The Last Mountain Man

This coming Monday, April 4th, we celebrate my late dad’s 118th birthday. George N. Fears, who passed away at the age of 94, was a great dad, husband, grandfather and Christian man. He was a woodsman’s woodsman. Here is part of an interview that writer Denise Huddleston wrote about him in 1976.

“My family was living in the hills of Lincoln County Tennessee in 1904 trying to keep a-living raising crops–especially corn when the news came of the “King Cotton” crop being grown in Alabama. My daddy packed us all in a two horse covered wagon in 1906 and we made the grueling journey to Alabama settling in a three room cabin on Hurricane Creek at the base of Tater Knob Mountain. Things were a bit better for us here, yet we still had little to show for our everyday struggles. Often, I hoed crops, trapped, picked cotton, and did the chores needing to be done around the homestead until I reached the age of ten. By then both my parents had died, I started gathering ginseng, which is a root to be found on the side of the mountain. We got pert near $7 a pound for the ginseng which back then was a lot of money”, laughs the elderly Fears which to the age of 74 has managed to keep a sparkle of the excitement of life in his aging eyes.

With a look of nostalgia Mr. Fears continues saying, “I kept on hunting the wild ginseng up to when I was a young man. “At that time, men were fixing up remote ginseng camps in the mountains which grew strictly oriental roots. The plants were laid up like onion beds. I worked in a camp just under the north end of Tater Knob Mountain as the camp hunter to provide meat for our camp meals. Also, I pulled grass and weeds from around the ginseng beds, watered them and finally harvested them. We didn’t have vats to wash them in like they do today so we just cut down a tree, carved out a basin and let that be our washtub. Ground squirrels and moles became my worst enemies for they’d make quick ruin of the entire crop if they were allowed to! Yep, ginseng helped me out a good deal then and whenever I get a chance, I still like to hunt for it.”

Showing me a fine display of ginseng in his backyard, George Fears reflects back even further, “The greater part of my living between 1914 and 1940 was made by digging sang, trapping and selling furs. I had to quit school at the end of the 8th grade to help provide for younger siblings. A man back then had to live the way he knew best and those were the only things I knew how to do then. Warm summers and extremely cold winters, I’d’ be out running traps knowing that if there wasn’t a possum or coon caught in a trap there’d be no food for that day. It was a rough living and sometimes lonely, yet I sure couldn’t take a wife and expect to support her and myself both when I could barely support me most of the time. For several years, I’d be living out on the mountain alone in a tent coming in only to sell my furs and buy flour, beans and coffee, the barest essentials. I’m a good bit older now, but if I lived farther out from the city, I’d be back out on Tater Knob Mountain running traps just like before”

He continued, “Coming in from the mountains, I found myself a job in a little country store. I tended to customers and help load supplies that were to last for the next week. Most of the business was done on weekends and even then not many folks came in for the Depression was upon us all. Flour, meal, coffee and salt were the main items to be sold for people who had to raise most of their own food because they didn’t have enough money to buy it. Matter of fact, folks used to live off $5.00 worth of groceries a week. So, when I wasn’t helping in the store, I’d be out on my horse with a pack mule traveling back up into the remote coves and hollows buying hide’s, sang roots and fur from mountain folk.

In 1936 Fears, still working in the store and bartering for furs, applied to the TVA for a job which was two years in its’ coming.

“After coming off that mountain” Fears grins impishly, “I saw what I thought was the prettiest sight I’d ever seen in my life–a beautiful, young schoolteacher who I soon took to be my bride. We raised up two fine boys and I taught them the ways of the woods just as I was taught. Even today when they come visiting me, we haul off into the woods recapturing an era a long time gone”

Today, some 72 years since coming to Alabama, Mr. Fears is retired, living in a nice home raising his own ginseng, and occasionally setting his traps in the mountains. Some people may pass him by discounting him, “just an old man”, yet in his heart and soul he remembers the role he played in settling Alabama.


Happy Birthday, Dad. I love you… JW

My Dream Knife

The tall lanky young man that sat in my living room was about to leave, after a pleasant visit, when he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out one of the best surprises of my life. In his deep unassuming voice he stated, as he handed a knife in a brown sheath to me, “I know we just never got the knife you really wanted, but I think you will like this one.” Pulling the knife from its sheath I was shocked, it really was the knife I have wanted for many years!

I have written many times that the knife I chose to use during my long career as a wildlife manager, hunting outfitter & guide, and outdoor writer was the USA made Schrade Old Timer model 125 OT, a large folding, lock-blade knife who’s USA made version long ago faded from outdoor gear catalogs. For over five decades I have depended upon that knife for most of my guiding and outdoor writing adventures.

My first 125OT was given to me in about 1970 by Henry Baer of the Schrade Walden Cutlery Co. with the challenge to try it as my knife while guiding big game hunters. He felt sure I would like it. I gave the knife a lot of hard use and it became my knife of choice. Made from 1095 high carbon steel, the 4 ½ -inch clip point blade held an edge well and was quick and easy to sharpen in the field. The contoured 5-inch handle fit my hand nicely. That knife saw much of the outdoor world with me, and it is still in good shape.

