Established in 1895, Dockery Plantation was a sprawling 25,000-acre property in the primeval Mississippi Delta, employing 2,000 laborers and now deeply entrenched in blues music history. In describing Dockery Plantation’s colorful past, local historian and avid turkey hunter Bill Lester shares his own artistry with listeners. It’s certain to be familiar music to the ears of anyone that enjoys the springtime woods!

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Visiting an Iconic Mississippi Landmark

Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere where today I am smack in the middle of the Mississippi Delta at a place called Dockery Farms, which is initially built in 1895. I have driven by here a million times and always wanted to stop in and meet with today’s guest, Mr. Bill Lester. And here’s the gist, we’re going to talk about music. Dockery Farms is very integral to the music we all love. But you know, music is art and art is art. Art imitates life, Bill’s going to walk us through that. And hang on, boys and girls, because towards the end of this thing, we’re going to talk about the kind of music that all my listeners love and appreciate. Mr. Bill, how are you today?

Bill Lester: I’m doing fine. I’m glad to have you here. And I’m certainly glad to have you here at Dockery and the Dockery Farm Foundation and the Dockery family are also pleased to have you here.

Ramsey Russell: What is your background initially like? Were you born and raised here nearby?

Bill Lester: Well, my family is from Ellisville, Mississippi and I grew up part of my life there. And then when my father died, we moved to Jackson, Mississippi and I went to Murrah High School and I played football for Jack Carlisle back in the 60s.

Ramsey Russell: How did you end up here in Dockery Farms, just right here in the middle of the delta.

Bill Lester: Well, after I got my MFA from Ole Miss, I got an offer to start teaching art at Delta State. And so I moved over here to Cleveland and I had a horse and I didn’t have any place to keep the horse. And so I looked around and Dockery had a lot of pastures back then. And so I came out here and asked Richard Cummins could I keep a horse out here, he had some horses too and he said yes. And so I moved my horse out here at the Dockery.

Ramsey Russell: You told me to meet you here at the old Dockery store and I thought I might remember it. What I remembered was what you call the treehouse back here with the big white sign and all the white buildings and all those buildings, that big sign that says Dockery Farms, I used to drive up and down here all the time and I almost got lost because it’s been so long since I was through here, it was not 4 lane roads and now it is.

Bill Lester: Oh yeah, it’s 4 lane. And what you’re seeing is the iconic seed house, that’s where they stored the cotton seed after it was taken from the cotton bowls and they ginned it, they would take the seed and they would blow it into the cotton seed house and they would either sell it or feed it to the animals.

Ramsey Russell: Tell me the history of Dockery farm, for anybody that’s come through this part of the world on highway 8 is a very iconic, it’s just iconic. I can’t think of an example, it’s iconic to the Mississippi Delta, it’s like an Indian mound, it’s iconic, it’s been here forever. But what is Dockery Farms? Tell me about this history.

The History of Dockery Farms

Bill Lester: Well, Mr. Will Dockery came from Hernando, Mississippi, he graduated from Ole Miss, he rode a horse down here in 1888 and he started a dry good business in Cleveland. Cleveland had just had the railroad put through Cleveland at that time and so it was a young community with a brand new railroad and he must have thought it was a land of opportunity. So he came down here and started a dry goods store and did that until 1895. And then I’m assuming he realized that all his dreams weren’t going to come true, selling molasses and caskets and underwear and blue jeans. And so he sold the store and started buying property in 1895 and within 20 years he controlled roughly 28,000 acres they say. 40 sq. mi and he had anywhere from 2000, 3000 to 4000 people working for him, depending on how much property he had in control. Now, you remember, he was buying property, clearing some of the trees off of it, reselling it, buying more property and so the amount that he farmed would go up some years and down some years.

Ramsey Russell: And it was mostly cotton ground?

Bill Lester: It was. And they would plant cotton in the woods, called a deadening. He would send the men to just the woods and they take a hatchet or an axe and they would cut a belt around the tree down to the camium layer and it would kill the tree. The leaves would fall off and then a mule could walk through the woods and plant cotton in the woods. Because, remember, no chainsaws, no tractors, no bulldozers, so how are you going to clear the woods and make a living the first year? And so he had to plant cotton in the woods. And we call that planting cotton in a deadening.

Ramsey Russell: That’s an interesting tidbit of history, I never really got my mind wrapped around. It’s like, I just assumed those trees had to be cleared, it had to be as bare as a cotton field to plant cotton. They were basically underplanting.

