Smoke Rings

Rod Crossman, rodcrossman.com
Rod Crossman, rodcrossman.com

The draw of pipes for classic outdoor writers


Sing me the old songs.
Tell me the stories of times gone by. 
I want to spend an evening or so with you 
to hear about your dogs.
I want to see your guns.
I want to read your favorite books.
I want to warm my hands in front of your fire 
and try your pipe tobacco and taste your whisky.
“The Old Songs,” by Gene Hill

Smoking used to be as commonplace as using cell phones is today. Back then a bluish haze hovered over homes, businessmen hashed out deals over cigars and pipes, and movie stars puffed casually on cigarettes. Smoking was considered sophisticated, even de rigueur

James Dean adored his Chesterfields and Winston Churchill his Romeo y Julietas, but classic outdoor writers seemed especially drawn to pipes. The image of the gentleman wingshooter puffing a pipe is the stuff of vintage calendars and ammunition ads, a reminder of a tranquil era every sportsman dreams of revisiting. 

The smell of pipe tobacco is immediately recognizable, and career smokers—or those who have lived with one—associate deep, lasting memories with the aroma. It sings an “old song” like nothing else can. Few knew that better than Gene Hill, one of America’s best-loved outdoor writers. His enduring books and magazine columns reflect a fondness for pipes and pipe smoking. At least 10 chapters in A Hunter’s Fireside Book mention pipes in some shape or form. 

“Hilly,” as his friends called him, preferred English briars, and he often traveled “across the pond” on business during his tenure at the ad agency J. Walter Thompson. While there Hill frequently treated himself to a London-made briar, insisting Charatans were the “Purdeys of the pipe world.” Another favorite was the diminutive, straight-stemmed Angler’s Pipe, made by Hardy’s of Alnwick.

In print Hill used the folksy term “Brushsmoke” to describe pipe tobacco, but he normally filled his bowl with Edgeworth Ready-Rubbed, a mixture of fire-cured Tennessee and Kentucky white burleys and Virginia tobaccos. Ironically, the earliest inception of Edgeworth was offered in 1912, the year the iconic Winchester Model 12 was introduced. Edgeworth boasted a smooth, “bite-free” smoke and a comparatively low nicotine punch for everyday use—a perfect choice for America’s “everyman” outdoor writer. 

Of course, beauty rests in the eye—or nose—of the beholder. While fans describe Edgeworth’s room-note as “nutty,” “earthy” and “bready,” Hilly’s close friend, writer and editor Steve Smith, remembers it smelling downright awful. Then again, “Smitty” preferred Cookie Jar, a blend that reeked like a smoldering Bermuda onion, according to his children. As with shotguns and sporting dogs, opinions are endless. 

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“Years ago smoking a pipe was the rule rather than the exception,” Smith mused. “Everybody who was anybody in the outdoor writing world was doing it.” Smith smoked a pipe until Hilly died, a habit that made an indelible mark on his stories, like this one from his book Woodcock Shooting: “I can’t stand it anymore, so I get out of the car and open the tailgate and sit on it, smoking my pipe and trying to keep from letting Jess know I am as excited as she is.”

For sportsmen like Smith, pipe smoking was as much a part of the upland experience as fine doubles and blooded setters. To this day he still yearns for his pipe whenever he climbs into a duck blind or walks into an aspen stand. Smith and Hill often indulged in a smoke break after they’d grassed a bird. “It was kind of a reward,” Smith recalled. “We’d stand around puffing and reliving the flush and shot.” 

Once while hunting in Michigan, a woodcock went up, offering an easy mark, but neither shouldered a gun because each had a pipe stem wedged firmly in his mouth. Fortunately, that wouldn’t be the last bird they’d flush while enjoying the finer aspects of the upland shooting life. Not hardly. Writing and bird hunting took Hill and Smith on wingshooting adventures across the country and around the world. 

One evening after gunning driven birds in Virginia, the pair was enjoying a post-hunt cocktail. “Hilly didn’t have his pipe with him, because he was battling cancer at the time,” Smith explained. “I was mid-puff, minding my own business, when Hilly snatched my pipe away and treated himself to several indulgent drags. I said, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to be doing that, are you?’ But he just chuckled.” 

