It was late November in 1959, and Sullivan County officials were lamenting a very slow start to whitetail deer hunting season, which had traditionally provided a much needed economic boost to rural economies.
After very strong seasons the previous two years, hopes had been high for another stellar deer take in the county, but 1959 would turn out to be an extremely poor season not just locally, but throughout New York State.
“Deer Season in Slow Start” the Liberty Register announced in a front page headline in its Thursday, November 19, 1959 edition. “Weather, Economics Blamed.” The ensuing article mentioned that after a fairly decent opening day the previous Monday, rain and freezing temperatures had put a damper on the hunting the next few days. It was a portent of what was to come that fall.
“The deer hunting season, which opened Monday morning in Sullivan County and surrounding areas, has so far shown a somewhat lessened amount of pressure as compared to previous years, with fewer hunters in the field and a smaller buck kill to date,” the article began.
“Hunters enjoyed an excellent opening day weather-wise, but Tuesday’s drenching rain discouraged many, while on Wednesday the combination of wintry weather and frozen leaves underfoot made deer hunting especially difficult.
“That hunters were fewer in numbers to date seemed well-established from local reports. Liberty gas station and restaurant operators, as well as those in Monticello, reported that their income from the first few days of the season was considerably less than last year.”
The Register noted that the number of deer licenses issued in the county in 1959 was down dramatically, quoting Fred Berner of Berner’s Sport Shop in the village as saying he had only issued about 550 licenses so far that season, as compared to more than 800 in a typical year. The Liberty Town Clerk, Whit Wells, concurred, reporting that the number of licenses he had issued had dropped from 477 in 1958 to just 264 in 1959.
“Some observers feel that the early season slump in deer hunting may be attributed to economic conditions, with the cost of living and taxes so high as to preclude the usual days off from work and time spent at camp,” the Register article said. “They say that many hunters this year cannot afford the time and expense of being away from their jobs.”
As it turned out, the 1959 deer season was an unusually poor one throughout all of New York. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, the total deer take in 1959 statewide dropped from 72,677 in 1957 and 66,469 in 1958, to just 42,306 in 1959. The state’s deer take has never approached that low a figure in all the years since.
In fact, fewer deer were legally taken only once since the DEC began keeping track, and that was in 1954, when 38,549 were reportedly killed. The state’s deer take increased steadily beginning in 1960, and by 1966 had reached more than 74,000.
The deer take in New York has dropped below 150,000 only once since 1981, and has exceeded 200,000 every year but two since 1991. The DEC’s statistics indicate that New York’s record deer take came in 2002, when 308,216 total deer were legally shot.
The DEC currently estimates that there are an average of about 500,000 licensed deer hunters in New York State each year, contributing nearly $1.5 billion to the state’s economy. The economic argument postulated by the Register in its article was not born out by national statistics, though, as the Department of Commerce reported that the U.S. economy was actually slightly stronger in 1959 that it had been the year before.
“Average money income of families and persons both reached record levels in 1959, according to estimates released today by the Bureau of the Census,” the Commerce Department reported in a release entitled “Income of Families and Persons in the United States, 1959.”
“The average (median) income of families was $5,400 in 1959, a gain of $330, or 6 percent, over 1958. For persons, the median income was $2,600; this was $130, or 5 percent higher than a year earlier. Most of the increase in
money income represented a gain in real purchasing power since prices rose only slightly between 1958 and 1959.”
A more likely reason for the merchants in both of the county’s large villages reporting lower than usual sales in gasoline and breakfasts was more likely due to the recently completed construction of the Route 17 “Quickway,” which bypassed both villages. Although the Register hadn’t checked, it is possible that increased sales elsewhere along that new route offset the drop-off in the newly bypassed villages.
So, although there is no question the 1959 deer hunting season was one of the worst on record in Sullivan County, and in New York State as a whole, pinpointing the exact cause of that downturn is not an easy task, even in retrospect.
Photo: Whitetail deer hunters in Sullivan County.