Bill Lester: Exactly. And then as the trees died, the men and women would come back and stack up the limbs against the tree and in the wintertime, after they picked a cotton, they’d strike a match and light it and they would burn it. So in 3 or 4 years, you would have these snow white cotton fields and these giant 10, 12 foot black stumps sticking up that had burnt to nothing but just a black ember. And then after another few years, they’d take a team of 10 mules, 5 in a row and 5 in a row, they’d back up to each stump, put a chain around the stump and start trying to pull that stump out of the ground because it had begun to rot. And the men would stand behind the stump with axes and chop the roots loose and they’d pull the stump out of the ground, then they’d stack those stumps up and burn them and then all the men would have a mule and an iron bucket hooked to the mule and they would pull dirt around and fill the holes, you can’t farm a hole. And so they had thousands of acres of woods and holes to fill. And then maybe after 6 or 7 years, then you might have a fairly clear field. It was a great deal of work to be done. And one of the men here, Tom Cannon, who was Charlie Patton’s nephew, was alive when I first moved here and I asked him about working. And he said, Mr. Bill, we work from can to can’t. From when we can see in the morning to we can’t see at night.

Ramsey Russell: Can to can’t. Well, tell me, you said it had 2000 laborers, that’s a lot of intensive manpower need right there that’s why he had all that labor?

Transforming the Mississippi Delta Landscape

Well, I told you he built a train to come here.

Bill Lester: Well, he needed that much labor to farm that much property. And look, he in the hands built a railroad all the way from Dockery to Mississippi, that’s 12 miles through the woods, because he had to have some way of helping feed those people. And so that train would back up to Dockery every day and go back to bowl and back up to Dockery and go back to bowl every day but Sunday. And it would bring food and things and people to Dockery. And it would take the cotton and the corn and the things they were raising to the market. So it was the only way to get here. There almost were no roads in the delta back then.

Ramsey Russell: Well, I was just fixing to say, you told me when I got here and I said, man, I almost flew right past this place because it’s 4 lane roads and you were saying, oh, it’s been here for 5 years, but before that 2 lane highway was there, it was just a dirt road right here going out front.

Bill Lester: Well, it was. And the main highway, highway 8 at the turn of the century in the 1910s and 1920s, wasn’t even here. I mean, it wasn’t even a gravel road. The road left Dockery and went north and south to the old Ruleville road, which ran from Cleveland to Ruleville. And it has the big swing bridge on it that’s still there. The bridge would swing in the middle of the river and turn sideways so that little tiny packets and steamboats, small steamboats could come by when the water was high.

Ramsey Russell: As remote as this place must have been in the late 1800s, early 1900s and I mean, that’s back when the delta was still a lot of woods.

Bill Lester: Oh, yeah.

Ramsey Russell: And very few roads and a whole lot of water seasonally. How were they getting the product, getting the cotton to the market? They had to go all the way to Greenville?

Bill Lester: Well, I told you he built a train to come here.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

Bill Lester: Because there was no other way for him to – you can’t ship a 500lbs bale of cotton on a wagon, not just making do one that way, but you can’t do 2 or 3. So he had to have that train here so they could get that cotton that was produced here at Dockery to the market in Memphis and New Orleans and all the different places he was shipping it.

Ramsey Russell: It was so amazing. This place was built in 1895 and you walk around and it’s still so well kept and it’s been that way for as long as I can remember. Why didn’t it just fall in like a lot of all these communities?

Bill Lester: You got to remember that all this was built with hard cypress, cypress that had never been cut before. And hard cypress just doesn’t rot, sap cypress does, but not the hard cypress. And so when they built this place, the hands built all these buildings with cypress that was cut here on the property. And so they’re still in good shape. And of course, the last 20 years we’ve been maintaining them to make sure they stay in good shape. But the architecture is strictly delta, tough and durable and meant to last.

Birthplace of the Blues

Now that’s why all the blues singers came here to play, it’s because they could control the crowd.

Ramsey Russell: Why is this farm so integral to the history of the blues?

Bill Lester: Well, Charlie Patton came here, Annie and Bill Patton were Charlie’s mom and daddy and they heard that Mr. Will was offering 50 cents a day to clear property. Yeah, well, that sounds tough, but they were working in Edwards, Mississippi, making 30 cents a day, so that was almost double pay. So they got on the train, they came from Edwards, Mississippi with their 6 children and they came up here to Dockery and little Charlie Patton was 6 years old.

Ramsey Russell: When would that have been? About what year?

