The deer show up each afternoon around 3:00. Fifteen or so stand on a peninsula jutting out into a small lake, posing as if they knew a magazine was coming out to photograph them. They know what time the corn is coming, sputtering out of a dark cylindrical feeder. What they don’t know (as far as we can tell) is that the man who invented the device is often watching them from the lodge up on the hill.
Dan Moultrie knows all 2,000 acres of this land, known as Summerfield, like the back of his hand. For most of his 40-year career in the hunting industry, he led executives into its woods to hunt and fish. He always let customers take the first shot and take down the bigger animals, but that didn’t stop him from filling the lodge with the heads of mule deer, white tail, moose from Alaska, caribou, zebras and nilgai, an animal released originally from India in 1905 that Dan calls the “best wild game meat in the world”—and let’s just say it would take a long time to count them all.
Framed photos throughout the lodge tell countless stories, of visits from country music singer Randy Owen, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh, Auburn Coach Pat Dye, Alabama Coach Gene Stallings and even former Vestavia City Schools Superintendent Jamie Blair. To Dan they’re all buddies. But the most frequent visitors-turned-friends he and his wife Patti hosted over the years were officially here on business: Walmart executives (“everyone but Sam Walton”), Cabela’s board of directors, Academy Sports heads, you name it.
An Idea Sparks
Hunting and fishing run in Moultrie blood. Dan grew up in Vestavia Hills and graduated from VHHS in 1975, but his dad taught him and his brother to hunt and fish at their farm that bordered Callaway Gardens property in Harris County, Georgia. The older gentlemen in the area would ask Dan if he was “buuurd” hunting (referring to quail with their Southern drawl), but he was usually looking for deer. And it was on that property where Dan got the idea for a feeder.
In the late 1970s Dan’s brother owned a company that designed electronics, and at Christmas one year Dan shared his idea to create something that kicked out corn to feed deer and other animals. “He drew out a schematic on a napkin and said, ‘Pick out these parts and we’ll build 10,’” Dan recalls. “Before I ever got the first 10 built, all my buddies were saying, ‘I’ll take one, I’ll take one, I’ll take one.’”
At the time Dan, who has a business degree from Auburn, was working for Southern Company in employee benefits, but soon he’d been in the feeder business. “People would say, ‘I want 10 of those, I want 10 of those,’” Dan says. “Every year until this point has always been a greater year [of sales].” Before long, you could buy a Moultrie game feeder at Sam’s, Walmart, Kmart, and every major merchant in the U.S. and then overseas. Today Moultrie Feeders is the number one feeder-selling company in the industry and a leader in game cameras and game management technology.
Along with the Moultrie brand of feeders came a new concept in the hunting industry: game stewardship. The way Dan describes it, since World War II hunting had been a “happenstance sport.” ”If you happened to run into animals, so be it,” he explains. “There was not money spent on attracting and holding wildlife.”
But with the introduction of feeders, devices that were set on timers distributed corn at regular times, and they’d plant alfalfa and other plants that attract and hold wildlife. From there they managed the size of herds, ensuring that animals lived until a mature age and were not overharvested. “It’s a stewardship of knowing which animals to take, which not to take, and how big to let the herd get,” Dan says. Today organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Quality Deer Management are based on this concept.
“I had seen it on our farms over in Georgia, and then when we brought those farms over here [to Alabama],” Dan says. “Our method worked. There were more animals on the farm. There were more animals that were taken care of. That was the concept we were selling. It wasn’t the concept of the machine. It was the management technique that we taught and sold.”
Summerfield Days, Summerfield Nights
And the showplace of this concept was (and is) Summerfield, a farm near Clanton that Dan purchased from George Barber years ago. With spring comes a month-long turkey season, but their biggest season is the hunt for the white tail deer. They never shoot the young gobblers called jakes and never take more than four turkeys a year. Deer are regulated to six to 10 a year, whereas in years past many farms would kill 20 to 30—way too many. “I’d rather have quality than quantity any time,” Dan says.
Over the years in the industry, Dan travelled to countless different farms to advise them on game stewardship, and he’d pick up one good idea here and another there. He’d bring them all back to Summerfield to create the “ultimate stewardship of wildlife” over his 40-year career.
