For a man who owns a spread on the coast of Maine, a horse farm in Kentucky, a 100-acre estate on Long Island, a house at Saratoga, an apartment on Fifth Avenue and a Hobe Sound mansion on Florida's Gold Coast, deciding on any given day where to rest his head could be perplexing. But for Charles Shipman Payson, the owner of all of the above as well as a yacht and a plane, the decision is simple. The place he prefers to all others is his 12,800-acre hunting ranch in south-central Florida, and for a good part of the year that is where he is most likely to be found. Not that it is easy to find him. The ranch is so far off the beaten track that except for the odd cow that might wander by or the occasional low-flying plane overhead, it could go unnoticed among the cypress swamps and palmetto jungles of Florida's last frontier. Which is exactly the way Payson likes it.
There is no telephone on the ranch and until a few years ago there was no electricity. The rutted dirt-track entrance, which is off a little-traveled county road, bears only the sign TREE FARM. No name. No number. Not even a mailbox. By design, Payson gets no mail there, and no newspapers are delivered. A quarter of a mile or so down the track there is a split-rail fence and beyond that several modest wood buildings painted green, which house the ranch manager and his family and a dozen or so English pointers. A handful of trucks and hunting vehicles are parked alongside a 1974 station wagon whose license plates read METS.
Farther along the track is a comfortable but hardly elegant three-bedroom ranch house, which is where Payson and his guests rest their heads these days. Until four years ago, when the house was built, they stayed in one of the green bungalows. Before that, they slept in tents.
What prompted Payson to pitch his tent in this remote part of Florida 21 years ago, and what continues to lure him back season after season, is the bird shooting. Ever since his boyhood in Maine, hunting—and especially bird shooting—has been the sport he has most enjoyed. In the middle 1950s, determined to find a place to hunt close enough to his Florida residence that he could do so regularly, he enlisted two longtime friends, Elliott Dunwody and John Shuey, to help him locate some good bird shooting within 150 miles of Hobe Sound.
April 18, 1977
South-central Florida was then, as now, largely undeveloped. To anyone familiar only with Florida's densely populated east and west coasts, with their unbroken palisades of high-rises and hotels, this part of the state is an improbable surprise. The land stretches flat and fertile from horizon to horizon, a vast sea of grass punctuated by tall stands of slash pine, islands of palmetto, sabal palm and green myrtle, by cool, dark cypress swamps and hummocks lush with tropical plants and wild fruit trees.
There is a primitive quality about the land, a sense that it has never been inhabited. The vast savannas are reminiscent of East Africa, and one expects at any moment to come upon a herd of buffalo in the tall grass or to surprise a giraffe nibbling on the tender leaves of a tree.
This is cattle country. The land is fenced, but this has not always been so; at one time everybody ran cattle on everybody else's land and nobody paid much attention to who owned what. Then in the 1930s the Florida government required that all cattle be inoculated, and in order to round them up fences became necessary.
Much of the land in Payson's area, some four million acres, was sold originally by the state of Florida in the 1880s for 25¢ an acre, then sold and resold again as the Florida land boom roared to a climax before being smashed by the great hurricane of 1926. In the early 1930s Dunwody's father, who in the wake of the crash had picked up the acreage Payson now owns, sold it for $2 an acre to the man who, in 1955, eventually sold it to Payson for $35 an acre.
Payson's original purchase included six miles on each side of the county road, or some six sections more than his current 12,800 acres. To his present regret, and against Shuey's advice, he had second thoughts about just how good a deal he had made and sold off the six sections. A few years ago the same land was going for $600 an acre. Today it is valued in excess of $1,000 an acre and Payson would happily buy up the entire county if he could get his hands on it. The idea is not entirely preposterous.
For most of his 78 years Charles Shipman Payson has loomed larger than life-size over his fellows, both physically and financially. At 16 he stood 6'3" and was a four-letter man at Salisbury (Conn.) School where he was on the swimming, football, baseball and tennis teams. Although a knee injury in his freshman year at Yale prevented him from playing football, he rowed on the crew for three years and boxed both there and at Harvard Law School.