Bill Lester: That had been 1880, 1895, 1896, 1897, we don’t know the exact date. But when he brought Charlie up here, Charlie ran to a man named Henry Sloan who was playing the guitar. We don’t think he was singing the blues, but he just played a guitar. And so Charlie just fell all over him and Henry started teaching the young Charlie Patton how to play the guitar. And so when Charlie got to be about 12 years old, he could play better than anybody. And Henry Sloan got on the train and they say rode to Chicago and was never heard of again. And BB King says that Charlie Patton went on to become the father of the blues. We don’t know who wrote the first blues note. I mean Charlie could have and probably did, but we don’t know for sure. But so much of the education of the blues went on here at Dockery. You got to remember Howlin Wolf was a child here at Dockery.

Ramsey Russell: Really, I did not know that.

Bill Lester: Yeah. And Charlie Patton taught him how to play the guitar here. And Roebuck, Pop Staples, Mavis’s daddy was a child here and Charlie Patton taught him how to play the guitar here. And so all those people took that blues music away from Dockery and distributed all over the world. And so it started here at Dockery. And they all came to play here at Dockery because Dockery has Big Llou’s frolican house. If you think they were juke joints in the 1910s in the delta, you’d be wrong. And so Tom Cannon told me that Big Llou’s frolican house was right here. Yeah. And here’s the reason that that’s so important is because a lot of these bluesmen, when they played back then, would charge 25 cents to hear them play. And they were making 50 cents a day. So that’s a pretty good chunk of money. Yeah, it was 25 cents. But if they were playing at a frolican house, let’s say, in Tunica, it would be out in the middle of a cotton field and they didn’t have electricity, so they couldn’t put electric fence around it and they couldn’t keep people out from cheating. And so people would just stand out there and listen for free. So the blues singer might make $10 or $15, but look at here. The frolican house was across the Sunflower River bridge. So the people would come, the blues would come and play for free at the commissary and then after they got through, right before dark, they’d walk across the one lane bridge. There’d be a thousand grown men standing out here who just gotten paid once they walked across the bridge, Tom Cannon told me they would have 2 men standing there called takers and they take your money, they wouldn’t let you cross unless you paid 25 cents. Now here comes the reason that this place is so important.

Ramsey Russell: It must have been a hell of a party with 1000 folks just at bay.

Bill Lester: Now look at here, that’s $250, He’d give Big Llou $25 and he’d walk away from here with $225 on any given time, when he played here. Tom Cannon one time told me that Charlie Patton was the only black man that he knew that wore white man Sunday school clothes and drove a brand new car. A brand new car, now, come on. And a brand new car back in 1910 didn’t cost around $200. So Charlie Patton could buy a brand new car every Monday morning if he wanted to, if he played at a place like Big Llou’s frolican house. Now that’s why all the blues singers came here to play, it’s because they could control the crowd.

Ramsey Russell: I was just fixing to ask you, was it just Charlie Patton?

Bill Lester: Oh, no. All of them came here to play. Willie Brown, Son House, Robert Johnson, they all came here to play because they could get all the money. It’s just like today. The money is the important thing. If you can make $25 for the same effort or you can make $250 for the same effort, which would you pick?

Ramsey Russell: Heck, yeah. That’s amazing.

Bill Lester: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: This is part of a blues trail of sorts, is it not?

Bill Lester: It is.

Ramsey Russell: What was that blues trail network?

Bill Lester: Well, the bluesmen, just like you see the Rolling Stones over there, they go on a tour.

Ramsey Russell: They didn’t play at the frolican house, did they?

Bill Lester: No, they didn’t, but they wish they did. But look, they go on tours, well, Charlie Patton and them went on tours. They play here, they play in Helmer, they go to rolling fork, they go to Redwood and then they come back to Dockery and they would make around and they might go to Memphis and they would make a round and travel on the train or in their car, if they had a car. So, they didn’t play in the same place two weekends in a row or you’d where your welcome. So, Charlie would come home, I asked Tom Cannon one time, I said, where did Charlie stay when he came home? Did he stay with his mom and daddy? And he said, heck, no, Mr. Bill, he said he stayed with Mr. Dockery’s cook, he said he stayed with all the cooks so he could get the good food. And I thought, man, isn’t that interesting?

Ramsey Russell: When did that era, when did the frolican house era and all that good stuff kind of come to an end? 50s, 60s?

Bill Lester: No, probably about the time of World War II, when everybody started going away to war, things got more serious and more difficult and so it began to wind down then. But the 50s were pretty much the last, I guess you call it the last big hurrah for the blues being played like it was at the turn of the century.

Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot of folks that say that and it makes sense to me that the blues kind of spawned of like a field chant. Like they’re out there working and they kind of get themselves in a chant, not too fast and not too slow. And I can feel that and sense that in the music.

