When the Smithsonian needed two taxidermied wild turkeys, E.O. Damon got the call. Or maybe his assignment came via telegram or handwritten letter. Those details have been lost over the 130 years that have passed since Damon had claim to swampy hunting grounds along the Pee Dee River.
What’s certain now is that the museum chose the right guy. Damon was a Massachusetts man who had furnished his hometown library with 241 birds, including a stuffed flamingo. It was said that he could shoot a turkey through its head with a 16-gauge shotgun from 40 yards away.
Over three seasons on his South Carolina property, Damon felled grouse, woodcocks, quails, ducks and 36 turkeys, among them “a fine old gobbler.”
That’s an impressive figure. But it would come to be one of the paltriest turkey stats associated with the parcel of land near Darlington that briefly belonged to Damon.
For more than a century, the Coxe family has owned it, along with thousands of surrounding acres. Tom Coxe, in the 1930s, set up the Damon Hunt Club there, giving his close friends a place to bring their deer dogs on Saturdays and holidays.
One of those holidays was Thanksgiving, which didn’t sit well with the men’s wives. They wanted their husbands at home for family dinner on America’s most important eating day, not out in the swamp with a pack of hounds. So, as longtime club member Bill Bristow recalls, they came up with a compromise.
“The men would get the ladies to bring a dish,” he says.
Rather than cancel their hunt on account of Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving would henceforth be brought to them. Every year since sometime around World War II, the Damon Hunt Club has hosted a Thanksgiving picnic for its members; their families and an assorted group of in-laws and trusted acquaintances.
“It became the custom that once you’re invited, you become a permanent guest,” Bristow says.
The hunt hasn’t happened since the 1960s. But the picnic endures.
There isn’t a count of how many turkeys have been carved at the club since the holiday tradition began. Yet it’s reasonable to estimate that the total number stands north of 1,000, since the picnic annually draws about 400 people. If the weather’s good, there could be 450 people there.
Either way, it's one of the largest private Thanksgiving gatherings in the state. And South Carolinians who’ve celebrated every Thanksgiving of their lives at Damon Hunt Club say nobody’s ever left hungry.
Pasta salad. Fruit salad. Potato salad. Cranberry salad. Shrimp salad. Chicken salad. Turkey salad. Grape salad. Sweet potato salad. Roasted oysters. Peel-and-eat shrimp. Clam chowder. Butter beans. Carrot souffle. Spinach madeleine. Collard greens. Scalloped apples. (From a partial list of typical Damon Hunt Club dishes, compiled from memory by Polly Bristow.)
“There’s no mailing, no nothing,” says Ricky Coxe, who informally captains the event his father set in motion.
Thanksgiving is already marked on everyone’s calendars, and Damon Hunt Club attendees know the meal starts at 1 p.m. They also know to bring enough food to feed everyone in their group, so the buffet math works out right.
But there are no guidelines instructing people whose last names start with the letters “A-D” to bring a salad, or a shared spreadsheet setting a limit on pie slots. People bring “what they’re known for,” says Obie Stokes, who always lugs along his cooker.
“I end up cooking both domestic and wild hog, because people like the nostalgia of wild hog, I guess,” Stokes says. “Then I’ll cook a lot of venison sausage and a venison stew that I learned from an older lady that used to cook where we duck hunted down there in Walterboro: It’s venison in a bag.”
Most of the dishes are still homemade, and the past year’s hunting trips still determine at least a portion of what ends up on the table.
“Who brought the bear one year?” Bill Bristow’s wife, Polly, asks Coxe.
Bear is greasy, but sugared sweet potatoes — perhaps the most popular contribution — are sticky, and Coxe always has to deal with the stiff residue when he takes the buffet table linens to the laundry.
“If the three little pigs had made their house out of sweet potatoes, it would never blow down,” he says. “It’s like glue.”
Recently, Polly Bristow says, sweet potatoes have shown up in different settings: Attendees with teenagers are tucking sweet potatoes into kale salads and presenting them with quinoa.
“All of the newbies are bringing vegan foods,” says Bristow, who takes a different approach.
She remembers the one year when the picnic was called off because the Hunt Club grounds were flooded, so her strategy is to prepare a complete meal with a turkey and fixings. That way her family can still have Thanksgiving even if they’re forced to stay home.