When Moultrie became the category captain in sporting goods for Walmart, Dan wanted to do something different. “I told them if we want to grow the category, I have got to be able to get them to an outdoor setting where they understand hunting and fishing and the outdoors, and to do that we need to get them to our lodge,” Dan says. “I don’t think it had ever been done.”
Other hunting companies would send products, and teams would come down to Summerfield for days and weeks of hunting and fishing. Thirty minutes was allotted mid-day for business meetings. “But every morning and afternoon I had them in the field, seeing how the products were used, and that more than anything allowed the category to grow,” Dan says. “We showed them they could trust us. We took care of the vendors and that allowed us to grow.”
At Summerfield, the cooking started before daylight, with everyone waking up to the smell of big old fashioned country breakfast cooking and pulling out coffee cups—followed by great lunches and great dinners, always with wild game. “I told them that while they were here I wanted them to overindulge,” Dan recounts. “I wanted them to eat too much. I wanted them to relax and have a great time. And that prescription worked.”
A Life of Game Management
The idea for Moultrie’s next flagship product came on a bear hunt in the 1990s. Black bears come in different colors, and hunters always want to know the color bear they were hunting. So Dan had a camera hooked with a trip switch. Voila, the game camera was born, and they quickly got a trademark on “Game Cam.” Today it’s the No. 1 game accessory out there—and of course has always been marketed with the stewardship concept.
As Moultrie Feeders continued to grow, a lot of companies were interested in purchasing the business, but one stood out. In 2004 EBSCO Industries’ Jim Stephens came to Summerfield. “I liked the idea that they were family owned, they were here in Birmingham, they had long-term goals,” Dan says. Today Moultrie is the starship line of Pradco, EBSCO’s outdoors division. Dan’s business card now reads “founder and chief advisor” and he still advises the company on its growth and new products as well as customer relationships. But most of this time is spent out of the office, and his Tuesday mornings are always on air with Rick and Bubba.
While Dan’s desk days have ended, his daughter Ashley, who grew up hunting and seeing Moultrie productions in action, has stepped into the business and now is the assistant manager of marketing for Pradco. Moultrie has been featured in numerous national hunting magazines over the years, but Dan’s favorite page was a recent photo of him and Ashley with a narrative on “The Next Generation of Moultrie.”
After selling to EBSCO, Dan’s game management career took on a new form. He accepted an appointment under Governor Bob Riley as chairman of the Department of Conservation Advisory Board and held it for two terms. At the time he stepped into the position, each hunter in the state was allowed to kill 117 bucks a year. In most states that number was one or two.
“We got reports from biologists showing it needed to be reduced and established a three buck rule,” Dan says. “We estimated it saved 50,000 buck deer a year. They thought it that time [before the new rule] there was a ratio of 16 does to one buck.” Now the population is closer to one to one, as it should be, ushering in what Dan calls the “heyday of hunting Alabama especially for wildlife watchers.” (Side note: Moultrie feeders are commonly purchased by wildlife watchers and those who simply want to attract deer to their backyard in Over the Mountain communities.)
In this phase of life, Dan also helped run the Governor’s One Shot Turkey Hunt at Summerfield and grew it to the biggest hunting event in the United States. One year in particular stands out—the one where the wife of the head of Academy Sports, who had never before hunted, won.
On the Farm
While he’s travelled all over the world on hunts, Dan’s greatest keeper of memories is Summerfield, although it should be noted that he has been called upon to advise on coyote trappings in Vestavia too. Ask him about Christmas mornings there, and he’ll tell you about breakfasts of fried quail, cheese grits, homemade biscuits and gravy, fig preserves—“Oh me!” Dan says listing off that menu.
While they were students at VHHS, Dan and Patti’s kids would bring countless friends to the farm for New Year’s and after prom, filling the lodge with sleeping bags. They’d hire Vestavia students to do farm work in the summers and “help make men out of them.”
While Ashley lettered in softball for five years, younger brother Daniel opted to start a new team at VHHS—a fishing team that would win state. Dan at first questioned Daniel choosing fishing, not hunting. “That’s brand extension, Dad,” Daniel informed him. And Dan had to smile. Daniel is a senior at Auburn now. Chances are he’ll end up at Pradco too.
And maybe at the end of his career he will be able to say it was “a heck of a ride” like his dad. “It was all because of a hobby. It seemed like I never had to work a day in my life because it was all what I wanted to be doing anyway.”