Bill Lester: Yeah, look, they would have a man that would call and then the people would respond. And that way they kept their emotion up without overworking themselves. If you work too fast, you’d wear out and fall out. Remember, they worked from can to can’t. And so if you worked too hard, you’d pass out. And so some of that chants started that. But then I think people like Charlie just got to looking around and seeing what was going on around them and then just started making up lyrics and songs that talked about their circumstances, which was, that’s the imaginative part and that’s the part that’s so unusual, because there’s just Camptown music before that.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, we’re not too far from Clarksdale, I mean, we’re really not too far at all. And it was there on one of those farms that the mechanized cotton picker was first used. What did that do to the blues music and to folks like Charlie Patton? Because we’re very labor intense, hand labor intense, now we’re mechanised and all of a sudden, folks ain’t got a job.

Bill Lester: Well, when World War II got over and all the men came home, they brought all the bulldozers and all the tractors and all the equipment from World War II with them and they brought them to these farms. And now $150,000 tractor can do what 100 men did back then.

Ramsey Russell: It don’t take much to push a stump out, does it?

Bill Lester: No, not today.

Playing a Wing Bone

So I came home and I made a few wing bones and they are hard to play because the holes are so big, you have to suck in so much air to try to make the harmonic sound.

Ramsey Russell: Well, you told us kind of, sort of how you ended up here. What’s so interesting to me is about here at Dockery Farms is the birthplace of the blues and the music as we know it. But creativity, art as it impacts life. Let me start like this. Did you kill a turkey this morning? Because I couldn’t come before lunch.

Bill Lester: I couldn’t let you come before lunch and it poured down rain this morning. And I was sitting here thinking, I just ought to go, most time, turkeys don’t do much in the rain. And so I went and it rained, it bottom fell out, twice I had to stand up because I got so wet. But this trumpet that I make and let me pull one.

Ramsey Russell: Tell me about one in trumpet, that’s a good looking thing.

Bill Lester: Well, about 30 years ago, I was turkey hunting down at Valley Park, I have a friend named Homer Luckett and they have a big track of land down there at Valley Park. And I was turkey hunting with him and this really old gentleman in his 80s came out of the woods and he had a wing bone on his neck. And I just used a box call back then and I didn’t kill very many turkeys. And I asked him, I said what is that and he says, it’s a wing bone and he played it for me and he was way up in his 80s and I said, oh, man, I’d love to do that. He said, how old are you? And I said, I’m 35, he said, you won’t live long enough to learn how to do it. And I said, oh, jeepers, is that hard to play? He said, wing bones are hard to play. So I came home and I made a few wing bones and they are hard to play because the holes are so big, you have to suck in so much air to try to make the harmonic sound.

Ramsey Russell: Does it matter what kind of wing bone you use? Because somebody told me one time had to be a hen wing bone.

Bill Lester: Well, hen wing bones are almost okay, goblet wing bones don’t work at all, what I found that works the best is the snow goose wing bone.

Ramsey Russell: Really?

Bill Lester: Yeah, snow goose wing bone sounds way better than a hen. So anyway, I made a few of those and it still wasn’t good enough. And so I started doing some research and I found out that a man named Tom Turpin in Memphis at the turn of the century made trumpets. And so I got to reading about it and found out that Steve Turpin, Tom’s brother’s son, is still alive and very much making trumpets. And so I called him and talked to him and bought one of his trumpets. And so then I used it for a while and then I decided, well, there was something I might could do to make it sound more harmonic to me. So then what I did was I started coming up with different ways of putting these things together. These don’t look like anybody else’s. You hear that?

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I do. So that’s not a bone at all, that’s all metal right there?

Bill Lester: That’s all metal, but it’s got carbon fiber arrows inside it and the carbon fiber arrows make up the sound chamber. And the first call I came up with was one that has 3 air chambers in it and I’ve been making this one for over 30 years and it’s slightly higher pitched. You hear the higher pitch? And this one’s slightly lower pitched. Hear how harmonic it is? And so this morning in the pouring down rain, when I did that, a turkey gobbled in the rain, that’s kind of unusual, they don’t usually gobble. And so I thought, he gobbled. And so I turned in the direction that sound came from and I don’t know, for about an hour I fooled around with him and he would gobble every once in a while. And all of a sudden, off to my right, I hear, here he is right here to my right. And I ease my head around and he’s standing right there. But it wasn’t the same turkey that was gobbling, because all of a sudden the turkey that I’ve been calling to gobbled and this one gobbled and answered him. But he was right there about 25 yards to my right. And it was raining so hard that when I eased my gun around, he got behind a tree, I eased my gun around and the rain was splashing on my barrel so hard that I couldn’t see the bead at the end of the barrel. Yeah, it was raining that hard. And I said I knew I had to shoot him. And so I just held it, closest I could get to his head, the best I could do and shot him right at the base of his neck. But I was able to get him this morning.

