Private game preserve has storied history
By DAN BILLIN  01/28/04 Valley News

CROYDON, N.H. Although the owners of Corbin Park like to keep their sprawling game preserve out of the public eye, its impact has been felt well beyond the locked gates and high fences that surround it.

Over the years, the park has helped save the American bison from extinction, influenced the writing of Rudyard Kipling, brought a factory to Newport and introduced an agricultural pest to Sullivan County.

The 19,000-acre preserve, owned by the Blue Mountain Forest Association, made news most recently on Jan. 1, when one hunter fatally shot another inside the park. Whatever the outcome of the ongoing investigation, that incident is likely to shine a little more light on a very private institution with a unique history and a sometimes rocky relationship with its neighbors.

The park was created as a 19th-century Neverland Ranch, a place where one man used his enormous wealth and energy to indulge an audacious fantasy. It remains a vast playground for the rich today, exempt from most hunting laws and heavily subsidized by local taxpayers.

More than a century of change in the landscape and laws of the state of New Hampshire has assured that what Austin Corbin created in the late 1800s could not be duplicated today.

As those in the small circle of members inform their guests in notices posted on the grounds, "It is a rare privilege for all of us to be able to enjoy the hunting in the Park."

Austin Corbin II was a Newport native who became one of the most successful American tycoons of the late 1800s. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1849 and briefly practiced law with former New Hampshire Gov. Ralph Metcalf before heading west to Davenport, Iowa. There, he organized the first national bank to open in the United States.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase, a Cornish native who created the national bank system to finance the debts of the Civil War, was Corbin's cousin.

Corbin moved to New York City in 1865, where he established another successful banking company. When a doctor recommended ocean air for the illness of one of his young sons, Corbin discovered the Long Island shore, where he saw the development potential of miles of open beaches close to the teeming city.

Corbin bought 500 acres of land on Coney Island and built both a grand hotel and a railroad to bring guests from New York City. He also took over both the Long Island Railroad and Reading Railroad (the latter of Monopoly fame) while they were in receivership and made them successful.

At the time of his death in 1896, he was working to develop a deep-water port on the eastern tip of Long Island. After becoming wealthy and famous, Corbin returned to Newport to build a lavish estate on the site of his childhood home.

The conservation-minded millionaire had run out of space for the deer he raised on his Long Island estate, and he hatched a plan to create a giant sanctuary where wild animals could be raised and used to stock other preserves, parks and zoos.

In late 1889, Corbin set about buying up land in Newport, Croydon, Plainfield, Cornish and Grantham _ a total of 275 properties, including 63 farms, many of which had been abandoned in New England's great westward migration.

Some people didn't sell their land to Corbin until after he had landlocked their parcels by ringing his holdings with 30 miles of wire fence and convincing the selectmen to discontinue the public roads inside.

Croydon historian Rita Gross' considerable collection of facts and lore about the park includes this ditty passed down over the years: "Austin Corbin, grasping soul, wants this land from pole to pole. Croydon people, bless your stars, You'll find plenty of land on Mars."

In the end, Corbin assembled a tract the size of the entire town of Grantham _ the largest private game preserve in the United States, according to the association.

It encompasses Grantham Mountain and Croydon Mountain, several large ponds and miles of roads. The peak of Croydon Mountain is the highest point in Sullivan County. "It's absolutely beautiful," said Gross, whose husband used to man the forest fire watchtower on the summit.

"You can see for miles."

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"A nine days wonder"

Corbin stocked the park with bison, white-tailed deer, black-tailed deer, mule deer, European red deer, bighorn sheep, moose, antelope, caribou, Himalayan mountain goats, pheasants and wild boar from Germany's Black Forest.

Court records from shortly after his death say he spent $500,000 to establish the park, but Gross' records include a transcription of an accounting _ supposedly penned by Corbin himself _ that puts his total costs at $150,000. Either sum would have been enormous for its time.

Moose and deer had been gone for so long from the area around Newport that the founding of the park was "a nine days' wonder," according to the writings of Ernest Harold Baynes, a naturalist Corbin installed in a home near the park.

The bison, deer, elk and boar all flourished, but the pheasants flew over the fences and the rest of the species proved unable to survive in the park.

At one point, Corbin Park's bison herd was the largest in the country, and bison and deer were shipped to private and public refuges, parks and zoos around the country. Corbin intended the park to stay in his family, and the 60 shares in Blue Mountain Forest Association were divided equally among him, his wife and their four children when the nonprofit corporation was established in 1891 to manage the park.

Although it was privately owned, the park was open to the public for much of its early life. Plainfield resident Howard Zea, who remembers climbing Croydon Mountain on Sunday afternoons, says the key to the main western gate could be picked up at the Cornish Flat store by anyone who wanted to enter the park.

"It's so completely changed," Zea said. "Now they won't allow anybody in up there."

The park became more cloistered when ownership of the park was transferred to a group of wealthy hunters in the 1940s.

Few people other than members, their employees and their guests have been allowed inside in recent decades. The association's bylaws reportedly require members to own at least two but no more than four shares, which limits membership from 15 to 30 people at a time.

Some members eventually sell their shares, as did Hanover resident James Campion, the association's president in the late 1940s. Others, like Grantham resident Henry McCarthy, who died in 1994, pass them along to their children in their wills.

The association's treasurer and spokesman, Patrick Oliver of Exeter, N.H., said the group would have no comment while the shooting investigation continues. Two other current members also declined to be interviewed for this story, as did several Upper Valley residents who hunt in the park as guests.

