The Poet Laureate of Turkey Hunting

An overview of Tom Kelly’s published work.

 

Tom Kelly’s impact on turkey-hunting literature is so significant that at one point years ago, in a review of one of his books, I referred to him as the poet laureate of turkey hunting and the moniker stuck. Devoted fans of the erstwhile old colonel—known as the Tenth Legion, after the title of his first book—respect him to the point of reverence. His cult-like following is well deserved and reminiscent of those garnered for Corey Ford’s “Lower Forty” column and Robert Ruark’s Old Man and the Boy in the mid-20th century.

However, from a collector’s perspective, the confusion and complications of his books’ publication history warrants more than mere annotation. With that in mind, I’ve provided a full list of Kelly’s books in chronological order of their first date of issue. Where necessary, most notably with his first and best-known work, Tenth Legion, I’ve included considerable publication background.

Before delving into Kelly’s catalog, I should note an oddity of his works: Over the years the author has been so generous and readily available for book signings at National Wild Turkey Federation conventions, fund-raising banquets, and similar functions that finding unmarked copies of his books might actually be the exception, not the rule. Thus, Kelly’s autograph adds little, if any, value to a book. However, if a book has been inscribed to another turkey-hunting writer or a noted personality in the sport, it would have added value.

 

The first-printing, first-edition run of Kelly’s first book, Tenth Legion, includes precisely 555 copies. Kelly ordered and paid for 500 copies, and the publisher printed 55 extra, which were then given to the author. Incidentally, this print overrun is not unusual. Publishing contracts commonly call for a ten-percent overage or underage with the understanding that any overage will be paid for on a cost-per-unit basis and any underage will be deducted from the final tab. In this case, it’s unusual the publisher didn’t require Kelly to buy the extra copies.

Kelly details the circumstances of the first edition in the preface to the 1998 edition of Tenth Legion. For strict accuracy of the sort that will keep booksellers and picayunish librarians happy (or at least reduce their temptation to storm my home for the commission of grievous bibliographical sins), this version of Tenth Legion should be noted as the second edition. All previous manifestations were merely successive printings, and, to Kelly’s considerable credit, he gets this exactly right in the preface while reducing confusion for bookworms such as myself. The reverse side of the 1998 edition’s title page details the printings and their dates.

As the erstwhile Colonel Kelly has explained, after Tenth Legion’s first-edition printing, a Monroe, Louisiana, law firm contacted him on behalf of its client, a Mr. McLemore. Apparently Tenth Legion had so impressed this gentleman, who owned a number of sporting-goods stores, that he printed copies of it for his friends and favored customers on an office machine.

When George Snellings, a partner at the Monroe law firm, learned of this, he realized McLemore had abused Kelly’s copyright and contacted the author to straighten out the situation. This resulted in an agreement whereby Kelly—tickled that the book had evoked interest—let the law firm reprint the title. To the best he can recollect, he agreed to do so for 20 percent of the reprint’s profits, and thus Spur Enterprises was born.

The imprint’s name, chosen by the lawyers and perhaps one or two others involved in the enterprise, appears on the book’s second and third printings. For these editions, the group fashioned a new dust-jacket image, which features a coat of arms, a turkey head and crown atop a shield, and the words “Meleagris Gallapavo Sylvestris” beneath the illustration. The back of the dust jacket is tan and includes a brief biography of Kelly and a mug shot of the author wearing a cap. In comparison, the cover of the first printing features a dim picture of a turkey, which Kelly borrowed from Roger Latham, and lacks an author photo.

Likewise, the Spur Enterprises printings carry blurbs by Outdoor Life’s Charlie Elliott, Field & Stream’s Ted Trueblood, and Delta Farm Press’ Mabry Anderson on the back lower half of the dust jacket. The inside front flap lists the sale price at $7.50, and the rear flap is blank. The differences in the dust jackets are the easiest way to distinguish the title’s first printing from those by Spur Enterprises, in addition to the publisher details on the title page.