Ramsey Russell: You ain’t going to sleep through the rain no more, are you? When it rains, it pours, it sounds like.

Bill Lester: Well, this time it worked. Lots of times when you go in the rain, nothing happens, they don’t answer. But this morning, for some reason, these two turkeys answered and they got in competition with each other and I just hushed because they were gobbling back and forth at each other. Once I started calling to them, I think they thought the hen was there and both of them were coming to see her and so I benefited from it.

Ramsey Russell: Do you still use the actual bone to make calls?

Bill Lester: No.

Ramsey Russell: I’ve seen some pictures of your real bone call. I thought I have.

Bill Lester: Well, long time ago, I made some calls with snow goose wing bones that I gave to my friends, but I never sold one like that because they’re so fragile.

Duck Calls & Turkey Trumpets

Ramsey Russell: How old are the calls you got on your lanyard right now?

Bill Lester: Well, this one’s 30 years old and this one I made this year.

Ramsey Russell: You don’t ever use a box call or a slate?

Bill Lester: No.

Ramsey Russell: You don’t use them diaphragm calls?

Bill Lester: No. Look, most time, all it takes once you get them to answer you is just clucking like this.

Ramsey Russell: They’ll come on into it.

Bill Lester: Yeah. And you can call so softly on it that it mimics a real turkey. Most folks call too loud and it doesn’t sound like a real turkey. Now, I have called loud and brought them up, calling loud, it works sometimes, but most of the time, it’s that real soft, a little bit of excitement.

Ramsey Russell: Their hearing is probably a lot better than old duck hunter.

Bill Lester: Yeah. And I made duck calls at first for a long time, and I made them out of acrylic. And that’s when I decided that maybe a turkey trumpet would sound good made out of acrylic. I’d never seen anybody make one out of acrylic and so that’s what this is made out of. And so I started working with acrylic to make the calls.

Ramsey Russell: I like that one.

Bill Lester: Oh, yeah. It’s got a high pitch and turkey love that sound. You have that little high squeal to it, that little wine. It doesn’t sound like any other kind of call and they work. My phone’s, you see me pull it out of my pocket, I’ve been getting all kind of little things on my phone. I get pictures of dead turkeys with my trumpet hanging on their neck all March and April.

Ramsey Russell: How many calls a year do you turn out a year? This isn’t mass manufacturer, that’s what I love about –

Bill Lester: No, I make about 100 a year. Sometimes a few more.

Ramsey Russell: You don’t make none during turkey season?

Bill Lester: Not any. And look, people don’t like me because I don’t answer the phone during turkey season, I’m either fortunate enough, I’m either turkey hunting or I’m resting. And so I’ll start answering the phone again in May and start trying to help people. And I know they don’t like that, but I just do the best I can. I try to make the very best call and I try to get it to them just as soon as I possibly can.

Ramsey Russell: But it’s not mass manufacturer.

Bill Lester: Oh, no.

Ramsey Russell: There’s no CNC parts coming out of China?

Bill Lester: No.

Ramsey Russell: Do you make them right here in the store?

Bill Lester: No, I don’t make them here at the store, I make them at my studio next door, I live next door. And I do have some friends here in Cleveland that help me with some of the parts. That’s a 257 magnum weatherby casing, that’s the eyelet out of your shoe, these are copper plumbing fittings, you see that? The foot and the bottom is a plumbing fitting. And so I get some people to help me with those parts or I couldn’t make that many. My hands, I’m still in good shape, but my hands have arthritis and so I have a hard time filing all the parts. But turkeys just go nuts over that sound. And I think the reason is because it’s so different, it’s not magic, it’s just different. It sounds different than a diaphragm, it sounds different than a box call, it sounds different than a slate and turkeys like different, that’s all I can tell you.

Ramsey Russell: I think ducks do too. Why’d you quit making duck calls?

Bill Lester: Because I got so many orders for turkey calls. I mean, I just can’t make enough.

Ramsey Russell: Are you as passionate a duck hunter as you are turkey hunter?

Bill Lester: Oh, yeah. I’m fortunate here at Dockery that there are a lot of flooded little sloughs and little potholes and things here at Dockery and so I go almost every morning. I don’t stay long, 30 or 45 minutes at the most and come home and work on turkey calls and all the other things that I get to do.

Favorite Waterfowl Calls

It’s just something about old guns and old decoys and old calls, my favorite calls are decades old.

Ramsey Russell: You blow just your own duck calls?

Bill Lester: I do. I don’t have one on my neck with me, but I’ve got one at home.

Ramsey Russell: How did you get into duck call making? We heard about the wing bone guy you met. How did you get into duck call making?

