Jeff Manes: Wildlife refuge part of hunt club
June 29, 2012 4:20PM
Joe Dewes, 79, of Lowell manages the Indian Gardens private hunt club in Newton County. | Photo provided
Updated: August 2, 2012 6:01AM
“Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land.”
— Aldo Leopold
Joe Dewes, 79, lives in Lowell with his wife, Juanita. They have been married 53 years and have raised three adult sons.
Dewes, a Korean War veteran, manages the Indian Gardens private hunt club owned by the Cameron family. It is in Newton County, near the Grand Kankakee Marsh, which is part of the Lake County Parks.
Lived in Lowell all your life?
“I was actually born on a farm in St. John,” he said. “We moved to a farm in Lowell when I was about 12. It was during World War II.”
As a youngster, did you like to hunt and fish?
“Absolutely; I liked to hunt, fish and loved the outdoors.”
Life after Lowell High School?
“After being discharged from the Army, I attended St. Joseph College in Rensselaer for two years under the G.I. Bill. After my second year, I became restless and went back into the work force with my brothers.
“Five of my brothers were contractors. I worked for them in the carpenter trade and building industry for about 10 or 12 years.”
How many siblings did you have?
“There were 12 of us; I was the youngest. All 11 of my siblings are deceased. While we lived in St. John, we didn’t have electricity or any indoor conveniences. My dad farmed with horses. I can remember when there were nine draft horses in the barn.
“My grandfather lived with us. There were times 15 people were sitting at the dinner table; Mother cooked on a wood stove; she heated the water on the stove.”
What ethnicity is Dewes?
“My great-grandfather came over from Germany. He was a local veterinarian in Northwest Indiana who treated cattle. He drove a horse and buggy.”
What did you do for a living after you left your brothers?
“I was offered a job running the Cedar Lake Lumber Co. I ran that for about four years. Then, my partner and I bought a vacant lumber company in Cook. We opened what we called a salvage yard. We handled building materials that were either damaged or discontinued. Business prospered. After about 10 years, I bought out my partner’s interest.”
What time frame are we talking?
“That would’ve been in the late ’60s and early ’70s. During those years, I bought the Kentland Lumber and Home Center, and I also bought Cook Lumber and Supply. I had those until I retired in 1997.”
When did you start working here at Indian Gardens?
“About 1999; the Cameron family approached me and asked me if I’d be interested in managing the place.”
Did you already know the Camerons?
“Oh, yeah. I’d been a member of the hunt club since the mid-’70s.”
Tell me more about Indian Gardens.
“The property was purchased in 1918 by Scottish-born William Cameron. The Camerons were wealthy people — industrialists and bankers from Chicago. They had the patent on the invention of the can. Eventually, that was sold off to the Continental Can Co.
“The Indian Gardens property encompasses about 1,300 acres. William purchased the land about three or fours years before the river was straightened and dredged in this area. Cameron did all the infrastructure work on this river-bottom property; he didn’t want to see it go to farmland.
“About 700 acres of the property are a wildlife refuge that is never hunted. It’s original river bottom that never has been disturbed. It’s as it was hundreds and hundreds of years ago.”
Joe, as you know, I’m one of the few people who has been allowed back there. It’s like the land that time forgot — deer, ducks, geese, river otters, bald eagles, coyotes, wild turkeys, beavers, muskrats ... .
“The balance of the property is native hardwood trees and prairie grass. Included in that is about 135 acres that we basically farm. We plant about 70 food plots per year for wildlife.”
Name some of the crops.
“Sudan grass, millet, buckwheat, corn, milo and wild rice.”
You also raise ducks at Indian Gardens.
“That is correct. We’re in our fifth year and are seeing some success in that project. To help them nest in the refuge area, we’ve installed 70 mallard nesting structures. Last year, out of the 70, we had 43 structures that were being used.”
You have about 500 ducklings shipped here per year.
“Yes, we get them when they are one day old and we release them into the refuge when they are six to seven weeks old. We also have 100 wood duck houses on the property. That has been a huge success.”
You had a close call in January.
“Yes, I was in the six-wheeler, and the vehicle flipped over the embankment, then broke through the ice. I was trapped for a while, but managed to free myself from the vehicle. Water was up to my chest; I was in 12 feet of water.”
Joe, you come from hardy stock, but you’re also lucky those waders you were wearing didn’t fill up with water. You would’ve sunk to the bottom of that bayou. Not to mention the possibility of hypothermia.
“It really was a life-or-death situation.”
“For 20 years, my wife and I competed on the national level. My wife has won three national championships.
“The championships were held every year in Ohio. One was an open championship, where she had to beat the men as well as the ladies.”
What about you?
“The closest I ever came to winning a national championship is when I broke 98 out of 100 targets and got into a shoot-off with seven other people from around the United States.”
“I lost it to a fella from Texas.”
Joe Dewes is a gentleman and all-around good guy. He’s what I call a straight shooter.
He’s a good shot, too.