Kelly speculates Spur Enterprises likely had a print run of 1,000 copies for each of its initial three printings, and he’s sure that was the amount of the fifth through seventh printings. Thus, all first-edition printings of Tenth Legion except the first are equally rare. The title’s first printing, first edition stands as a true treasure of turkey-hunting literature, second only to Tom Turpin’s Hunting the Wild Turkey. I have sold three first-printing, first-edition copies of Tenth Legion over the years and seen perhaps only a dozen more. Kelly retained five copies, so a total of 550 were available to the general public. I suspect 300 or fewer remain extant; a fine copy with the dust jacket intact is worth upward of $3,000.

After three runs by Spur Enterprises, Kelly’s wife, Helen, and a family friend, Betty Jo Wolff, who owned bookstores in Fairhope and Gulf Shores, Alabama, brought the printing of Tenth Legion in-house and established Wingfeather Press. Together they produced a spiffy white dust jacket with a red stripe across the top, which matches the cloth binding. The edition also includes a drawing of a feather and a turkey in flight on the front cover and a picture of Kelly and his teenage daughter on the back.

 

The publication details of Tenth Legion:

 

First printing—Theo. Gaus’ Sons (New York), October, 1973—555 copies

Second printing—Spur Enterprises (Monroe, LA), December, 1974—1,000 copies

Third printing—Spur Enterprises, September, 1975—1,000 copies

Fourth printing—Spur Enterprises, November, 1977—1,000 copies

Fifth printing—Wingfeather Press, May, 1982—1,000 copies

Sixth printing—Wingfeather Press, June, 1986—1,000 copies

Seventh printing—Wingfeather Press, November, 1994—1,000 copies

 

That is where matters stood until the early 1990s, when Field & Stream began assembling the greatest stories it had ever published for a special book in celebration of its centennial. Kelly had contributed to the magazine a number of times over the years, and the project’s editor, J. I. Merritt, chose his piece “Continuum” for inclusion in what became, The Best of Field & Stream: 100 Years of Great Writing (1995).

Lyons & Burford Press published this collection and then approached Kelly about reprinting Tenth Legion. He agreed to do so but only after stipulating a reprint of Dealer’s Choice as well. This wrought the second edition of Tenth Legion under Lyons Press (Lyons & Burford had since changed names) in 1998.

Kelly wrote a short preface for this reprint. In addition, the second edition has an updated dust jacket, modified binding, and reset type, which changed the pagination from vii, 119 pages to xii, 119 pages.

As if Tenth Legion’s bibliographical details were not murky enough, subsequent developments muddied the waters even further. During this time Globe–Pequot Press acquired Lyons Press, and the hardbound version of Tenth Legion was remaindered. However, in 2005 the publisher released a paperbound version of the book, which remains in print. For those who insist on completeness, this version includes a new preface in addition to those from the previous editions, adding additional material (albeit just over a page). Somewhat surprisingly, the value of the Lyons Press version of Tenth Legion has gone up considerably, and one would do well finding a copy for less than $50. This is largely because Tom Kelly, Inc. (which I’ll detail momentarily) has yet to reacquire rights of the book.

 

 

While the publication details of Kelly’s second book, Dealer’s Choice, are less complex than those of his first, they can be nonetheless a bit daunting. For starters, there are two variants of the first printing, distinguished solely by a minor difference in the size and typeface of the publisher’s information on the title page, as I’ll detail.

Dealer’s Choice. Fairhope, AL: Page & Pallete, 1980. Hardback in dust jacket. v, 83 pages.

 

The second printing was in March 1983 under the Wingfeather Press name. The dust jacket of this edition is the same as the first printing, but its binding colors are bright green instead of olive. Kelly assumes these differences were made in print runs of 1,000 copies and that obtaining a first edition of Dealer’s Choice (regardless of the printing) is more difficult than doing so for any printing of Tenth Legion except the first, given the limited number published.

Dealer’s Choice. Spanish Fort, AL: Wingfeather Press, 1983. Hardback in dust jacket. vi, 100 pages.