Bill Lester: Well, I played other people’s duck calls and I just didn’t think it sounded exactly like the way I heard ducks and I don’t know whether my ears are good or bad. And so then I got to fool around making some and I would change the reeds and I’d file them and sand them and scrape them and carry on trying to get that kind of harmonic raspy sound that my turkey calls have. And so I did pretty good and I sold probably 200 duck calls. And at the National Wild Turkey show, I won 6th place for a duck call, so I thought that was pretty good. It wasn’t first place, but if you’re in the top 10, that’s a good thing. But shortly after that, the turkey call business just took off. And so I don’t work at it full time, I would probably have to keep up with the folks that would like to have one, but I just can’t make that many.

Ramsey Russell: My granddaddy used to say, man’s lucky if he has one good dog in his life. And I’ve had more than one good dog, I’ve had a lot of good dogs. But back in the day, I used to carve decoys, this is what I’m getting. I used to carve decoy and I’m not an artist, by no means, it’s a very crude rendition of what a mallard might look like, but I’ve killed ducks over. Point being, I’ve killed them over plastic, I killed them over pop bottles and silhouettes and made in China and made in Italy, made all kinds of different places, but something about putting my blocks on the water and killing ducks over it just takes that whole game to a new relationship.

Bill Lester: Yeah. And to use a handmade call that somebody made that wasn’t made in a factory is just special. I’m very fortunate, I get lots of people. I had one person one time tell me that he wanted 5 calls and I said, what do you want to do with 5 calls? And he said, well, my son just got married and he tells me he’s going to have 5 little boys and he hadn’t had them yet. And I said, well, how can I help you? He said, well, I’m going to buy 5 calls and put them in a lockbox, because when those little boys grow up, I want them to have your call and he said, you’ll be dead and you won’t be able to make them anymore when they grow up. And I said, do you exactly know when so I can be ready? But he bought 5 calls. It was just an honor for him to do that. I want your calls for my little boys that aren’t even born yet and I thought, boy –

Ramsey Russell: It’s just something about old guns and old decoys and old calls, my favorite calls are decades old.

Bill Lester: Exactly.

Ramsey Russell: They may not sound as good as yours, but I like it.

Bill Lester: Yeah, it’s the same thing with these trumpets. Once you use one of these things and turkeys respond to it, you feel confident with it. And that’s why I just use this. I take both of them with me because sometimes I like a high pitch. But then when you switch, all of a sudden he thinks it’s two turkeys and one of them sounds like a hen and the other one sounds like maybe a Jake, maybe. Boy, when he does that, then he’s already figured that the hen’s got a male turkey with her.

Ramsey Russell: It might be somebody catting around.

Bill Lester: Exactly. And so a lot of times –

Ramsey Russell: You picked up in that frolican house.

Bill Lester: There’s only 2 things they want to do and that’s make baby turkeys and fight. They’re not interested in eating –

Ramsey Russell: Almost exactly like the frolican house.

Bill Lester: Yeah, exactly. I have that sound where I can switch back and forth. And I don’t know, I just think it makes it better, it does for me.

Ramsey Russell: Where did your artistic bend come? I mean, that’s kind of what intrigues me about here at Dockery Farms with this history in music in the Mississippi Delta and now you the proprietor this whole music stuff.

Bill Lester: Well, I’m not the proprietor.

Ramsey Russell: Yeah, but this is a big deal, right next door, this is obviously a party life.

Bill Lester: I oversee this for the family.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Bill Lester: And I’m the executive director of the Dockery Farm Foundation. But I oversee this site for the Dockery Farm Foundation.

Ramsey Russell: Thank you for clarifying that. But did your involvement with Dockery Farms come before or after your artistic bent? Because most business people ain’t got an artistic bent.

Bill Lester: Well, my mother was an artist and so as I grew up, I watched her do watercolors and all that. And Nathan House, from Greenville, back in the 30s was her teacher. And so I started painting at an early age and even though when I was in business school, I was fortunate enough to get to do the Christmas cards for the chancellor at Ole Miss. And so even though I wasn’t in art school, I was painting and I was doing enough work like that that I was fortunate enough to be able to get to do that.

Ramsey Russell: Is Dockery Farm still in the Dockery Family estate?

Bill Lester: Yeah. The Dockery daughters rent the farm out and they have one farmer that farms the whole place now.

Ramsey Russell: And you were saying this old store right here has been here since when, 1934?

Bill Lester: Well, I don’t know the exact date, but it’s in the early 30s and they built it when they put the gravel road in here.

Ramsey Russell: Out in the middle of nowhere, you needed a gas pump.