Shortly after graduating from law school in 1924 he married Joan Whitney, the bouncy, blonde daughter of financier Payne Whitney, a union that was described by a columnist of the day as "of great importance to society in New York, Boston, Newport, Portland, Washington and other cities." The fact that in addition to funding his daughter's wedding, Papa Whitney also paid $2,041,951 in income taxes that year, an amount exceeded only by Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller Jr., did not go unnoticed by the columnists. When Whitney died three years after the wedding, leaving an estate that was at the time the largest ever probated in the U.S., Joan and her brother John Hay (Jock) Whitney shared an inheritance in the neighborhood of $200 million.
But Payson, in his own right, was hardly an economic disaster. He was born in Portland, Maine of forebears as illustrious as the Whitneys'. His ancestors include Daniel Carroll, a signer of the Constitution of the United States, and a long line of Congregational clergymen on his father's side, and the Civil War General John Marshall Brown on his mother's. While his vivacious wife was making headlines in the society columns, Payson was making headlines on the business pages.
While still in his 20s he took over a small sugar company, and in a coup that so impressed fellow Yaleman Henry Luce that the latter used several columns describing it in the then fledgling TIME magazine, Payson worked out an ingenious method of legally dodging the high tariffs on sugar imports from Cuba, bringing his sugar in taxed at 83¢ a ton instead of the customary $40. Before the loophole was finally plugged he managed to considerably sweeten the family coffers. In 1933 he won a $500,000 patent suit protecting his rights to a simple, low-cost process for making stainless steel. There was nothing simple about its future worth to the automobile industry. By the time he was 40, Payson's fortune and fancy had expanded from sugar and steel to uranium, oil and railroads.
The growth of his ménage kept pace. There were two sons, Daniel Carroll, who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge at the age of 18 after enlisting in the infantry as a private, and John Whitney, now 37 and an art dealer in Hobe Sound; three daughters, Sandra, Payne and Lorinda (now president of the Mets); and numerous dogs, horses, cats, frogs and other assorted pets, followed eventually by 11 grandchildren. Joan Payson's private three-bedroom railroad car in which she commuted between the family's many homes was as apt to be cluttered with children, animals and bicycles as with visiting royalty and Van Goghs, Matisses and Lautrecs. Later baseball players and horse trainers climbed aboard.
As the years went by, Joan Payson, who may have been even more colorful than most of the players on her baseball club, continued to garner headlines while her husband remained in the background. When the Mets, after losing 737 games in seven years, won the World Series in 1969 on, as it happened, Payson's 71st birthday, the team showered him with champagne in a victory celebration. It was the first time Payson had ever been in the Mets' locker room, and even then he was there only because his wife had been unable to return from London in time for the game.
After her death in 1975 Payson inherited the ball club along with practically everything else. "At first I wasn't interested in it," he says. "I gave 10% of the Mets stock to each of the children, made Lorinda [de Roulet] president, and I went back to quail shooting. But then I started getting involved and it has turned out to be a lot more interesting that I thought it would be." This spring Payson was in St. Petersburg, Fla. for the inaugural game in the new Al Lang Stadium, and nobody cheered louder as the Mets trounced the Cardinals.
Like baseball, horse racing was Joan's domain. Greentree Stud, which she owned jointly with her brother, was second only to the Mets in her affection and it was not uncommon to see her holding a transistor radio to her ear while she watched a baseball game as she listened to the race results at Belmont. Payson, on the other hand, displayed extraordinary talent for forgetting the names of Greentree's celebrated thoroughbreds. Suddenly saddled with a stable, he has changed. Last year he decided to visit the horse farm in Lexington, Ky. for a firsthand look at exactly what kind of horseflesh he owned.