 

As noted, the Dealer’s Choice reprint was a part of Kelly’s agreement with Lyons Press, and the book duly appeared in 1998. Though the type was reset and the layout and design differ, the book’s contents are the same as the original except for the necessary changes to the copyright page.

Dealer’s Choice. New York: The Lyons Press, 1998. Hardback in dust jacket. xii, 116 pages.

 

When the book was remaindered, Tom Kelly, Inc. obtained the rights, though the title remains out of print despite considerable demand.

 

Kelly’s dealings with Lyons Press/Lyons & Burford covered not only reprinting his first two books but also publishing his next three: Better on a Rising Tide, The Season, and The Boat.

 

Better on a Rising Tide. New York: The Lyons Press, 1995. Hardback in dust jacket. [iv], 184 pages.

This book is comprised primarily of stories first published in magazines, namely Field & Stream, though two chapters appeared in Sports Illustrated. In almost every case, the stories were altered from their original magazine versions. 

The book went through at least two printings with Lyons Press, distinguished solely by the copyright page. Though rights have reverted to Kelly, at this juncture he has yet to reprint the title.

 

The Season. New York: Lyons & Burford, 1996. Hardback in dust jacket. 160 pages.

In this collection of 15 stories, Kelly describes the trials, tribulations, and occasional triumphs of a single turkey season. After reacquiring rights to the book, he reprinted it a second time and reset the type in a larger font, subsequently increasing the page count to 188. In addition, the dust jacket and boards differ in color. While I’ve seen a statement claiming Lyons & Burford printed only 1,500 copies of the first edition, I’m uncertain of this, as commercial publishers seldom have print runs that small.

 

The Boat. New York: The Lyons Press, 1998.[iv], 152 pages. Hardback in dust jacket.

Although this book involves building a wooden boat rather than a quest for turkeys, I’ve included it here for the sake of completeness. The title is actually in some demand by fans.

 

After the debacle reprinting his first two books, Kelly began to again consider publishing his own work. With his next three books, he took a strong step in that direction by reverting back to the Wingfeather Press imprint, first used for Tenth Legion’s fifth printing in 1982. 

 

A Year Outside. Spanish Fort, AL: Wingfeather Press, 2000. Hardback in dust jacket. [iv], 184 pages.

Kelly on his home heath as described in sixteen chapters. One of them, “Palm Sunday at St. Marys,” first appeared in a somewhat different form in Sporting Classics. Otherwise the pieces are original. The title is out of print and quite collectible.

 

Faces in the Crowd. Spanish Fort, AL: Wingfeather Press, 2002. Hardback in dust jacket. [iv], 149 pages.

A collection of sixteen stories, two of which previously appeared in Turkey & Turkey Hunting and four of which in Sports Afield. The book includes what I consider the greatest Kelly tale, “An Afternoon on the Handles.” It’s powerful, eerie, and beautiful.

 

A Few Loose Chapters. Spanish Fort, AL: Wingfeather Press, 2003. Hardback in dust jacket. [iv], 132 pages.

A baker’s dozen of original stories plus one, “Both Ends of the Curve,” which Sports Afield had previously published. This title would be the last to carry the Wingfeather Press name.

 

A major breakthrough in Kelly’s career came when he met David Clarke and formed Tom Kelly, Inc. This development had its aegis in 2003, when Clarke attended Kelly’s annual turkey hunting seminar at Westervelt Lodge in Alabama, carrying a video camera instead of a gun. A year later the two joined forces and formed the company.

All of Kelly’s subsequent books, along with audio recordings, a collector’s set of his first eight titles, DVDs, and more have emanated from this venture. Now all but his first two books have been privately published, either as reprints or original editions, under the Tom Kelly, Inc. imprint. (While the Wingfeather Press name was used for a special collector’s edition set of Kelly’s first eight books, this occurred after Clarke and Kelly had begun working together.)

Individual listings follow, with those currently in print priced accordingly, while out-of-print works are evaluated such as the previous entries in this bibliography.