Bill Lester: Well, it was halfway between Ruleville and Cleveland and so it was a great place to stop. And it had cold soft drinks and salami and cheese and crackers.

Ramsey Russell: When did the commissary? Because you said this place took over, kind of became more central to the farm after the commissary burned.

Bill Lester: Well, it burned around 1964 and it had been the place where everybody got paid, where they could buy everything, like I told you, from molasses to caskets to clothes to food, whatever they wanted. And when it burned, they moved the office and they had a post office here and they moved that to this building because it was new and in good shape.

Habitat & Hunting Back in the Good Ole’ Days

So, yes, people hunted bears here a lot, rabbits, ducks, deer especially. Faulkner used to come to the big woods.

Ramsey Russell: With a lot of musical history on this place, do you have any inkling or heard any stories handed down from some of the folks that worked here affiliated about the habitat and the hunting back in those days? In my imagination, it was probably just the sky would turn black with ducks.

Bill Lester: Well, you’re right about that. I remember one story in particular. Mr. Dockery would sell lard to almost everybody, that was a big commodity back then and he would sell it at the commissary. And this man who lived on the Quiver River, which is about 8 or 10 miles from here, came in and I’ve forgotten the man’s name now, but he said, we’ll just call him Joe, he said, now, you know, Joe, I don’t ever sell you any lard. How come? He says, because the bears come up and try to get all my hogs and I kill all the bears and they provide me all the lard I need. And so there were that many black bears here at the turn of the century that they provided lard for some of the people that lived on the edges of the cleared property.

Ramsey Russell: Their primary habitat was cane breaks and cane breaks grew on the highest ground which got cleared.

Bill Lester: And the bears were fat and so if you rented them, you had lard, you need to buy it. And so I thought that was an interesting story. So, yes, people hunted bears here a lot, rabbits, ducks, deer especially. Faulkner used to come to the big woods.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

Bill Lester: And this is the big woods.

Ramsey Russell: We did a story one time on Holt Collier and kind of correlation between Holt Collier and Sam and the big woods. And I fell down a rabbit hole and wanted to shoot some bears. And not trophy bears, not big bears, just bears and bear grease. I got to dabbling with that one time and when we made it, I brought some home. I brought on two big ice sacks full of bear fat and my wife said, what are you going to do with that? I’m going to render it down to fat, she says, no, you ain’t, because she knows I make a mess and she don’t like to clean up that. So she did it and we got a little old –

Bill Lester: Well, that’s lard.

Ramsey Russell: I got a little old long haired Frankie dog who knew she’d like bear grease and it turned her inside out. So the whole time that stuff was rendering down in the garage, she was scratching on the doors, wanting to get out to it. And it’s really good. I like pork lard, but that bear grease is good stuff.

Bill Lester: When you made biscuits or when you made pie shells or you made anything, you would use that and it would give it a distinct flavor, whether you like it or not, that’d be up to you, but it was good. And so the delta was the last place settled in the United States, because it didn’t get settled till the 1880s, 20, 25 years after the Civil War was over. And so when those men came in here and women, they had to dig dredge ditches to be able to drain the water off the place and then they had to start and build a small levee on the Mississippi River to keep the river out. Well, each farmer had the responsibility of building his own levee. And some of them built big levees and some of them built little levees. And so after the flood of 1927, the Corps of Engineers came in here and raised the levee to a uniform height all the way from Memphis to Vicksburg. So, fortunately it hadn’t broke since then.

Ramsey Russell: Don’t you reckon with all this high ground, there must have been some turkeys back in those days.

Bill Lester: Oh, they were. Oh, my goodness. Yeah. It had to be covered up with turkeys. But unscrupulously, you can kill them at night because they roost in a tree and so they’re fairly easy game. The way we do is try to call them up and shoot them with a shotgun is pretty hard, but to catch one in a tree right at dark and shoot them is pretty easy. And so I’m certain a lot of turkeys met their fate that way.

Ramsey Russell: Well, with 2000 to 4000 hands that had to had families to feed, you got to figure anything was up for grabs anytime of the year.

Bill Lester: Everything. Rabbits and raccoons, everything. But you always hear that, coons and collards, well, that must have been good. I mean, if you know what you’re doing, you can make any of those things a delicacy.

Ramsey Russell: Raccoon is good. Now, I’ve eaten raccoon, it’s been before this thing was 4 lane, I can tell you and I was over in the Mississippi Delta, over on the river. An old guy would go out all times a year and trap raccoons and if he caught small ones, he would skin them and put them in a pan with sweet potatoes and buddy, I’m going to tell you what I ate triples.

Bill Lester: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: I don’t know enough about getting all them glands off to going to do it myself, but it is some kind. You want to talk about making a gravy.