It seems society could use a bit more forced relaxation these days, and many of Hill’s essays, such as “The Primrose Path,” speak of a slower, gentler time: “You offer him your can of Brushsmoke to fill his pipe. By now he’s too far swept away into some imagined October afternoon to notice that his suit is covered with dog hair and pipe ashes have scorched little holes in his tie.”

Hunters, like pipe smokers, are kindred spirits.

And really, isn’t “some imagined October afternoon” where we’d all like to spend the remainder of our days? 

Another sportsman who valued autumn days afield was Gordon MacQuarrie, one of America’s first conservation writers. MacQuarrie’s contributions to Outdoor Life, Field & Stream and Sports Afield focused on a semi-fictitious corporation known as the ODHA (Old Duck Hunters Association). Al Peck (aka Mister President and MacQuarrie’s father-in-law) played a starring role in these stories, and allusions to his “crooked little pipe” are scattered everywhere, like in this excerpt from “The Bluebills Died at Dawn”: “That bitter morning amid the bluebills the tobacco in my pipe tasted better. Borrowed tobacco it was, from the pouch of Mister President himself, who smokes a pipe only when in a duck blind and always wonders why the devil it doesn’t taste as good in his office.”

Why the devil doesn’t a pipe taste as good in an office? Never mind that it’s a rare office these days where anyone can partake in a pipe, but the experience is always better outdoors. 

Considering the hours MacQuarrie spent hunting and fishing, he must have appreciated quality gear. Still, he wasn’t flashy, and fancy brand names didn’t hold sway over this Scotch-Irish sportsman. His shotguns included serviceable doubles, like an old, twin-tube Lefever, but nothing extravagant. Ditto for his well-used Bentley pipe, now lying in state at the Barnes Area Historical Association Museum, in Barnes, Wisconsin. One look at the battered briar proves it went the distance in duck blinds, pa’tridge woods and trout streams across the Badger State. 

MacQuarrie, like so many writers and artists, led a marvelous, tortured existence. Wisconsin’s “native son” wrestled with all the normal deadlines and stress, but he carried more sorrow than most. Enduring the untimely demise of his only daughter, his wife and also his boon companion Mister President certainly took a toll. Smoking his “blackened little pipe” probably offered solace to his soul, as in the story “Now in June”: “I have caught more trout than I deserve to catch. And always and forever, the good ones like this fellow put me on edge, sending me hippity-hopping to a boulder on the bank to sit down and gather my wits. Another pipeful helped settle things. I thought, sitting there, another bold trout might betray himself by leaping, but none did. I tested the leader, smoked out the pipe and went back upstream by the left bank.” 

Like MacQuarrie, gun writer Michael McIntosh was a fervent lover of pipes. 

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“There were a lot of different ‘Michaels,’” remembered friend and fellow writer the late Ted Lundrigan. “But the one I knew was a bird hunter.” Steve Smith echoed Lundrigan’s sentiment: “Mac was a bundle of bad habits. But he had a beautiful singing voice and played guitar very well. And he loved his pipes, of course.” 

For the literary professor-turned-writer, pipes were as much a part of the McIntosh persona as vintage double guns, which is saying a lot. Take this excerpt from “Green Heads, Green Timber”: “The second boat had come in just behind us, and I could hear other hunters moving into place across the way. I shifted a handful of No. 4 steel loads from my coat pocket to the chest pouch in my waders, fished out my pipe, put a match to it, and leaned against the tree to wait.”

“High-end briars were his favorites,” Lundrigan recalled. “He didn’t have much interest in hardware-store varieties. And tobacco? Mac was one of the finest freeloaders I ever knew. He’d smoke any brand, as long as it was yours.” Among his favorites was Prince Albert, a blend allegedly named after King Edward VII, who went by “Prince Albert” before his coronation. 

