|Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge
Dream Turns Into Profitable Business
by Alvin Benn
When the soybean business went bust 25 years ago, two Lowndes County men took a gamble on something that hadn’t been tried before, but seemed a natural for rural Alabama.
Dave Lyon Jr. and Jim Mason came up with the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge and it wasn’t long before it had gained a reputation as a great place to spend a few days in the winter.
Entering the picture was
Buckmasters, a Montgomery-based company dedicated to deer hunting. It provided even more exposure by using the lodge for an event that attracted some of America’s leading sports and entertainment figures.
Dave Lyon, left, and Jim Mason turned an idea into a profitable venture known as the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge more than 20 years ago.
Football star Bo Jackson, Atlanta Braves slugger Chipper Jones, NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt Sr., former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant, actor Jim Varney and astronaut Jim Adamson were just a few who took part in the fun and games at the lodge.
The celebrities hunted in the woods around the lodge, fished in ponds at the site and took part in everything from target practice to four-wheeler races and ax tossing events. Watching with keen interest were fans from around the state and Southeast.
Dave Lyon Sr. helped his son and Jim Mason get started by co-signing a $10,000 bank loan.
Buckmasters ended sponsorship of the event a few years ago, leaving Lyon and Mason with another problem to solve. It didn’t take them long to come up with other ideas.
In addition to hosting deer and turkey hunters from around the country, Southern Sportsman now is a popular spot for dinner parties in central Alabama.
Deer and turkey hunting remain the lodge’s top winter attraction, however, and the two men spend much of the year sprucing up their site before and after the seasons.
“You can’t afford to get sick in January,” said Lyon,
| 54. “Deer hunting in many states is over by the end of December. In Alabama, it goes through January. That’s why so many out-of-state hunters come down here during that month.”
It’s been quite a success story for Lyon and Mason, who took a dream and turned it into a profitable business to support their families.
The start was rough. They aren’t likely to forget the early 1980s when interest rates topped 20 percent as soybeans headed in the other direction. Declining bean prices drove many farmers into bankruptcy and other lines of work.
“We all kinda went broke around here in the 80s,” said Mason, who will be 52 in April. “I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I did a lot of farming during that time. We all suffered.”
Mason’s father and grandfather owned the Ford-Mercury dealership in Fort Deposit, but all Lowndes County residents are familiar with agriculture in some form because it’s the main source of income for most citizens.
Lyon and Mason grew up together and went to Auburn University where Lyon was a promising quarterback before an injury ended his college football career.
As the two passed through their teen years and into
Auburn all-star tailback/outfielder and 1985 Heisman Trophy winner Bo
Jackson, shown with a trophy buck, still comes by the lodge to visit on his way to see relatives.
| adulthood, they watched in dismay as hunting land around them was gobbled up by private interests.
Deer hunters flock to Alabama each winter, but, until the early 1980s, there weren’t many lodges to take care of their basic needs. They’d lease land and pay for hunting rights, but that pretty much was it. They were on their own at that point.
What Lyon and Mason envisioned was a lodge where hunters could spend several days looking for whitetail deer and relaxing in comfortable surroundings when they weren’t shivering in tree stands at 5 a.m.
The two needed money to get started, but they didn’t have much available cash at the time. That’s where Lyon’s father—Dave Lyon Sr.—came to their rescue. He co-signed a $10,000 bank loan which enabled the two to get busy on their dream project.
“I was sure they could make it work,” said Lyon Sr., 82, who raised cattle, cotton, crimson clover—and soybeans—on more than 2,000 acres at the time. “Rich people were buying up all the land around us and I liked their idea. That’s why I co-signed their note.”
The first “lodge” was nothing more than a double-wide trailer located several hundred yards off U.S. 80 in this little community halfway between Selma and Montgomery.
As hunters around the country learned of the lodge, business picked up. The 800-square-foot trailer soon became a large log cabin with all the trimmings. Today, it can
accommodate-date 28 hunters, has about 11,000 square feet and keeps growing.
