Having christened his program "Acres for Wildlife," Cowgill set out to sell it. He began by making a series of photo slides for which he recorded a commentary tracing the diminishing game habitat of the state, its effect upon wildlife and what could be done to counteract the loss. The presentation, which takes 20 minutes, emphasizes the value of brush piles, hedges, fences and windrows as shelter belts and cover patches. Cowgill then began a one-man campaign throughout the state, on his own time and at his own expense, during which he showed his slides before several hundred club and community gatherings.
He had anticipated acceptance in the rural areas, where game and its decline was a genuine concern and where his audience consisted of landowners, but Cowgill was unprepared for the enthusiasm with which his program was greeted in the cities. Apartment dwellers in Omaha embraced the project as eagerly as farmers on the Platte. The fact that they owned no land of their own to put aside for wildlife was unimportant. They knew people who did, or they went out and found people who did, and persuaded them to join the crusade.
By the end of its first year, 1970, Acres for Wildlife had enrolled more than 20,000 private acres throughout the state and Cowgill was moving on into neighboring territory. His success only whetted Cowgill's drive and imagination. The way to enroll the entire country, he decided, was to direct its attention to what had already been achieved in Nebraska. So in 1972 the Grand National Mixed Bag Hunt was born.
Cowgill had figured that if he could lure some famous people—along with the press and publicity that follow them—to Nebraska long enough to be shown just what Acres for Wildlife had accomplished, they would pass on to the rest of the country how much of its own dwindling small-game population could be restored.
To make certain that Silver Creek was behind the project, Cowgill devised enough peripheral activities—an essay contest, an arts and crafts display, a muzzle-loader contest and trap shoots—to get everyone in Silver Creek from kindergartners to Medicare recipients involved. It never occurred to him that anybody would be less than enthusiastic about his idea.
And so far as the townsfolk went, he was right. It was the invited celebrities who proved a problem. Cowgill had written letters, hundreds of letters, inviting personalities in sports, show business, politics and the arts and sciences to participate in the first Grand National Mixed Bag Hunt. Most ignored the letters, some hedged, some sent polite refusals. Finally, when prospects were beginning to look dismal, Roy Rogers said he would be there.
That was the break Cowgill needed. With one big name on the list, others were easier to acquire; by the time the first hunt was under way Rogers had been joined by archery's Fred Bear, baseball players Harmon Killebrew and Freddie Patek, Hall of Famer Bob Feller and the newspaper, magazine and television writers who came in their wake. The Grand National Mixed Bag Hunt was successfully launched. Silver Creek, once an obscure dot on the map, was suddenly Someplace, and Cowgill's hunt was Something.
Young tradition dictates that the annual affair begin on Thursday evening with a supper of ham and hot potato salad in one of the cottages at a lakeside development on the edge of Silver Creek. As soon as the last forkful is down, the contestants take off in pickup trucks and jeeps to neighboring farms where sons and cousins and acquaintances are waiting to join in a coon hunt. The chase is appropriately confusing as hordes of people dash about in the dark trying to follow dogs across country with which many are completely unfamiliar. In spite of it all, some coons are run down, treed and bayed (none were shot this year, as it was still closed season). Everybody winds up drinking hot coffee and eating homemade cake about 2 a.m. in one of the many farmhouses that open their doors to the hunters.
The next morning, before dawn, the contestants are out again, this time on their way to the duck blinds via a wet walk through thin stands of river brush and the fast-flowing, thigh-high waters of the Platte. The dark silhouettes of decoys cast strange shadows on the water, and hunters huddle lower in the reed and grass blinds, scanning the brightening sky for birds. By 11 the hunt is over, the decoys are collected and the return hike begins. At its end is a feast of Thanksgiving proportions prepared by Barbara Cowgill and the ladies of the Civic Club, followed by Bruce Cowgill's slide show.
Then comes squirrel hunting in the stands of trees along the river and the fields beyond, followed by brush-pile building, in which everyone, including Nebraska Governor J. James Exon, collects broken limbs and fallen trees to provide new game cover. That night there is a barbecue at the local American Legion Hall at which at least half of Silver Creek is present in addition to the visitors. The final morning of the Grand National is also the opening day of Nebraska's pheasant season. The top dog handlers in the state volunteer their champions for the hunt, and well before dawn dog carriers begin gathering.