Considering McIntosh’s extravagant taste in shotguns, Prince Albert seemed an unlikely choice. But I confirmed it in 2009 while attending his final shooting school at Fieldsport, in Traverse City, Michigan. Between lessons we discussed pipes almost as much as wingshooting, and he often dipped into his pouch for a fresh pinch of Prince Albert.

McIntosh may have loved freeloading off his friends, but occasionally they had the last laugh. “Sometimes I’d sprinkle a little gunpowder in with his tobacco when he wasn’t looking,” Lundrigan remembered. “He’d strike a match, and it would flare violently out of the bowl. He’d mutter under his breath, ‘This tobacco is really sharp today!’” But his penny-wise perspective always won out, and he’d always smoke the bowl to the bottom anyway.

Bryan Bilinski, who owns Fieldsport, was a longtime friend of McIntosh’s, and they co-taught Fieldsport’s Wingshooting School for years. Cradling a Charatan, Mac meted out wisdom about gun mount, target focus and how best to avoid the dreaded shotgunner’s sin of “paralysis through analysis.” 

“Michael came from a time and place where every nimrod had a pipe clamped in his teeth,” Bilinski remembered, “but he took his passion to another level. When I’d stay at his house, he’d wake up in the middle of the night to smoke. He even asked his doctor to allow it when he went on hospice.” 

Health concerns aside, Bilinski agrees that pipe smoking offers a calming effect. “Michael’s pipe was like an adult pacifier,” he said. “When social demands reached intolerable levels, he always had an easy out. He’d say, ‘B, I’m heading out to have a pipe.’” 

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Like Gene Hill, McIntosh had a deep love for British briars. When pressed about his favorites, he often spoke of Orliks, Comoys, Charatans and especially Dunhills.

Ted Lundrigan enjoyed kicking back with something amber and firing up his pipe after a long day afield. “Bird hunters seem to gravitate toward pipes, because we’re all closet romantics,” he reasoned. “Besides, it’s just a nice way to pass the time.” 

He preferred corncobs in the field, largely because hunting pipes have a nasty habit of getting lost or broken. In his book A Bird in the Hand Lundrigan writes of a time he and his shorthair were grouse hunting deep in the Minnesota hills. Lundrigan had stopped for a smoke break bordering a remote pothole, and he was surprised to see a man and his two sons hunting ducks. After some small talk and well wishes, they parted ways. The chapter “Public Works” picks up here: “I left them to tend their decoys. Old Model 12 Winchester shotguns, a battered Browning square-back automatic, and faded canvas jackets testified to an easy competence in the trade. I must have left them with the same impression, because three weeks later the elder Stigman stopped by my law office. He reached in his pocket and took out a blackened corncob pipe. 

“‘I figured this was yours. My boy found it next to a log on the far side of the hill.’ He placed my favorite hunting pipe on my desk’s glass top.” 

Hunters, like pipe smokers, are kindred spirits and often are willing to go out of their way to aid a fellow brother of the chase. 

Pipes may be nothing more than symbols of a bygone era when game was plentiful, time moved slower and folks sat around smoking and swapping lies. Nevertheless . . . .

“Sing me the old songs.

“Tell me the stories of times gone by.” 

Special thanks to Steve Smith, Bryan Bilinski and Larry Bergman of the Barnes Area Historical Society. All this was a pipe dream until you breathed it to life with memories of Hilly, McIntosh and MacQuarrie.


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On the cover: Incoming canvasbacks photographed by Tom Martineau/therawspirit.com

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3 Comments

  • Wonderful. Years gone by I did not realize how good the writing was in the 3 outdoor magazines, until I sat in Gene’s backyard and Dick Wolters arrived with 3 black labs and Dave Crosby was there. Oh, I wish I could relive those days and be able to appreciate like I can now at 85.

  • I loved your article. I began smoking a pipe in college in the 1950’s. Concern about health threats caused me to give it up in the 1970’s, but it’s still nostalgic.

  • I can only hope I retain the memories of waking up at my grandparents home, where morning greeted us with cackling pheasants and percolating coffee, and the day would include spending time with the brittanys and the aroma of my grandfather’s pipe.

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