For a man who owns a spread on the coast of Maine, a horse farm in Kentucky, a 100-acre estate on Long Island, a house at Saratoga, an apartment on Fifth Avenue and a Hobe Sound mansion on Florida's Gold Coast, deciding on any given day where to rest his head could be perplexing. But for Charles Shipman Payson, the owner of all of the above as well as a yacht and a plane, the decision is simple. The place he prefers to all others is his 12,800-acre hunting ranch in south-central Florida, and for a good part of the year that is where he is most likely to be found. Not that it is easy to find him. The ranch is so far off the beaten track that except for the odd cow that might wander by or the occasional low-flying plane overhead, it could go unnoticed among the cypress swamps and palmetto jungles of Florida's last frontier. Which is exactly the way Payson likes it.
There is no telephone on the ranch and until a few years ago there was no electricity. The rutted dirt-track entrance, which is off a little-traveled county road, bears only the sign TREE FARM. No name. No number. Not even a mailbox. By design, Payson gets no mail there, and no newspapers are delivered. A quarter of a mile or so down the track there is a split-rail fence and beyond that several modest wood buildings painted green, which house the ranch manager and his family and a dozen or so English pointers. A handful of trucks and hunting vehicles are parked alongside a 1974 station wagon whose license plates read METS.
Farther along the track is a comfortable but hardly elegant three-bedroom ranch house, which is where Payson and his guests rest their heads these days. Until four years ago, when the house was built, they stayed in one of the green bungalows. Before that, they slept in tents.
Whatprompted Payson to pitch his tent in this remote part of Florida 21 years ago, and what continues to lure him back season after season, is the bird shooting. Ever since his boyhood in Maine, hunting—and especially bird shooting—has been the sport he has most enjoyed. In the middle 1950s, determined to find a place to hunt close enough to his Florida residence that he could do so regularly, he enlisted two longtime friends, Elliott Dunwody and John Shuey, to help him locate some good bird shooting within 150 miles of Hobe Sound.
South-central Florida was then, as now, largely undeveloped. To anyone familiar only with Florida's densely populated east and west coasts, with their unbroken palisades of high-rises and hotels, this part of the state is an improbable surprise. The land stretches flat and fertile from horizon to horizon, a vast sea of grass punctuated by tall stands of slash pine, islands of palmetto, sabal palm and green myrtle, by cool, dark cypress swamps and hummocks lush with tropical plants and wild fruit trees.
There is a primitive quality about the land, a sense that it has never been inhabited. The vast savannas are reminiscent of East Africa, and one expects at any moment to come upon a herd of buffalo in the tall grass or to surprise a giraffe nibbling on the tender leaves of a tree.
This is cattle country. The land is fenced, but this has not always been so; at one time everybody ran cattle on everybody else's land and nobody paid much attention to who owned what. Then in the 1930s the Florida government required that all cattle be inoculated, and in order to round them up fences became necessary.
Much of the land in Payson's area, some four million acres, was sold originally by the state of Florida in the 1880s for 25� an acre, then sold and resold again as the Florida land boom roared to a climax before being smashed by the great hurricane of 1926. In the early 1930s Dunwody's father, who in the wake of the crash had picked up the acreage Payson now owns, sold it for $2 an acre to the man who, in 1955, eventually sold it to Payson for $35 an acre.
Payson's original purchase included six miles on each side of the county road, or some six sections more than his current 12,800 acres. To his present regret, and against Shuey's advice, he had second thoughts about just how good a deal he had made and sold off the six sections. A few years ago the same land was going for $600 an acre. Today it is valued in excess of $1,000 an acre and Payson would happily buy up the entire county if he could get his hands on it. The idea is not entirely preposterous.
For most of his 78 years Charles Shipman Payson has loomed larger than life-size over his fellows, both physically and financially. At 16 he stood 6'3" and was a four-letter man at Salisbury ( Conn.) School where he was on the swimming, football, baseball and tennis teams. Although a knee injury in his freshman year at Yale prevented him from playing football, he rowed on the crew for three years and boxed both there and at Harvard Law School.