"I wound up spending five days there studying everything," he says. "I had no idea it was such a fascinating business. Very exciting. I'm really hooked and I expect to be spending considerable time with the horses."
He will also be spending considerable time this summer on his newest boat. Saga IX, a 70-foot combination cruiser-sportsfisherman—if a craft that big can be called a sportsfisherman—that was launched this March.
"I thought of calling it the Last Saga," he says, "but then, there's always a chance that it won't be."
The latest Saga is 10 feet longer and one cabin bigger than its predecessor, giving Payson added entertaining space for the America's Cup races off Newport later this year. He needs the extra space because he is planning to entertain more guests than usual as he plays host to not one but three 12-meter crews. A major backer of U.S. cup competitors since 1964, Payson has the distinction in this go-round of being heavily into the Enterprise and the Independence as well as the trial horse Intrepid. By the time the races and the entertaining are over in September, he expects to be more than ready to retreat to the ranch.
Escape might be a better word, for this is what Payson does at the ranch. The business and social demands that hound him elsewhere get no farther than the plain wood fence on the county road. The cordon of servants that runs his many abodes is conspicuously absent at the ranch. No butler, maid or valet materializes at his elbow the instant he clears his throat. Instead there are only the ranch manager and his wife, Floyd and Edith Whidden, and Esther Woolery and her husband Frank, who cook and clean up most of the time but occasionally do not turn up at all. Even when they do, they depart after dinner, leaving Payson to fix his own Dubonnet on the rocks, to turn down his own bed and to raid the refrigerator.
Payson shuffles around the place dressed in well-worn, too-short chinos and a sport shirt gaping across his ample stomach. He still has a full head of red hair only partially flecked with gray, and his florid, fleshy jowls hang like the wattles on a turkey gobbler. He is a huge man with hands the size of dinner plates and a great booming voice that comes up from his diaphragm and gains timbre and volume as it rumbles forth in a roar that would do his clergyman ancestors proud.
Payson wears glasses to read but not to shoot, or to do anything else, and he boasts of having all his wisdom teeth, and other faculties. The power, the strength, the extraordinary will that made him what he is are still very much in evidence. In New York or Maine or Hobe Sound he conforms to the conventions imposed by wealth and position, but at Payson's Place, as he calls the ranch, the rules are nobody's but his own.
"Look at what he eats," says Esther. "Franks and beans and rice and macaroni, and honey on everything. Can you imagine him getting away with that at Hobe Sound? Back there he is Mr. Payson, but here he's just plain Charlie. This is where he lets down."
It is an easy place for letting down. Deer are everywhere, bounding through the sawgrass, feeding in open fields, tiptoeing single-file into the bottoms. The rare wood ibis feeds among the cattle egrets and blue herons. Sandhill cranes take off like flying boats from one of dozens of lakes scattered through the ranch. Bobcats lurk along the edges of the swamps and alligators sun themselves on muddy banks.
There are feral pigs in profusion, all descendants of a barnyard porker that strayed generations ago. The pigs run in family clusters of 10 or a dozen, appearing suddenly from a thicket before disappearing again.
There are doves to shoot in the millet fields in fall and largemouth bass to catch in late afternoon. There are bob white to hunt from October to mid-March—thousands of birds coveyed in the palmettos and on the broad savanna. And deep in the cypress swamps are wild turkeys, the king of American game birds, the quarry Payson would rather pursue than any other.
Florida has fall and spring turkey-hunting seasons and Payson hunts during both, but it is in the spring when only gobblers may be taken and the bird is at its most splendid that he most enjoys the sport.
A wild gobbler in spring is a spectacular sight. Its head is a kaleidoscope of color, changing from white to blue to red as the bird struts. At the peak of the gobbler season its wattles are a brilliant crimson and its topknot becomes swollen and pendulous. From its iridescent flank feathers to the rust-brown of its tailband, it is a bird of unparalleled majesty. Benjamin Franklin fought to make it our national bird and lost out to the bald eagle. Had he presented his case in spring, the outcome might well have been otherwise.
