Growing up in ‘the refuge,’ an adventurous child’s paradise
A feature in last week’s Times told the story of Gainesville-area resident Dick Coatney, who moved with his family in 1943 to what is now Caney Mountain Conservation Area, where his dad, the late Charles Coatney, helped rebuild Missouri’s wild turkey and deer populations. Charles Coatney and his first wife, Daisy, had seven children together before they divorced. Dick was the oldest, born in 1930. Denver “Denny” Coatney was the couple’s youngest, with five girls in between. An infant son died at birth.
This week’s story profiles Charles Coatney’s youngest son, Chuck, born in 1955 to Charles and his second wife, the former Clem Kaufman.
“I was born in the Saltzman Clinic in Mountain Home, [Arkansas,]” Chuck told the Times recently. “I was told that I was the first of the Coatney kids to be born in a clinic. The rest were born at home.”
Before moving to Gainesville in 1954 to work with the Missouri University Extension Service, Clemence Kaufman lived with her first husband and their two children, Clara May and Bill, in northern Missouri, where her father was a station master for the Katy Railroad.
Chuck doesn’t know how or when, exactly, his mother met Charles Coatney after she and her two children moved to Gainesville, but he knows it was after Charles’ divorce. Clem, born in 1928, was 18 years younger than her new husband, who was born in 1910.
“In fact, my brother [Dick] is just two years younger than my mother,” Chuck said with a chuckle.
From the time he was born until 1975 Chuck and his two Kaufman siblings lived with their parents in the rock house that Chuck’s older brother, Dick, had helped build with their dad 20-some years earlier.
The refuge was an adventurous child’s paradise, and being a country kid gave Chuck opportunities his older siblings hadn’t known, growing up in towns.
For example, before he was big enough to reach the brake on a tractor, he was put in the driver’s seat to guide the vehicle down the hay fields as his dad and other adults loaded the truck with bales of hay. “Dad set the throttle and aimed the truck down the line of hay, and when they said stop, I turned off the key. That’s how I had to stop because I couldn’t reach the brake,” he said.
A little later, their maternal grandpa sold Chuck’s older brother Bill a 1953 two-door Ford sedan for $50. “Bill drove that for a couple of years, and he was playing around one night and rolled it over on its side. They brought it home, and Dad said, ‘What will you do with this wreck now?’” he recalled.
“I remember axes were involved, and saws and cutting torches,” he said. “We ended up removing the body of the car – it ended up shorter than a Volkswagen. If you sat in the driver’s seat and put your hand down the back of the seat, the tire was right there. Grandpa put a stump guard on the motor, and the front bumper was a 2” x 12” oak board mounted on a steel spring from a cultivator. That’s what I learned to drive on when I was 9 or 10. Initially, it was either Mom or Dad who called it the Booze Buggy. We could hit a 4-inch tree and just run right over it.”
The two boys “drove that thing all over Caney Mountain. We made roads that weren’t there before,” Chuck said. “Dad was, like, ‘Oh, my G--!’ He wasn’t real happy with all that going on.”
The Booze Buggy had a straight-six engine, no air cleaner, no muffler and a “three on the column” transmission. It burned so much oil and made so much smoke, “We killed skeeters for miles around,” Chuck joked.
It wasn’t all fun and games, though. Chuck also helped his dad with Caney Mountain’s distribution of deer around the state as a means of restarting deer populations elsewhere.
“Dick did that too when he came out of Navy. He worked for Dad three or four months and helped run the deer traps,” Chuck said.
“We would trap them on the refuge in box traps. Then we had this box--probably 4 feet wide by 8 feet long--that we would put the deer in. The box fit in a pickup bed. You could put six to eight deer into a big box, and then we would drive them wherever they were supposed to go and turn them loose,” he said.
Chuck remembers one deer trip in particular, when he and his dad had 10 deer in one of the big wooden boxes and hauled them to Brookfield in northern Missouri.
“Word got out that we were bringing deer, so they had the news media there and all the locals. A couple of hundred people turned out. People were saying their kids had never seen deer,” Chuck said.
When they got to Brookfield and Charles Coatney opened the box, “the deer were all laying down, trying to disappear under the hay,” Chuck said. “Dad told me, ‘Go get one of them out.’ Being young and dumb, I did. I got in there with them, and about the time I touched one, the world exploded. All 10 deer went into ballistic mode. They kicked, about beat me to pieces, and then they all baled and headed for the daylight. I lost a shoe and my pants and shirt were torn all to pieces. Dad jumped my case. He said, ‘I told you to send one!’ I was bleeding. Those deer had beat the stuffing out of my carcass.”
