History Repeating Itself
The Utsey family has found ways to live off their Alabama land passed down for six generations.
By Claire Vath | Photos By Brian Francis
If you get to talking with Jake Utsey and the subject turns to history, his eyes begin to sparkle. Ask him nicely and he may even show you his modest museum showcasing the military memorabilia he’s acquired—everything from World War I helmets, Nazi insignia rings and Vietnam-era canteens.
Much of Jake’s own history courses through the dense, ruddy Alabama soils where he makes his home and his living; portions of the property have been in the Utsey family for more than 150 years. Water Valley Lodge sits on a slice of land in Gilberttown, in southwest Alabama. It is home to timber, gently rolling pastureland, hay fields and woods teeming with wildlife.
Sometimes, though, it’s good to get perspective beyond the bounds of his rural home. Jake makes it a point to see how other people live and work; this past summer he and his son, John Jacob, traipsed through the Ukraine, squeezing into narrow concrete bunkers and studying Soviet-era artillery.
“I do think it’s important for people to travel,” Jake says. “It teaches us that in most respects, people are the same and so are our needs.”
Not only is it important to broaden his worldview, for Jake it just makes good business sense. Water Valley Lodge, the Utseys’ hunting operation, hosts a range of visitors; the family sees 200 to 400 hunters a year. “People come from all over the world,” Jake says. “The farthest anyone’s come to hunt is Pakistan and Japan, but we’ve had hunters from Scotland, Israel, Germany, French Quebec and [other regions in] Canada.”
Choosing A Lifestyle
Water Valley Lodge has hunting rights to 30,000 acres of land. “Some is in hunting clubs and some is leased privately,” Jake explains. His family owns more than a third of that acreage, and Jake rents the rest. Most of the farmed land is currently in timber; Jake owns a small hay operation; and he’s clearing land for future livestock use. The property also boasts a large hunting lodge, dining hall, bunkhouse, cabins, an office and the house where Jake resides with wife, Pia, son, John Jacob, 10, and daughter, Gaddy, 9.
Some of the land Jake farms and hunts has been in the family since before the Civil War. “A lot of the land was then lost due to economic collapse post-Civil War and newly instituted taxes levied by carpetbaggers and the government.” The story goes that Jake’s great-great-great grandfather, John Jacob, and John Jacob’s son, John Jacob Jr., stole cotton bales off trains headed for Yankee territory. “The proceeds from the bales were used to pay taxes on the land,” Jake says.
In 1996, after reacquiring some of the original homestead, Water Valley Lodge opened for its first hunting season—a dream years in the making. “I wanted to make a better living and stay outside for work,” Jake says. “It was a natural fit with our lifestyle.”
Jake’s wife, Pia, agrees. “This is who we are; this is where we are,” she says. “There are definitely benefits to living this life. One must find a way to make the most of the assets and blessings we’ve been afforded.”
It’s one thing to decide to run a hunting operation and quite another to actually do it; the sheer magnitude of the business was often overwhelming at first. “The learning curve was really rough,” Jake admits.
The busiest time is October through May 1. But there are chores year-round, and everyone in the Utsey family pitches in. Jake supervises hunts, maintains equipment and property; he also hauls hay and helps manage the family’s timber operation. Pia runs the office and the hospitality side of the business, which includes meal preparation and housekeeping.
John Jacob tends the grass, hauls hay, helps move equipment and acts as a guide looking for wounded animals. And, laughs Pia, “you can’t get him in at night from the skinning shed. He’s as good as any of our guides.” Nine-year-old Gaddy helps out in the dining hall.
And it’s everyone’s job to make visiting hunters feel at home, which is a crucial part of the business. “Hospitality is something you have to do yourself,” says Pia, who gleaned valuable hospitality expertise in hotels and country clubs. “We don’t run hunters through our business like cattle; we limit numbers each season. In order to make people feel at home, it has to be your home. That’s not something you can easily hire someone else to do.”
Water Valley Lodge offers four types of hunts: quail, turkey, deer and hog. “During the year we’ll hire up to 10 part-time employees as guides for the various seasons,” says Jake.
To keep the game around, food plots have to be planted and maintained. The smaller plots—anywhere from 1 to 2 acres—generally run north and south to “give plots more sunlight in winter months,” Jake says. Longer plots—up to 10 acres—are easier to plant and are set up, when possible, to allow hunters to be upwind of game.
According to Jake, to run an operation of this caliber, permits and insurance are required. There are burn and chemical permits, and insurance must be kept on everything the lodge hunts, all vehicles, implements, heavy equipment, buildings and sheds.
Hunting may be the main source of income, but corporate clientele has suffered greatly since the economic downturn, and the Utseys have relied on other ways of making money. “It’s actually the hay operation that’s saved us,” Pia says. Previously the hay business was about one-tenth of the family’s income but it’s become one-quarter.
In addition, nearly every acre the Utseys own has timber on it, and a logging crew works year-round while Jake and his brother, Jeff, manage day-to-day harvest. “My brother markets wood based on market prices, and I look after cutting operations and roadwork,” Jake says.
“We have a rotation of thinning and clear-cutting, depending on price,” he adds. “Price can change the management plan at any time; the bottom line is money.” Conservation management goes hand in hand with timber. “We have a total and constant reforestation plan, including the planting of masting trees—which bear food for game—and constant erosion control,” he says.
Running the hunting operation may be an all-hands-on-deck, 24-7 job, but it has allowed another generation of Utseys to remain on their slice of Alabama land. And, who knows? John Jacob and Gaddy love it here and are interested in the business.
“I hope they’ll stay here with us, but they’ll do what’s best for them and I’m OK with that,” Jake says. “But there is nothing out there better than connections to family through dirt.”
For more information about Water Valley Lodge, visit watervalleylodge.com.