What brings about this transformation, not surprisingly, is love. The torn turkey struts forth to conquer, its entire being fine-tuned for the seductive yelp, yelp, yelp of its lady love. And this is its undoing. This wily bird, perhaps the most astute and elusive of all the avifauna on this continent, this bird which in saner moments has eyesight superior to a mountain goat's, hearing more acute than a deer's, cunning greater than a cat's, this creature that has tantalized sportsmen for generations becomes, for a brief period each spring, a pushover.
Well, almost a pushover. Which is to say that it is somewhat easier to bag a torn turkey in spring than in fall, more or less the way it is somewhat easier to scale the Eiger in summer than in winter, which really means that for most of us there is not much likelihood of doing either at any time of year.
The sportshunter has made no noticeable dent in turkey populations across the country. On the contrary, populations continue to grow and expand everywhere. Once in danger of flying into the abyss of extinction, the wild turkey has made the most spectacular recovery of any species in this century. Today the bird thrives in every part of its original range and, more remarkable, in many regions where it was unknown a hundred years ago.
Payson's role in the turkey's recovery dates back 21 years and has involved stocking and year-round feeding programs as well as habitat improvement. "I've planted a million trees here," he says, "and created entire forests out of what were once swamps." Of the 60,000 wild turkeys believed to inhabit Florida, it is safe to say that a substantial number of them reside at Payson's Place.
In the spring, turkeys are hunted there from blinds made of palmetto leaves and palm fronds. The hunters ride out in fat-tired trucks well before first light, creeping under cover of darkness into four-foot-square blinds equipped with chairs. The damp morning air is heavy with the sweet and sour smell of the swamps. Somewhere in the darkness, still safe from the night's creatures in their roosts high above the forest floor, the turkeys await the new day.
Waiting for the turkeys is the hardest part of the hunt. There can be no motion, no sound. Legs and necks grow stiff and an ominous frog begins to rise in the throat. The temptation is to doze, but not for long. Soon the mosquitoes show up, then the chiggers. Suddenly there is a snort and a grunt and then the sound of shuffling outside the blind. Pigs have arrived, parading in single file from the thicket to root in the clearing just beyond the blind. They mill around on the other side of the palmetto leaves, only feet away, making a hurra, hurra, hurra sound. They suspect something is amiss but they do not know what.
Slowly first light filters into the clearing. Then, from somewhere deep inside the tall timbers, a turkey gobbles. It is an electrifying sound. And then it is no more. The pigs continue to mill. A huge crow swoops into the clearing and lands on a low bush. Others follow it in, circling briefly, then take up sentry positions on nearby branches. One lands on the blind and with a raucous screech takes off" again, as startled as the occupant by the encounter.
The hunter shifts to peer through one of the two half-dollar-size holes in the palmettos. There, incredibly, is a turkey, its head projecting like a periscope above the backs of the pigs. They seem completely at ease together, old friends. The heart pounds faster. Breathing stops. Reaching in slow motion for the shotgun, the hunter eases carefully out of the chair and thrusts the gun over the blind wall. The turkey is already disappearing into the far thickets, its spurred legs carrying it away as swiftly as it had come.
From the east comes the distant sound of a shot. It is 7:15. After five consecutive mornings of sitting out the chiggers, the mosquitoes and the pigs, Payson finally scores. He is like a 10-year-old boy as he tells and retells the story all the way back to the ranch house. Accompanied by his son John and grandson Chas., Payson carries the bird back, admiring its wattles, the color of its head, the length of its beard. His hunting hat is decorated with the beards of turkeys past, and already this newest one is figuratively being fitted into the felt. Forget the financial coups and the empire building, the corporations he once headed and the industries he dominated. At this moment they are overshadowed by the morning's triumph. Titan of our times he may be, but first and foremost Charlie Payson is a turkey hunter.