Calls of the Wild

by Sid Evans - Tennessee - November 2008

Bill Jones III, chairman and CEO of the Sea Island Company, loves to golf, sure. But nothing excites him more than a rare turkey call

It all started very innocently. It was 1993, and Bill Jones III was cleaning out his wife’s grandparents’ house in Cleveland, Tennessee. He and his brother-in-law were going through a closet, and they came across two turkey calls, beautiful old things that had apparently been carved before they were born. Both men were captivated, so Jones took one, and his brother-in-law took the other. Then, Jones did a little research and found his call listed in a book as “rare and collectible.” When Jones told his father about the call, his father said, “I’ve got an old turkey call. You want it?” And just like that, he had doubled his collection.

Now Jones has some seven thousand turkey calls, the largest collection of its kind in the country. I’ve come to his hunting camp in Cabin Bluff, Georgia, to see it, and as I drive down a long dirt road to his cluster of cabins, I know I’m in the right place. I pass at least a dozen of the wily birds scurrying into the pines. When I meet Jones, a courtly man of fifty, on the front porch of his main cabin, he looks relaxed and happy, miles from his stressful job of running the Sea Island Company. Jones recently finished a massive renovation of the company’s signature property, the Cloister, but all he wants to talk about today is turkey calls.

He invites me inside, and it’s clear that Jones isn’t just into turkey calls—he’s into turkeys. There’s a flying turkey mounted on the wall, a painting of turkeys over the fireplace, and a small bronze turkey sculpture on a table. It sounds over the top, but it’s a beautiful space, with pecky cypress ceilings and simple Southern charm. Jones points to a long table covered with turkey calls of every imaginable kind—yelpers, box calls, slate calls, scratch box calls, decorative calls, and some strange ones I’ve never seen before. There are probably fifty calls laid out on the table. “Just a few to get us started,” he says.

When you ask him about them, it’s like asking the historian Shelby Foote if he knows anything about the Civil War. He starts to pick up various calls and tell the story behind each one. At first, he found them on eBay, which he would peruse for hours. But in recent years he’s had to turn to more specialized sources. He holds up a wooden box call, which has a long, narrow sound chamber and a paddle that you draw across the grain to make it “yelp.” “This was the first patented box call, and it was patented in 1897 by a guy named Henry Gibson,” he says. “There are seven decorative Gibsons known, and these are two of them.” He points to some others that look like small trumpets. “One of the top call makers of all time was a guy named Tom Turpin from Memphis. These are Turpin calls right here, late 1930s.” He makes a couple of short, sharp yelps. “Still sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?” he says. Then he points reverentially to another group of box calls. “These were made by Neil Cost, who has been described as the finest turkey call maker who ever lived.” He holds one up to the light. “You can see the evolution of his calls. His early ones are square cut on the inside. They’re more valuable than the later calls that are round cut, but you can see the progression in quality and style.”

As we go through them, I realize that there’s a true folk artist behind every one. Jones rattles off details about old-time call makers M. L. Lynch, Henry Davis, and Zack Farmer and modern call maker Frank Cox. Like a rabid Bob Dylan fan, he can tell you about the phases each one went through, the experimentation, the quirks. Cost, he says, often thought he was dying (he finally did die, in 2002) and would make inscriptions to that effect on his calls. “This old paddle call is the last one I will make in this wood, and the next to last paddle call I will make counting down to the ‘fat lady.’” Signed, Neil Cost. October 1999.

We walk down a gravel path to another small cabin, and upon entering, I realize that this is really his museum. Lying around are antlers, boxes of old fishing lures, hunting books, a snakeskin or two, and taxidermy from around the world. But mostly there are turkey calls, hundreds and hundreds of turkey calls. They’re stored in glass cases, drawers, and cabinets, and some are just sitting on tabletops. Jones waves over several of the cases. “These are all Neil Cost, these are all Neil Cost, and these are all Neil Cost.” He points out a photograph of himself as a young man, proudly displaying a turkey, and one of his mother with a big gobbler over her shoulder. “I come from a long line of folks who like to hunt,” he says.

By the time he’s given me the full tour, I’m amazed at the depth and intensity involved in collecting these things. As with everything else he does, Jones is competitive about it (especially with his friend Davis Love III), but he says it’s a friendly competition. Every spring he hosts a turkey hunt in Cabin Bluff with some of the world’s top call makers and collectors, an event he always looks forward to. He brings out a picture of him, Neil Cost, and a collector named Earl Mickel, who served as a kind of mentor. “This was actually Neil’s last turkey-hunting trip,” he says. “He was too sick to hunt, but he sat on the porch and just told stories and talked about call making and history.”

I ask him if, with all these calls, he actually got a bird this year. “I did,” he says proudly. “But you can count on one thing, and that is you can’t figure out a turkey. If you think he’s coming this way, he’s going that way. And that’s what I love about it.""