For many years I wished for a fixed blade belt knife design that had all the qualities of the 125OT but could never find one. Then I met Lucas Bullington (shown with me in the photo at the top of the page) of Lucas Forge (, a master bladesmith who custom makes many high quality knifes including one called the Frontier Clip Point that was very similar to the knife of my dreams. I purchased a 3 ½-inch Frontier and liked it so much I later had Lucas make me one with a slightly larger 4 ½-inch handle with a 4-inch blade. It is really a good general purpose camp knife but still not quite the fixed-blade custom knife based on the 125OT I had wished for, that was until the surprise visit from Lucas.

Lucas and I decided to name the new knife “Old Guide” as I am an old guide and the idea for the design came from the Henry Baer’s Old Timer brand of knives. Since Lucas turned the Old Guide over to me, I have used it for farm chores, on turkey hunts, trout fishing trips and for camp chores. It rides well in the custom leather sheath, made by Lucas brother Ike Bullington, a master leather craftsman. I have cut hay bailing cord, sliced tomatoes, cleaned wild turkey, smeared mayonnaise on bread, cleaned fish and cut kindling with the Old Guide and I can say this is the knife I always wanted. The flat grind blade is hand forged from O-1 high carbon steel with a Lucas Forge aged finish. It holds an edge for long periods of use and can be sharpened quickly and easily in the field. The handsome handle is made from fancy curly maple with brass pins and a brass lanyard hole liner. Lucas contoured the handle, like the 125OT, to fit the users hand to minimize slippage.

I knew the Old Guide was a winner when after seeing it master woodsman Medrick Northrop contacted Lucas to see about having another made.  I don’t know how many moons I have left of living on the trail, but this will be my knife until that time comes, then one of my sons can slide it onto his belt. Thank you, Lucas, for my dream knife.


Old School Outdoor Gear Technology

Recently I was working on a magazine article concerning the great old companies that once proudly made, in the USA, excellent outdoor gear. They sold the gear to seasoned trappers, hunters, anglers and expeditions who’s daily lives depending upon the gear holding up against hard use.

It brought back many fond memories. An item, as an example, is my old Eddie Bauer arctic sleeping bag that I ordered custom made back in about 1967. Many of you may not remember, but in those days Eddie Bauer was a company that outfitted expeditions, hunters and anglers, not a women’s fashion clothing store.

In 1967 I knew that my budding outdoor career was going to take me to some of the coldest environments in the world and I wanted the best gear I could find. Even though money was scarce in those early days, I ordered a custom made extra-large Karma Koram sleeping bag that was 72”X34” with a rip-stop nylon cover. Instead of the 3 pounds of goose down filling the catalog offered, I had 5 pounds of goose down put in mine. Rather than a half-length zipper I ordered a full-length extra heavy duty zipper. I also ordered a flannel liner to go into the bag. I actually talked with the person making the bag on the phone as the bag was being made. When the bill came it was a staggering $85.00. What would a bag like that cost today?

The bag has served me well in temperatures far below zero and on trips that lasted two months or more. It is as good today as it was when new, and it still looks almost new. A tribute to hand-made gear made by companies who took pride in their work, back in the good old days.

My thanks go to Mr. Colin Berg at Eddie Bauer for the 1967 catalog photos.

A GIFT PISTOL – Part 3 of 3

Tex shook his bloody head. “I can’t let my mind wander” he muttered. Slowly, with determined effort, began to pull his battered weight up the little tree, using his good leg as best he could. It seemed like agonizing hours before he was upright. Leaning onto the tree to support his mangled body, he could not resist squinting across the valley he had been happily crossing just a short time ago. He wondered if the stories of Alaskan gold that had brought him here were for real. He knew he would never know. Holding onto the little tree, weaving and unsteady, he looked puzzled. He tried to remember why he had chosen to come through this particular valley. How had he gotten between the old sow grizzly and her two mischievous cubs? If only he had gone a different route.

Pulling the Colt from his belt Tex spat at the dead bear. “Ha, old bitch, you got me but you were no match for my “Forty-Niner.”

Twisting around, using his last bit of strength he jammed the Colt into the tight fork of the tree.

“Good-by, my friend” he gasped, as the lifeless body slumped to the ground.

A warm Chinook wind began to blow and the little tree waved gently, firmly grasping Tex’s revolver.

It was in 1897 that Tex, with his last breath, placed the revolver in the forks of the young tree. It wasn’t until 1977 that a young trapper crossed a vast wilderness valley and up a slope to where a tall group of trees grew. He was exploring this country to expand his trap line for that fall. Reaching the trees he decided to sit down and take in the beautiful valley as he rested. He started to sit next to a large tree with a forked trunk when he saw the rusty metal sticking out from the fork. On the back side he saw the rusty grip frame of an old Colt pistol.

For the next hour he studied the tree and the antique it held, trying to figure out how to remove it. His mind raced as he wondered just how an old pistol wound up in such an unlikely place. He could only image. He took an ax from his pack and started to carefully remove the wood that held the old revolver tight. “If I can get the remains of this old pistol from the tree,” he thought, “what a gift it will make my young son.”

A warm Chinook wind began to blow.