Bill Lester: Yeah. But there are certain things that have to be removed.

Ramsey Russell: That’s right.

Bill Lester: So it won’t ruin the flavor, certain glands on their legs. But if you know how to do that, then that was fine. So, yes, all those things were eaten back then, it was just tougher. It was more difficult living than we have today.

Ramsey Russell: You told a story when I walked in about going over to West Point recently.

Bill Lester: Yeah.

Ramsey Russell: That big party they threw on the launch of a vest. Tell that story, that’s very interesting.

Bill Lester: Well, I was very fortunate and I’ve been going to West Point for what they call Turkey Day for a number of years. And this year they were selling a limited edition Mr. Fox vest. And so they sold them at the National Wild Turkey show and had several hundred people line up in the parking lot the night before in Nashville to be able to buy the vest. Well, they had a couple hundred more, I think they were the limited edition ones, plus some unnumbered ones they were going to be selling at West Point maybe 3 weeks ago. So I went over there to sell turkey trumpets and I was very fortunate to sell them. But there were people in the parking lot all night long, they had food trucks, it was close to 1000 people in the parking lot and they were waiting to buy those vests numbered and unnumbered. And so it was an amazing turnout and they had a number of different call makers there and it was just a really pleasant day. You get to see a lot of old friends.

Ramsey Russell: Did you get a vest?

Bill Lester: Not yet.

Ramsey Russell: Okay. Do you want one?

Bill Lester: Well, I do.

Ramsey Russell: What turkey vest do you use now? I’m just a man with 30 year old trumpet calls, you ain’t particular?

Bill Lester: Well, I don’t have just one I use.

Ramsey Russell: Okay.

Bill Lester: Over the years I’ve gotten several and sometimes I pick one of them up and use it and sometimes I pick another one up. But I’m looking forward to this Mossy Oak one. I think this will be the one I use from here on.

Ramsey Russell: Well, what features does it have that make it so? I’m not a turkey hunter, thank God.

Bill Lester: It’s just the way it’s made and the quality of it, the number of pockets it has on it. And it’s fairly lightweight and so I’m looking forward to getting it.

Ramsey Russell: How can folks get in touch with you? I know after hearing that trumpet call, you might get reached out to some listeners that want a trumpet call or just want to reach out and get to know more about Dockery Farm? Yeah. Tell me how they get in touch with you.

Bill Lester: Well, I have an Instagram site called William Lester Trumpets and I have a phone number 662-719-1048 and the only bad thing about calling me, you can text me on the phone and I’ll answer the text. But a lot of times when the phone rings, I’m in a position where I can’t answer.

Ramsey Russell: Turkey hunting.

Bill Lester: Yeah, exactly. I hate to make anybody mad, but I’m better on the phone starting in May. I like helping people and I like making calls for people and I just wish I had more so I could send them to them the very minute they want them. But since I hand make them one at a time, it’s just a slow process.

Ramsey Russell: How old does the listener have to be to learn that trumpet?

Bill Lester: Oh man, kids can play this thing. Look here, when I’m pulling on it, watch, I’m not hardly pulling, I’m just barely pulling on it. It clucks like a champ and clucking kills turkeys, it just does. At least it kills the ones I get to kill.

Ramsey Russell: Instagram at William Lester Trumpets.

Bill Lester: That’s right. And they can see some of the information there. And I guess get back started making calls in May and I pretty much have to work through the rest of the year to get enough made to go the National Wild Turkey show. It’s always in February, it’s always in Nashville or at least it has been lately. And this year, I think 67,000 people came in 3 days. And I mean, it was just a madhouse. But I think this will be my 22nd or maybe 23rd year to go, if I get to go this year. And you make a lot of friends and they come and see you. And one of the nicest things about it is if a daddy 20 years ago brought his 12 year old son and bought a trumpet for him, well, now that man’s grown up and so he gets to bring his child back. And they come back and I have repeat customers that want to buy calls for their children. And so it’s a real honor, I wish I could do enough so that they don’t have to wait.

Ramsey Russell: Birds of a feather flock together and you go to those conventions like that, that’s exactly like you described. Last question, speaking of birds of a feather flocking together, you all get a lot of folks from around the world and around the country coming right here to Dockery Farm.

Bill Lester: Oh, we do. I can show you the sign in sheet and on any given day, it’ll be somebody here from France, Finland, Nova Scotia, Italy, Denmark and places all across the United States, they come from there, too.

Ramsey Russell: Is there a website for this? Yeah, There you go, folks, thank you all for listening to this episode of Duck Season Somewhere with Mr. William Lester at Dockery Farms, home of the blues and home of the homemade turkey trumpets. See you next time.


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