Former Slave Created His Own Songs of the South – With Handmade Turkey Calls
Vintage game and waterfowl calls have a certain mystique that appeal to hunting traditionalists. Hunters today are privileged to have incredible diversity in the calls they can employ, with turkey, duck, deer and more calls crafted in a variety of wood, acrylic, rubber and plastic.
Some of the most unique vintage calls I’ve ever handled were crafted by a Virginia hunter more than a century ago.
Jeremiah “Jerry” Stevens, spent much of his life in Dinwiddie County, Va., situated southwest of Petersburg. In the 1800s, it was about a day’s ride by horse from Richmond. Stevens grew up under challenging circumstances – he was a slave in his younger years. But after he was freed, he lived in Virginia and became well-known for his hunting and calling expertise. He had such celebrity status that it’s said American presidents sought his opinions on hunting and sporting firearms.
Not much is left to history about him. A handful of scratch-type “gunstock” design turkey calls remain.
One of my turkey hunting mentors, retired Army Col. Bruce Elliott, had a huge collection of custom calls, many made by superb craftsmen. But, the few calls he owned that were made by Jeremiah Stevens were among the most unique and treasured. The gunstock design Stevens used dates to the 1700s. People sanded a small spot on the stock of their gun and rubbed the call’s surface against it.
As I was developing articles about Stevens and his calls for publications such as Virginia Wildlife and Turkey & Turkey Hunting, I was put in touch with Robert “Rock” Spiers of Dinwiddie. Spiers had inherited much of Stevens’ memorabilia.
Spiers’ great-grandfather employed Stevens’ as a farm hand for decades after the Civil War. Based on the stories that were passed down, Spiers believes Stevens was born in either Mississippi or Louisiana. His mother was a house servant to a man with the last name of Glasscock.
While Stevens began working as a farm hand, he began applying his talents to outdoor pursuits, hunting and fishing and often leading other hunters afield.
At the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the New York City’s National Sportsman’s Show was the premier outdoor show in America. Spiers’ great-grandfather was the show’s Virginia representative and Stevens accompanied him to the shows, where he became somewhat of a celebrity with his calls and hunting expertise.
It’s not unusual to see turkey calls today crafted from beautiful, exotic wood. Stevens, though, made calls from whatever scrap of wood he could get his hand on at the time. One is crafted from an old patent medicine box. Some of the healing claims and exotic ingredients are still printed on the call. Another call is made from pieces of a “Have·a·Tampa” cigar box. The handmade calls were assembled using tiny wire brads.
Recently, I received a call from Anita and Mike Slaughter, history buffs from Dinwiddie County, Virginia. They shared that Mike had attended a sale several years ago at Raceland and bought from an elderly woman there a large portrait (the image above) in an ornate frame. The portrait had been prominently displayed in the house and the woman said the person in the portrait was "Jerry." Mike said, "I had to have that portrait." He recalls paying just $20 for it. Later, a house guest saw the portrait hanging in the Slaughter's home and made the connection to Jeremiah Stevens. Anita "Googled" him a few years ago and found one of my articles about him and recently reached out to me through my Outdoors Rambler Facebook page. They hope to learn more about him, but there isn't much more currently available, it seems.
Stevens reportedly died at Central State Hospital a 495-bed psychiatric state hospital that was originally established in 1870 as a separate institution for African-Americans who had mental health disorders. The exact year is unknown, but Spiers guessed he had to be close to 80 years old.
For the last decade, the National Wild Turkey Federation has awarded the prestigious Jeremiah Stevens Award to the person making the best-sounding scratch box call. The award is bestowed at the annual national convention in February.
I remember Elliott carefully picking up a call and running a few gently strokes across it, mimicking a turkey’s yelp and a few solid clucks. He said there was no doubt in his mind that he could still coax in a turkey using that old call.