Despite the long-standing reticence of members, there is a fair amount of information about the park in the books, news articles and public records. The park's headquarters in Croydon, called Central Station, includes a seven-bedroom lodge and a building for butchering game, and there are 11 hunting cabins spread throughout the park.

The animals are fed during the winter at about 30 scattered feeding stations, and the yearly quota that members may shoot is determined by the health of the herds and the number of shares each member holds.

According to the records of the state Department of Fish and Game, which licenses the park, in recent years the annual kill has ranged from 200 to 600 boar, 10 to 69 elk, and 20 to 31 deer.

The park also offers members and their guests fishing in several stocked ponds and miles of brooks. Signs posted around the perimeter of the park warn that it is protected by "a special law" _ an apparent reference to a bill passed in 1895 that gave the association, rather than the state, ownership of "all fish, birds, and game" enclosed by the fences.

That law, which apparently has never been repealed, specifies a $25 criminal penalty for poaching in the park, along with "exemplary damages" of up to $25.

In practice, however, the park is now licensed as a regulated shooting area for boar, elk and deer, which exempts members from state requirements for hunting licenses and bag limits for just those three species.

State laws apply when any other game is taken inside the park, according to Sgt. Bruce Bonenfant of the state Department of Fish and Game.

The department no longer licenses hunting preserves for big game, and Corbin Park is the only active one left in the state. New hunting preserves for upland birds are still allowed, but they may not be any larger than 500 acres.

"I think they're excellent neighbors. They mind their own business. They feed their own animals. They tend their own roads. What else could you ask?" Gross said.

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Problems: animals and taxes

When the park has rubbed neighbors the wrong way, it has usually been over two issues: escaped animals and property taxes. The devastating hurricane of 1938 knocked down much of the park fence, allowing boar and elk to escape and become established outside the park. More animals may have escaped in 1953, while gates were left open to fight a huge forest fire on Grantham Mountain.

The boar outside the park became such a nuisance that the legislature passed another special law for Corbin Park in 1949, holding the association responsible for damage caused by its escaped pigs.

In the 1950s, Sullivan County farmers organized and sued successfully for damages, which the park fought unsuccessfully all the way to the state Supreme Court.

The escaped elk wreaked such havoc with crops and maple groves that the legislature instituted a one-day elk hunting season, and eventually authorized the Department of Fish and Game to wipe out any remaining animals.

The boar "devastated the corn crops, potatoes and everything else clear over as far as Plainfield Village," said Zea.

Retired dairy farmer John Meyette, [my uncle] who was one of the farmers who sued the park in the 1950s, said that between aggressive hunting by locals and fence mending by the park, boar damage has diminished significantly in recent decades. He heard just recently of one being sighted in Plainfield, however, and Fish and Game records include a report of two escaped elk in recent years.

In the 1970s, the towns of Croydon, Cornish and Plainfield refused to grant the park a property-tax abatement under the current use program, saying its primary purpose as a hunting preserve didn't entitle it to the reduced assessments given agricultural and forest land.

The association sued this time, and prevailed when the case reached the Supreme Court. Blue Mountain Forest Association's total current-use tax break in the five towns amounted to about $200,000 in 1998.

"We felt if it had a fence around it and it wasn't accessible to the public, there really wasn't any public benefit. But the court said no," said Steve Taylor, who was a Plainfield selectman during that dispute.

One of the benefits of the preserve for locals is that is has been a buffer against development, he said.

"At one point, the park's relationship with some of the towns _ not all the towns _ was rocky _ especially with Croydon," said Merle Schotanus, a Grantham resident and former state representative for three of the towns that border the park.

"After that rough period over that lawsuit with Croydon, things have smoothed out. I think they've taken steps to be better neighbors with the towns," he said. "They've been particularly attentive to mending their fences and patrolling their fences, and that has helped to keep the game in."

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Celebrity guests

The park has attracted a number of notable visitors over the years, including U.S. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Grover Cleveland and Herbert Hoover, and the Prince of Wales (who would later become King Edward VII).

Roosevelt shot a boar at the park in 1902 during a swing through Sullivan County, and had the head mounted and sent to his home in New York.

Author Rudyard Kipling's novel about Gloucester fisherman, Captains Courageous, includes a reference based on Corbin: One of the characters refers to a millionaire named Slatin Beeman, who "owns 'baout every railroad on Long Island, they say; an' they say he' bought 'baout ha'af Noo Hampshire an' run a line-fence around her, an' filled her up with lions an' tigers an' bears an' buffalo an' crocodiles an' such all."

Kipling was living in Dummerston, Vt., when he wrote the book, and visited Corbin Park by at least one account.  Ernest Harold Baynes wrote extensively about the park _ particularly its bison _ and his activism for bison conservation helped spark a national movement to pull the species back from the brink of extinction.

Canaan resident Dan Westgate, who worked for the park in the 1940s, remembers being called to the park one day to take baseball star Joe DiMaggio out for his first-ever excursion on snowshoes. The snow conditions weren't favorable, though.

"It didn't last very long," Westgate said.

One of the most significant modern visitors to the park, at least for local residents, was gun manufacturer William Ruger Sr., who was a member for many years. He got to know Newport while hunting at the park, and started a manufacturing plant there that now employs more than 1,000 people.

His company, Sturm, Ruger, bought the Corbin mansion in Newport, and William Ruger Jr. renovated it. When the elder Ruger died in the summer of 2002, his funeral service was held at Central Station in Corbin Park.
 

 

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