Prior to January, 2004, the lands that are now included in the Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge were Farmers Home Administration lands that had been transferred to the Fish & Wildlife Service. The FmHA lands were managed for conservation. Many acres were reforested and, along with natural succession, have grown up to produce early successional habitat valuable to songbirds and rabbits.
Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge is the first and only refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge System that is named to honor an African-American. In 1902 when Collier guided President Theodore Roosevelt through the Mississippi Delta on his famous bear hunt, he could not have envisioned that both he and Roosevelt would leave conservation legacies. During his Presidency, Roosevelt would establish 52 National Wildlife Refuges.
Holt Collier’s reputation was well known in Mississippi, Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, where he was known as an expert marksman and great bear hunter. “The President of the United States was anxious to see a live bear the first day of the hunt,” Collier said, “I told him he would see that bear if I had to tie it and bring it to him.” The hunting party included a number of turn-of-the-century dignitaries, including Illinois Central Railroad president Stuyvesant Fish; Tobasco Sauce heir John McIlhenny; soon-to-be Louisiana Governor John M. Parker; Huger Foote, grandfather of Civil War authority Shelby Foote; and LeRoy Percy, who later became a U. S. Senator and was the great uncle of the late novelist Walker Percy.
During the hunt, Collier chased a black bear to the water hole where Roosevelt was supposed to be waiting in a stand. As luck would have it, and unknown to Collier, Roosevelt had vacated the stand for an early lunch, and was not present when the bear arrived at the water hole. Collier’s dogs bayed the bear in the water hole and in all the excitement, the bear turned and attacked the dogs. When Collier arrived at the water hole, the bear was attacking one of his best dogs. To save his favorite hunting dog, and to provide a bear for the President, Collier overpowered the bear, saved the dog, and tied the bear to a tree. When Roosevelt arrived, he refused to shoot Collier’s captured bear.
The incident was picked up by the media and publicized across the nation. Cartoonist Clifford Berryman published a cartoon in the Washington Star showing Roosevelt, rifle in hand, with his back turned on a sweet little bear. Public response to the president’s self-restraint was overwhelmingly favorable.
Morris Michtom, who later founded the Ideal Toy Company, saw the cartoon and asked his wife Rose to design and sew a toy bear. They displayed the toy bear in the window of their small Brooklyn, New York shop with a label: “Teddy Bear.” The original bear was purchased, others were produced, and America’s favorite toy, the Teddy Bear, was born. The original teddy bear, saved by President Roosevelt’s grandchildren, is now displayed at the Smithsonian.
Less than a year after his bear hunting trip to Mississippi, President Roosevelt created the first national wildlife refuge on Pelican Island, in Florida. During his Presidency, Roosevelt would establish 52 National Wildlife Refuges.