In the old days when, for instance, Coca-Cola patriarch Robert Woodruff bought parcels of land and built his famous 30,000-acre quail plantation and retreat, Ichauway, land sold for $1 an acre or less. That was the late 1920s.

Two years ago, when Limited Chairman Wexner bought 8,000 acres of the old Tallassee Plantation, he paid $17 million.

He promptly renamed it Abigail (after his wife), tore down the old plantation home and is building a 30,000-square-foot showpiece.

Nobody buys a plantation for profit.

“If you think a quail plantation can take care of itself, you’re crazy,” says Ben Hardaway. A wealthy Columbus construction company executive and self-published author (“Never Outfoxed: The Hunting Life of Benjamin H. Hardaway III”), he once owned the Lee County quail plantation Senah.

“There’s no way to make one break even, or even come close,” Hardaway says.

Curt Hall, owner of Plantation Services in Albany, the chief broker of quail plantations in the state, estimates the cost of annual maintenance between $100,000 and $600,000.

What that translates into is this: You can buy quail at the grocery for about $2 a piece. On the most efficiently run plantation, that bird you’re about to bite into for dinner cost roughly $3,000.

But that hasn’t dimmed the appeal.

“I get calls all the time from people who say, ‘Look, if you’ve got something, call me,’ " says Hall. “There are more people out there who want one than places available.”

Pinebloom’s operation is typical for its size.

The plantation has a year-round staff of 18 and enough equipment to build a highway: a pair of $130,000 front-end loaders; a road grader; dump truck; and fleet of pickups, not to mention farm equipment to work the assortment of crops grown mainly to feed the quail population.

Corn, millet, wheat, sorghum.

The process of creating a “natural” quail habitat is as meticulous and never-ending as building a Japanese garden. Hardwoods are bulldozed, stacked and burned because they create too much shade and thwart the growth of the underbrush where quail breed and thrive.

There are some environmental benefits in this. The remaining stands of longleaf pine in Georgia still exist mainly because of quail plantation owners’ policy of thinning and burning.

Pines are planted and thinned in precise rows, again to allow the growth of underbrush. Between these sparse areas are spaced “safe havens”: thickets of briars impenetrable to man or shotgun pellet.

Without a place to flee the hunt after they’ve been flushed, quail might move to the property next door. Interspersed between these are feed plots of corn and wheat and seed sprinkled by crews constantly working the woods.

Usually the day after quail season, the burning begins. On a properly maintained quail plantation, 60 percent of the land is burned to keep the underbrush down and flush out and kill the rodent and snake population.

Every year.

A hunter can tell an obsessively kept quail habitat by the black scorch marks at the base of the pine trees.

Sharing secrets

In the fall before quail season, Tallahassee-based Tall Timbers Research Station, a group funded by plantation owners (annual budget: $350,000) to perfect the art of propagating wild quail, hosts an annual seminar.

Between a barbecue lunch outdoors under a yawning canvas and tours of the grounds, researchers and wildlife experts offer plantation managers and owners the latest findings.

Which are always the same.

Do whatever is legal and environmentally sound — or, at least unassailable by the Environmental Protection Agency — to eliminate everything that stands between you and a thriving quail population.

That includes trapping, in many cases killing, quail predators — including raccoon, fox, bobcat, coyotes, possum, even deer, which eat the grain intended for the birds.

The first week of November, the group held its annual Fall Field Day at Foshalee Plantation in Florida, just south of the Georgia line. The parking lot was filled with pickups and sport-utility vehicles.

The crowd of about 250 was mostly dressed for the bush.

Before lunch, the group caravaned around the property, stopping for demonstrations. At one, a state wildlife agent demonstrated dog-proof traps for raccoon and fox.

“This one works real well capturing ‘coon,” explained the agent, holding up one in a series of metal contraptions. “And it’s a lot less chewing (off their own legs). So it’s more humane.”

The agent offered another tip for bait. Something dogs won’t eat.

Marshmallows.

After lunch, a succession of plantation managers offered their secrets to creating the perfect quail haven. Bob Walthall, manager of Sunny Hill, explained that his “boss’s goal is to shoot a covey rise every 15 minutes a hunt. And last year, we shot a little better than four coveys an hour.”

To achieve that required, among other things, removing 2,000 tractor-trailer loads of hardwood from the plantation.

“My boss calls me two or three times a week,” said Walthall. “And he never asks how the trees are doing.”

Country clubbing

One of the main reasons that Charles Loudermilk took Aaron Rents public in 1982 was to raise the cash to buy a plantation. He had fallen in love with quail hunting in the 1960s.

Finally, he could afford his dream game preserve.

Before quail season, he shoots dove. And, west of the house is a duck pond with blinds. Duck season is coming, too. And crews put out feed to keep the flocks around.

He is fastidious about maintaining Woodhaven. The property has a full-time staff of eight. And, if there’s anything that galls Loudermilk, it’s litter on the property.

“If I find trash — a can or a cigarette butt — I think, ‘What slovenliness,’ " he says. Even with his wealth, he runs Woodhaven on a tight budget.

“I’m really liking my $10 magnolias,” he says, as we wheel past several of the newly purchased trees, 4 feet tall, sitting under an oak tree in plastic pots. A sprinkler is watering them.

“In Atlanta, those would cost $50.”

Golf has gone well this morning.

Loudermilk’s had three pars.

He’s beating the reporter by a stroke. Not difficult.

Still, his wife had joked before the round, “Charlie can’t stand to lose.”

On the tee box of No. 5 we come upon a turtle, black and about the size of a Frisbee. What transpires is the kind of scene Tom Wolfe would have loved to have witnessed researching his novel.

Like Wolfe’s account of the quail crowd watching horses mate, for amusement, in “A Man in Full” — which the author says he saw happen — it seems pure fiction.

“What’s that?” asks the reporter.

“A turtle,” says Charlie Loudermilk. “I think it’s dead.”

Loudermilk pulls out his 7-iron and flips the turtle over. It starts crawling away.

“It’s alive,” says the reporter.

“Not for long,” says Loudermilk.

“You’re going to kill it?”

“You’re damn right I’m going to kill it. They eat baby ducks.”

He takes the 7-iron and whacks at the turtle’s head several times, missing. Finally, on the fifth blow, he cracks the shell with a sickening crunch. Crimson blood oozes out.

He wipes the club on the grass. Picks another club and tees off. His shot finds the green, and he pars the hole.

When we get back to the main house, he strolls the grounds with the plantation manager, chatting. That afternoon on the tee box of the fifth hole, the turtle is gone.