 

Tom Kelly’s Collector’s Edition. Spanish Fort, AL: Wingfeather Press, 2005.

This was a boxed set of eight books packaged into four volumes. The books are leather bound, and a color plate of a wild turkey, protected by tissue, separates the two titles in each volume. These books retain the pagination of the original editions and feature all edges gilt, gold stamping on the spine, and a ribbon marker. Printed in a numbered edition of 1,000 copies, these collections were distributed under special conditions: Sets 1-50 were reserved for the publisher, sets 51-251 were offered to subscribers and advance purchasers, and the remainder (252-1000) were available to the general public.

Volume I: Tenth Legion and Better on a Rising Tide

Volume II: The Season and Dealer’s Choice

Volume III: The Boat and A Year Outside

Volume IV: Faces in the Crowd and A Few Loose Chapters

 

Note that Clarke and Kelly encountered appreciable problems with this set’s printer. The slipcases were poorly done and there were issues with the binding. In fact, while 1,000 copies were printed, fewer undamaged sets were made available. The experience was a lesson learned for Kelly, and henceforth Tom Kelly, Inc. printed only in the United States, rather than relying on Asian firms, given the associated vagaries and uncertainties of doing so.

 

Take Back in Fancy. Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2005. Hardback in dust jacket. 169 pages.

Fourteen stories, none of which had been previously published except for “Red Zone,” which first appeared in Turkey & Turkey Hunting.

 

A Hat Full of Rabbits. Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2006. Hardback in dust jacket. 150 pages.

A dozen Kelly tales told in his inimitable fashion.

 

A Fork in the Road. Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2007. Hardback in dust jacket. 124 pages.

This book includes a two-hour instructional DVD in a sleeve attached to the rear endpaper.

  

Ol’ Tom and Laura. Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2008. Hardback in dust jacket. 191 pages.

A collection of tales about the author hunting with his daughter, Laura. All of these pieces were previously published in magazines and/or in earlier Kelly books.

 

Absent Companions. Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2008. Hardback in dust jacket. 143 pages.

A poignant tribute to Kelly’s deceased companions, human and otherwise, whom he’d known throughout his life. Unlike most titles published by Tom Kelly, Inc., which had 1,000-copy runs, this book had an initial printing of 1,000 copies and a second printing (with no notation of the fact) of 500.

 

The Best of Tom Kelly. Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2009. Leather-bound hardback. xvi, 311 pages. Introductory Notes by Jim Casada and Jim Spencer.

This limited, numbered, and signed edition of 1,000 copies contains 34 stories from throughout Kelly’s career. The books includes a ribbon marker and features gilt edges and gilt imprinting on the spine and front. Spencer and I—both writers and great fans of the Colonel—had urged Kelly to do a retrospective for years; we selected 20 of our favorite pieces, compared notes, consulted Kelly, and offered our thoughts on the man and his contributions to the sport. This book is the result.

 

Infirm Opinions. Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2009. Hardback in dust jacket. x, 166 pages.

The book includes a DVD of the fan-club presentation from Mossy Oak’s “Hunting the Country” television program. The disk is attached to the back of the rear endpaper.

 

Payback. Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2010. Hardback in dust jacket. viii, 207 pages. Illustrated.

Yet another outpouring of Kelly tales.

 

A Matter of Context. Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2013. Hardback in dust jacket.

Kelly stepped up his pace and began publishing a book nearly every year.

 

The Other Seven. Lakeland, FL: Tom Kelly, Inc., 2014. Hardback in dust jacket. 

Kelly’s second book in as many years with another in the works.

 

 +++

 

Jim Casada has written and edited a number of books on turkey hunting including Remembering the Greats: Profiles of Turkey Hunting’s Old Masters and The Literature of Turkey Hunting: An Annotated Bibliography and Random Scribblings of a Sporting Bibliophile. H also has the country’s most-extensive list of books on the sport, including a wide selection of Tom Kelly material, for sale. To learn more about his books or to check his turkey list, visit his website

 

Photos courtesy of Jim Casada.  

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