He also went with his dad when Charles responded to a call that a deer had been hit on the road somewhere. “Dad had a list of families he would give the meat to. There was this one family. I think they had seven or eight kids. We pulled up with the deer, and they said, ‘Come in and drink some coffee.’ I was 10-11 years old and didn’t drink coffee. But I drank coffee that time. They had three older boys, and they drug the deer out of the pickup and took it out there and skinned and gutted it while we were finishing our coffee. Then they brought it in, cut in quarters, and the girls jumped up and were doing their part, cutting it up. It was kind of like a shark frenzy.”
He also remembers a time when his older siblings, Bill and Clara, “saw a big bird down there on the tree. They ran back to the house to get the gun because they thought it was going to go after the chickens. They were out there in the field, getting ready to shoot the bird, but it took off and flew away. Dad said, ‘Tell me what it looked like.’ They said it was a big black bird with a white head and white tail. Dad said, ‘You idiots! You were going to shoot a bald eagle!’”
Charles Coatney’s arrangement with the conservation department was that, while he managed the whole refuge, he paid rent on the 300 acres around the headquarters area. “He paid rent on that 300 acres, and he could hunt and fish on it. But Dad’s position was, “No. This is part of the refuge, and you don’t hunt on it.’ We had permission to hunt on neighbors’ land – squirrels, rabbits, whatever. But we didn’t hunt on the refuge.”
He remembers the stories his dad told about the early days in the refuge. “When he first got here in 1943, he had a horse, and that was his mode of transportation. There were no roads in Caney, just trails,” Chuck said. “Then, we’re talking 1946-47, he got an old beater truck. Back then, each farm had a bell. If you needed help, you rang the bell. That was the 911 system of those days. Everybody hearing the bell would show up to help.”
His dad talked about a day in the 1960s when the Morrisons, who lived nearby, had some kids there visiting. “The kids were playing with the bell. They were ringing it,” Chuck said. “They had no clue what was about to happen. But Dad said he heard the bell and came flying in, with two other cars right behind him, and asked, ‘What’s the problem?’”
Chuck loved visiting noted conservationist and researcher Starker Leopold’s old cabin, especially climbing the 54 rock steps up to the little spot and sitting in the front bed of moss overlooking the spring. He even spent a few nights in the cabin, he said.
His dad told him that Leopold was his training officer. “When Leopold came in the early- to mid-40s, he had a Model A roadster when many people in the immediate area were still using horse and wagon. The old roadster had a gas tank in the dash right in front of you. It was gravity fed. So, on a steep hill, you had to back up the hill or the car would stall out. Once a week Leopold would go into Gainesville to get supplies. He would stop by the headquarters and tell them if he wasn’t back by a certain time, they were to get up the team of horses and come get him and tow him up the hill so he could get home,” Chuck said.
After marrying Charles Coatney, Chuck’s mother left the Extension Service and taught school for a total of 30 years, mostly in Gainesville with a few years in Bakersfield. When Charles Coatney retired in 1975, they moved to a place off Highway 160 a few miles west of the Spring Creek bridge that they had bought in 1967.
It was tough, seeing his parents leave Caney Mountain, Chuck said. “When you have a 7,900-acre back yard, a clean-water creek to swim in, 27 miles of trails … I haven’t been to the refuge in a long time, but still remember just being out there, sitting in the field at night. In the moonlight, seeing the deer walking around,” he said.
He graduated from Gainesville High School in 1973 and then earned two bachelor’s and one master’s degrees, all in biology. He wanted to work for what had become the Missouri Department of Conservation, but that didn’t work out. So he went to work for UHaul International, becoming a district manager. Later he worked for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, first as a tire inspector, making sure tire sellers were disposing of waste tires properly, and later in the air pollution control program’s asbestos enforcement section. In that role he reviewed asbestos-removal projects statewide. He retired in 2005. He and his former wife, Sheila, moved a few years later to the Ozark County property his parents bought in 1967. Chuck has two adult children, Sean Coatney and Gwendolyn Dawn Coatney, both living in Jefferson City, and one granddaughter, Cally Lean Coatney.
Charles Coatney died in 1983. Clem Coatney died in 2002. In his retirement, Chuck enjoys collecting and trading in Boy Scout paraphernalia, and he also sells specialty canna bulbs and hibiscus seeds, mostly on eBay.