State conservation federation celebrates 75 years

The group was instrumental in establishing Missouri's Conservation Federation in 1936.
Thursday, September 9, 2010 | 8:35 p.m. CDT; updated 9:37 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 10, 2010
Bill Crawford, 92, shows off a drawing made by J.N. Ding Darling, an editorial cartoonist, on a tablecloth during the first meeting of the Conservation Federation of Missouri in 1935 at his home in Columbia on Thursday. Crawford is the only living attendee from the first meeting and will be a speaker at the 75th anniversary dinner on Friday.

COLUMBIA — Backtrack 75 years to the dawn of Missouri’s conservation movement, to days when the term “conservation” was so new to the tongue that the “s” and “v” got mixed up.

“People would call it ‘conversation,’” says Bill Crawford, 92, an early Missouri conservationist.

If you go

The Conservation Federation of Missouri's 75th anniversary events are open to the public.

  • Art exhibition opening. The State Historical Society of Missouri will unveil "Charles Schwartz, Missouri's Audubon: An Artist in Nature," an exhibition of more than 500 works of art by the Missouri biologist, artist and photographer, Charles Schwartz. The event will take place from 3 to 8 p.m. on Friday at Bass Pro Sportsman's Center at 3101 Bass Pro Drive. A wine and cheese reception, guided tours and remarks from artists and historians are included in the $10 cost, payable in advance or at the door.
  • Anniversary dinner. The event will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Friday at the Tiger Hotel, 23 S. Eighth St., and will feature social time, dinner and speakers including Gov. Jay Nixon and Bill Crawford, the only living participant of the founding meeting in 1935. Seating is limited and tickets are $100. Reservations can be made at 1-800-575-2322.
  • Continued art exhibition. The Schwartz display will be at Bass Pro through Sunday. There will be free educational and art activities on Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Afterward, the exhibition will be moved to the Historical Society at 1020 Lowry St., where it will remain through Feb. 12.

All information from the Conservation Federation of Missouri.

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That was the status of conservation on Sept. 10, 1935, when a 17-year-old Crawford joined around 75 sportsmen, lawyers, doctors, farmers and nature-lovers in the ballroom of Columbia’s Tiger Hotel for the first meeting of the Conservation Federation of Missouri.

The federation is returning to the same ballroom Friday evening to mark its 75th anniversary. Crawford, who in 1935 tagged along with his father to the Tiger Hotel and is now the only living person from that founding meeting, will speak alongside Gov. Jay Nixon.

The federation’s goal in 1935 was to “take fish and game out of politics,” in the words of one of the founders, Roland Hoerr. Members wanted permanent conservation oversight, not regulations that fluctuated year to year with political winds.

“Politicians all had constituents to answer to,” Dave Murphy, the federation’s executive director, said. “The forests, fish and wildlife were always second fiddle.”

Murphy cited a 1936 study that found fewer than 250 deer in the entire state. Today, about 300,000 deer are killed by hunters each year in Missouri, he said.

The federation’s solution was a ballot item in the 1936 elections that called for a constitutional amendment establishing a state Conservation Commission. A constitutional change, reasoned the federation’s first president, E. Sydney Stephens, has more permanence than a law.

As a senior in high school in Moberly, Crawford remembers driving all around Randolph and Howard Counties with his father, Tom, putting up signs urging residents to cast their ballots for Proposition No. 4. The signs featured fat-bellied quails in mid-flight, tremendous leaping bass, rotund turkeys and an open-mouthed stag, all under the words “Bring ‘em back to Missouri.”

“He and I worked our tails off for about six months putting up this stuff everywhere,” Crawford said.

Proposition No. 4 passed. The commission was established, and it, in turn, set up the Department of Conservation.

With its original mission accomplished, the federation’s purpose switched to making sure the Conservation Department was properly funded, defending the commission's authority, and uniting wildlife and conservation-related organizations in the state, Murphy said.

The federation has grown to more than 90,000 members and 80 affiliated organizations.

It still works closely with the Conservation Department, such as supporting the department's investigation into reintroducing elk, which were wiped out from southeastern Missouri in the 1860s, Murphy said.

Of course, what makes good “conservation” is a matter of opinion. At the Missouri Farm Bureau, Leslie Holloway, director of state and local government affairs, said elk have been known to damage farmers’ property and fields, and can carry diseases that transmit to cattle.

The Conservation Department is seeking public comment on reintroduction of elk for the rest of this month.

Few details have survived from the federation’s first meeting in 1935. Crawford remembers an assortment of men seated at tables covered with paper tablecloths. A few names still stick in his mind.

Stephens — the Missouri re-employment director who smoked a cigarette from an elegant, long cigarette holder, much like his former Harvard classmate Franklin D. Roosevelt — led the meeting as president.

The Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist, J.N. "Ding" Darling, was there, as evidenced by his doodles of ducks and fish on the paper tablecloth. The drawings were saved from the trash by then-Columbia Tribune editor H.J. Waters and later framed by Crawford.

The names of most of the other men there have long been forgotten. At that 1935 meeting, perhaps no one realized they were creating something lasting enough that three quarters of a century later, people would ask about their names.

Forgotten attendees won’t be a problem at Friday’s anniversary dinner. Murphy said there will be a guest book. The names will be saved.

And on Thursday afternoon, the white tablecloths that hotel employees unfurled in the ballroom were not perishable paper, but cloth.

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