The lodge has a complete kitchen with large freezers. Tables in the kitchen can handle dozens of hunters and relatives. In another area is a huge room where parties and family gatherings are held. Deer, turkey and bobcat kills hang from every available space in the lodge.
The main building is surrounded by other facilities, including a house for guides. It’s been a remarkable transformation since the early 1980s. Cotton, soybean fields and woods have become havens for hunters.
A few years after the Southern Sportsman opened for business, Jackie Bushman approached Lyon and Mason with an idea. The brains behind Buckmasters was looking for a special event to help promote his popular hunting magazine.
“Bushman was trying to get Buckmasters going and he wanted us to give him the last five days of deer season to promote his magazine,” Mason said. “We did it for him and it took off. We both did good. It helped him and it helped us.”
Buckmasters rented the Southern Sportsman Lodge with the two owners pitching in to make it a success. They cooked, cleaned and did whatever else was needed to make the stars and entertainers happy.
The annual event lasted about 15 years and attracted celebrities as well as thousands of spectators who wanted to see them, shake their hands and get autographs.
had as many as 4,000 people here on the Saturdays of each event,” said
Mason. “It was a huge crowd. We couldn’t have been happier.”
Actor Jim Varney may be gone, but his hat remains on this carved hound at the Southern Sportsman Hunting Lodge in Lowndes County.
got so big that Mason and Lyon needed to recruit area hunters to serve as guides for the stars “because we couldn’t take that many people out at one time.”
“People took off from work to tote celebrities,” Mason said. “We had about 40 of them at first. Bo was kinda quiet, but once he came to know us, he warmed up. Even today he’ll stop by to visit and use our restrooms when he drives by on his way to visit relatives.”
The hard work that produced the Southern Sportsman success story has become a fond memory for Lyon and Mason, especially after doubts at the beginning when their idea seemed like it would be a bitter pill to swallow. Eventually, it went down like sugar. They can laugh now, but neither man did much smiling back around 1982.
A group of friends interested in creating a hunting lodge met several times, but only Lyon and Mason stuck around long enough to see it come to fruition.
boy who started it was going to run it, but he had a wife and two kids
and we needed a lot of money to start,” Mason said. “He figured he
couldn’t support his family, so he pulled out and that left us with
the bank note so we had to go with it.”
The name proved to be a problem at first, but that hurdle also was cleared. Mason said owners of another hunting operation with a similar name in west Alabama weren’t pleased when he and Lyon launched theirs.
“We had a little run-in with some folks,” Mason said. “They sent us a letter telling us to quit using the name, but we had already registered ours with the state and told them we weren’t going to change ours. We didn’t hear anything else from them.”
Lyon said his facility is a “lodge” while the one located near the Mississippi line is a “club” which requires memberships to join.
“We require payment for each hunting day and do not sell memberships,” Mason said.
He said he and Lyon began with 5,000 acres of leased land in Lowndes County and neighboring Dallas County. He said much of the land also was being used for farming operations, but hunting was allowed during off-seasons.
“Hunting fit in good with farming because you don’t do much farming in the winter,” Mason said. “We were through farming when hunting season began. That’s the way it is around the state and we now have a lot of hunting lodges. We were the first or one of the first lodges of this kind in the area.”
Their humble beginning has evolved into a major enterprise, one which includes 12,000 acres of leased land in Lowndes and Dallas counties.
The partners often drive to Selma to buy fertilizer, seed and other items from the Central Alabama Farmers Cooperative.
It takes a lot of money to buy equipment and supplies, not to mention leasing land. Lyon said he and Mason spend up to $100,000 annually to lease property for their hunters.
“Our profit margin can be pretty narrow at times,” Lyon said. “That’s why we do things other than hunting. Catering has become an important part of our operation.”
Each man has two children, but, at this time, they are either too young or not interested in keeping the two-family operation going.
Lyon and Mason, still young enough to keep at it for another decade or so, aren’t worried about the immediate future.
As long as their hunting business continues to boom and the catering service remains popular, they’ll have plenty of time to think about what to do with the lodge down the road.
Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.