Chicken pot pie. Crab pie. Crab imperial. Basked lasagna. Baked spaghetti. Dirty rice. Mushroom rice. Wild rice. Corn pudding. Macaroni casserole. Tomato pie. Curried fruit casserole. Green bean casserole. Sweet potato casserole. Pot roast. Beef stew. Standing rib roast. Venison. Dressing.
According to Alan Hubbard, “Thanksgiving is the biggest social time for the Coxe family,” so there are pre-parties and post-parties for which the various branches of the 43 club members’ intertwined family tree break off. Stokes, though, gets to the club the night before Thanksgiving to fire his cooker, which this year will hold 25 pounds of sausage, eight Boston butts and four hams.
“That’s my favorite part of Thanksgiving,” he says.
As family members who cherish modern mattresses and hot showers are fond of reminding club members, their wooden bunkhouse isn’t luxurious: Mounted deer heads and framed black-and-white photographs of members with their kill are what pass for interior decorating. But there are rocking chairs on the front porch, and the smell of must and long-ago pancake breakfasts is sunk into the walls.
It feels even more like camp on Thanksgiving Eve, when as many as 23 children and five adults stay in the lodge. Hubbard calls it “big fellowship time.”
On Thursday morning, club members arrive to arrange the three long tables which will hold all of the food. It never looks like a magazine spread, Polly Bristow says, but they always manage to fit all of the dishes and autumn-themed centerpieces, too.
When Ricky Coxe was young, preparing for the picnic also involved brewing a 35-gallon vat of coffee from salt, eggshells and coffee grounds in a cheesecloth sack. A charter member insisted upon it.
“Nobody wanted coffee, but that didn’t deter him,” says Coxe, who was put in charge of the coffee after its champion passed away. “Not a soul would drink a cup.”
Coxe says attendees’ drinking habits have changed since the club started renting portable toilets for the picnic.
They’re still not drinking coffee, though. Attendees these days like to bring wine.
Apple pie. Pecan pie. Pumpkin pie. Sweet potato pie. Chess pie. Chocolate pie. Peach leather. Pumpkin rolls. Sweet potato tarts. Coconut cake. Caramel cake. Cheesecake. Chocolate cake.
In addition to supplying their own beverages, attendees are expected to bring just about everything else they need to partake of a feast, including plates and chairs. Polly Bristow likens the family groupings that sprout up around the clubhouse to tailgate setups, although camouflage is a more popular theme than team colors.
At one point, the food was categorized by course, so vegetables went on one table and desserts went on another. But the lines for turkey legs and sweet potato pie were terrible, so now each table is set with a comprehensive selection, spanning from boiled shrimp to peach leather.
“We unwrap everything right on down,” Polly Bristow says of the choreography required to swiftly peel the tin foil covers off every dish. (Experienced attendees know to tie serving spoons to their dishes if they want to get their utensils back).
For years, a man by the name of Dr. Simpson would stand on the clubhouse porch and deliver the blessing before the meal. His prayers didn’t always sit well with the hungriest guests.
“You’ve got these huge tables laid down with food, and he would talk about the clouds and the leaves,” Ricky Coxe says. “Now I’m basically in charge of that.”
Time management is essential, because, as Polly Bristow says, “The problem is the hot food gets cold and the cold food gets hot.”
And that’s not the only drawback to sharing Thanksgiving with 400 people. People don’t leave the Damon Hunt Club with leftovers, so anyone who fancies turkey tetrazzini the following day has to cook up a few turkey breasts before the picnic and leave them at home.
Plus, in order to get to the club, they have to drive down a bumpy dirt road without spilling whatever they’re bringing, and if the weather’s been lousy, then walk through mud when they get there.
“My parents didn’t like to go because it was hard fixing plates,” Polly Bristow says. “If you weren’t from here, you wouldn’t like it.”
Obie Stokes likes it very much.
“Seems like there are fewer and fewer traditions, and I cling to traditions,” he says.
Beyond that, like so many of his fellow Damon Hunt Club Thanksgiving devotees, he can’t imagine spending the day cooped up in a dining room with just one extended family. For a holiday that’s all about communities and the foods that bring them together, it sounds a little lonely.