When Alice and Rhett Smith’s daughters were little, they were fond of raising a familiar question before preparing for announced road trips. Lillian, now 15 and Virginia Rhett, 12, looked up at their parents and asked “Is this a Mom trip or a Dad trip?”
Indeed, the inquiry is an important matter for clarification, Rhett explains, “because we pack altogether differently. When Mom goes, we take everything but the kitchen sink and sometimes, we try to load that, too. But if the girls and I are traveling together, we can get everything in the same bag.”
One of the girls’ favorite “Dad trips” is the two-hour trek from the Smiths’ home on James Island to Rhett’s family’s farm outside of the small town of Salley. The hamlet is a town with “a lot of family history and tradition” for Rhett.
Salley is renowned by association for its proximity to Wagener, home of the famous Chitlin’ Strut. The colorful Southern festival occurs on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. “We have a family tradition of getting up early to hunt, going to the Chitlin’ Strut and watching the Clemson-Carolina football game,” Rhett says.
Rhett’s mother was a Williamson and the farm has been in her family since the 1730s. Aunt Patti and Uncle Jerry Griswold live in the old farmhouse, which was built in 1902 on the foundation of an earlier home constructed in the 1830s. The property includes 800 acres and is predominantly planted in pine trees. But at one point, “Granddaddy had over 2,000 acres and farmed cotton, soybeans, watermelons and cantaloupes.”
Williamson Farm is a sportsman’s paradise. Grand and elusive wild turkeys roam the place. Creeks, which also feed small ponds, offer crappie, bream and bass. Once Jasper, the family’s young Boykin spaniel is properly trained, Rhett hopes to work doves on the property.
The place includes 18 deer stands that, along with food plots and feeders, are maintained by Rhett’s uncle Ronnie Williamson, a retired farmer. The farm is home to impressive deer; uncle Al Stevens recently harvested a 180-pound, eight-point buck.
For the Smiths, hunting trips are steeped in tradition. Rhett describes a recent visit to Salley: “We went up Friday afternoon in misty rain and we all were ragged from fighting I-26. Aunt Patti always has a craft project planned; this time, she and the girls painted pumpkins and baked sweets. We always build a fire in a pit outside. The girls eat marshmallows and sip hot chocolate and the adults usually find something brown to drink. We just sit around for hours — talking and telling family stories.”
When Rhett and his brother, Patrick, were boys, their parents dropped them off at the farm for weeks at a time. “We drove tractors and rode mules. More than once, my grandmother sent me out to the chicken coop to pick out supper. I grabbed a chicken, rung its neck and helped pull feathers. Man, I thought I was living in high heaven!” Rhett recalls.
The girls have created similar memories in this sacred place. In her creative writing class, Virginia Rhett recently wrote a story about her favorite Thanksgiving. She relayed a tale of first driving a tractor at the age of eight. Even the tractor, “Lucky Eddie,” includes a history of its own. It once belonged to Rhett’s father and when he passed away, Uncle Jerry moved the old tractor to the farm, where he has “kept it alive” for the family.
Unlike most other adolescents their age, the girls enjoy getting up early and still-hunting in the mornings. They have been accompanying their father in the deer stand since they were about six and Lillian has been actively hunting for the last three or four years. She has missed a couple of deer, which, though frustrating, perhaps includes a silver lining, since Lillian’s determined pursuit of success fuels her passion for deer hunting.
Lillian is left-handed but right-eye dominant, so she is still in the process of mastering her ideal, comfortable shooting stance. Her proud father — who refuses to offer too much assistance — has faith in her skills: “She is very good hitting a target. With deer, she currently is always over, never under. Once she gets her head down just a little bit more, she will have it down!” he assures.
Lillian considers what makes her Williamson Farm hunts so special: “I enjoy all my weekends in Salley, but this past weekend was perfect. Not only did we get to spend time disconnected, we got to go hunting with our dad on a gorgeous morning! Nothing compares to a day out in deer stand with dad!”
A tender soul, Virginia Rhett is “not into the idea of killing a deer just yet, but she loves hunting. She just loves to be out there. She loves the outdoors and loves to shoot. And she is pretty awesome with a bow and arrow!”
Virginia Rhett reflects on deer hunting with her father and sister. ”l am not the best at hunting, but I love the feel of being in nature. The feeling of freedom is one I love!”
Rhett firmly believes that hunting should be a primitive experience. “It is great to disconnect and really connect to the whole nature side of the farm,” he notes, adding, “I really like hunting old-school.” Rhett prefers hunting with “Old Frenchie,” an unmarked heirloom pump shotgun with a walnut stock. “I hunt the tighter stands with close feeders and I will use a rifle when I need to. But I prefer the mule-kick of a shotgun to a rifle with a fancy scope!” He declares.
Rhett rarely shoulders a gun when hunting with his girls, choosing instead to guide “the girls to focus on what’s going on and the whole safety aspect. They are accustomed to witnessing a deer harvest and they think going to the deer processor is the coolest thing!”
After the father and his daughters have spent a morning in the deer stand, Aunt Patti and Uncle Jerry have a big breakfast waiting. The meal usually consists of bacon Andouille sausage, grits, eggs and toast. Around midday after exploring the farm, the Smiths head to nearby Springfield to patronize the charming GoodLands BBQ Restaurant.
Sometimes, the Smiths sleep in the old house where Rhett one day hopes to live. On other occasions, they camp in a 110-year-old sharecropper’s cabin. The dwelling is a two-room shack with folded-up cots, a chest full of blankets, antlers, a map of the farm and stands, spartan furniture and a kerosene heater.
Deer hunting offers a good reason for family trips to Salley, but the objective and quarry are hardly so narrow in scope. Rhett describes the experience: “The thing about it is, the hunt is not the focus.
“My girls and I get to have a good time together. Mom’s not around, so we don’t dress right and we don’t eat right! The beauty of it is that the farm brings us together on the same playing field.”
Instead of pursuing activities of others girls their age, Lillian and Virginia Rhett “would rather be up at the farm, hanging out with family, walking dirt roads and climbing in a deer stand. During those weekends in Salley, we have the conversations about things we may never discuss at home; it keeps us really close.
“I think I have a pretty unique and special relationship with my daughters and they tell me more than other girls tell their dads. It’s awesome that we get to hang out like that!” Rhett reflects, reaping the spiritual, generational harvest of this idyllic farm.
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.