The last of the GREAT HUNTERS

Story by Jeannie Stone

To walk into the 6,000 square foot house that James and Laurie Bibler of Russellville built to display their growing trophy collection is to step into another place and time. The aura of the “trophy room,” which doubles as a guest house is an uncommon visual delight, It harkens visitors to the nostalgic brotherhood of the hunt when society embraced extended travel, and the measure of a man was held in proportion to the number of animals he conquered. James Bibler knows well the thrill of the hunt.

The Arkansas River Valley offers verdant hills and a pleasant climate but, for the Biblers, the roads leading to the veldts of southern Africa and the hot, humid tropics of the Congo Basin are capable of luring them away in a hoof beat.

Bibler, a retired businessman, didn’t always pursue the big game. During his tenure as a third-generation lumberman with Bibler Brothers Lumber Company, he was strictly an American sportsman. He primarily hunted duck, elk, quail and deer with longtime friends John Hines and Jim Bisbee.

During the off season, the friends huddled around an intricate poker table inlaid with hundreds of pieces of wood fitted together in a puzzle fashion. Upon retiring, Hines built a workshop from lumber supplied by Bibler and crafted the table as a gift. The table took on new meaning when Hines and Bisbee passed away.

Bibler searched beyond the land of opportunity for his next hunting foray. A Tarpin tournament in South Carolina caught his fancy. To his surprise, he won the competition and set his sights on more exotic species than the United States afforded.

A massive, wooden door, designed with great care to balance the scale of the room, opens to a soaring, vaulted ceiling. The head of an elephant with its trunk furled around its ivory tusks and a menagerie of nearly 100 trophies are tastefully displayed in what could be described as an “Oh, my gosh” room.

“Basically, the building was designed around the animals,” Bibler said.

Some of the exotic specimens on display include: Bongos and a Dwarf Forest buffalo from Cameroon, an African elephant from Botswana, a mountain nyala, a klipspringer, a rhino, and a Menelik’s bushbuck from Ethiopia. The room also houses a Gobi argali, a Hangai argali and a white- tailed gazelle from Mongolia, a blue wildebeest and a black wildebeest. There are also a waterbuck and an Oryx grysbok from South Africa, a gerenuk and a sable from Tanzania, an entire crocodile and a Cape buffalo from Zambia, a banteng from Australia and a cougar from the United States. And, Bibler has a story for every one of them.

His wife Laurie participated in many of the expeditions. She particularly enjoyed trips to Botswana and South Africa and claimed the weather was surprisingly pleasant.

“It was really cool at night and in the morning,” she said. “It was warm in the afternoon but not hot.”

She has, however, drawn the line at fully embracing some of the conditions abroad.

“He’s been to Cameroon by himself. It is way too hot and so buggy there.”

“Those are the Pygmies,” Bibler said. “They live way out in the boonies. You have to land your plane on just a strip of grass.

“The Pygmies make up the hunting party, and when you are tracking an animal they will take their shoes off and run ahead to see if they can spot it. When you take down the animal they gather vines and bark and make packs to carry the meat out.

“Oh, everyone is really proud to see the hunters because they have no meat until the hunters come,” Bibler said and added,

“Nothing goes to waste over there. They don’t eat the cats or the crocs, but every inch of the other animals is used to feed the villagers.”

Although the villages don’t have refrigeration, they do smoke the excess meat and hold it until winter, Bibler said.

“And the hunting camps have generators, so they can store some of the meat.”

In photos of the hunt, Bibler cuts a rugged profile dressed in a snappy safari shirt. He is surrounded by the much smaller and darker pygmies.

“Traditionally,” he said, “a hunting party consists of a professional hunter and an entourage of natives including trackers, skinners and gun bearers. And, of course, the guest hunter, but it’s not so much about the hunting and the animals. It’s experiencing the cultures and meeting the indigenous people that fascinates me.”

And yes, they eat the meat at camp.

“The elephant meat was very tasty,” Bibler said. “The cooks at the camp know how to fix the local cuisine. Of course, you can imagine an animal that weighs 13,000 pounds is going to have pretty coarse meat, but when you cross-cut it, the meat is quite edible.”

Laurie considers Mountain Reed buck from South Africa as the best tasting big-game meat she’s ever tried, however, not all epicurean pursuits have met with her approval. There was the time Laurie refused honey in Tanzania.

“We came across some beekeepers who had been collecting the honey in rusted 50-gallon barrels,” Bibler said.

“They were so proud of their honey production, and a local man wanted to give her a taste of the honey. Now, he wasn’t clean, and when he put his dirty hand in the rusty barrel and raised his hand covered in honey, she nearly ran backwards.” He laughed.

“Well, I had already gotten sick,” Laurie declared in defense. “I knew he was trying to be hospitable and didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I just knew I would get sick again. The P.H. (professional hunter) saved me by telling the beekeeper I was allergic to honey.”

There was another experience Laurie would have liked to avoid.

“It was really frightening,” she said. “A cape buffalo turned on us and scared us. They truly have a reputation as being the meanest and most aggressive animals.”

Bibler shared impressions of a different hunt.

“I could talk to you all day about Mongolia,” he said. “There were hundreds of thousands of square miles out there and no vegetation higher than my ankle, but then, I did get four animals.”

Bibler shared: “Nearly all hunts are unique experiences because when you are trophy hunting you don’t just take the first animal you see. You’re in hiding, and you take a great deal of time so as not to spook them. You don’t want to be premature and take down a lesser animal when you could have passed him up for something much better.

“When I was hunting the elephant, we started tracking a younger bull at eight a.m., but everything we saw was just too small. We saw the larger tracks and knew he was big, but there was no way we could tell what condition his tusks were in.

“He was the 20th elephant we encountered during the hunt. It was worth the wait,” Bibler said. “One shot, that’s all you’ve got. You’ve got to brain-shoot them or they’ll get away.

Preserving conservation is a big part of the gaming experience for Bibler.

“I’ve always been impressed with how much energy the professional hunters spend toward maintaining hunting integrity and fostering goodwill toward the natives and animals.”

A fire destroyed Bibler’s original trophy room four years ago. Over 70 trophies perished. Colorado architect David Johnston, who had built the couple’s second home in Colorado, worked with Bibler to resurrect the original concept in a bolder and more spacious design. One of his triumphs in the cathedral-like structure is the towering fireplace built from native limestone.

Local cabinet-maker Lyle Ratzlaff was instrumental in crafting the bar and utilizing a wagon-wheel design on its ceiling. He also hued the beams from monstrous squares of Oregon Douglas Fir and he fashioned the oversized front door.

Although Bibler has re-populated the new room, he is lacking a lion, leopard and roan.

“He lost the lion in the fire,” Laurie said, “but he’s going back to Tanzania for another lion and the leopard and to Nambia for a roan.”

When the fire claimed the original trophies, the apparent loss of the treasured poker table multiplied the emotional costs of the devastation.

“It was black and totally singed,” Laurie said. “We were going to throw it out, and in our grief, we told Lyle what it had meant to James. He took it to his shop to see if there was anything to salvage.”

“He saved it,” James said with a sincere reverence.

The restored table now sits at the entrance of the rebuilt trophy room, inviting new bonds to be forged over its gleaming surface. It is a shining prize, risen from the ashes of the old and bearing witness to the perseverance of love and friendship.

It is the trophy above all others. It is the brotherhood of the hunt.  

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