The Plumbline

Cotton Harrison’s Camp and Chief Kickapoo Stew

1962, like all years I guess, was a mixed bag. To quote Mister Dickens “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” And for a wide-eyed nine year old boy growing up in Macon, Georgia, the times were explosive: The first James Bond movie “Dr. No” hit the big screen and “The Beverly Hillbillies” hit the little one. Elvis sang “Can’t Help Falling In Love” and Neil Sedaka crooned “Breaking Up Is Hard To Do.” NASA launched Telstar, the world’s first commercial communications satellite, and Lt. Col. John H. Glenn was the first man to orbit the earth. Sunny Liston and Floyd Patterson fought for the Heavy-weight Championship Of The World and Marilyn Monroe died of a drug overdose. Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev decided it was a good idea to deploy ballistic missiles in Cuba, taking us to the brink of nuclear war, and I got to go to summer camp.

It was 1948 when Mercer University athletic coach Cotton Harrison founded his camp for boys on the outskirts of Macon. Some years later girls cabins were added and the camp went co-ed. Cotton and his family lived in the main lodge that doubled as the dining hall for campers and staff. There were four boy’s cabins where kids were housed according to their age and two girls cabins, one larger than the rest, sleeping up to twenty. There was a spring fed three-acre lake with a sandy bottom where many children learned to swim. Up on the hill Cotton had constructed a huge open shed for arts and crafts and for shelter on rainy days. We campers could choose from a host of activities including horseback riding, archery, riflery, swimming, golf, tennis, nature studies, and arts and crafts. We fished, played horseshoes, badminton, and capture the flag. And we had all sorts of night-time activities. Kids and counselors would entertain each other with skits on stunt night and on other nights we went trail riding on the horses and on real hot nights everyone would go swimming. “We tried to give the campers more than they paid for,” says Linda Harrison Cox, Cotton’s daughter and former camp counselor. “Every child got to ride a horse everyday and we didn’t charge extra for it.”

When the dinner bell rang we’d all head to the lodge for a meal you wouldn’t expect at a camp for kids. Before we sat down, Cotton, Mrs. Harrison, or one of the counselors led us in singing “Praise God From Whom All Blessings Flow.” And Sunday morning we’d have Sunday school. Mrs. Mattie Lee Moore was the head cook and boy could she ever whip up a fine plate of vittles. She’d make meat loaf smothered in her special tomato sauce, chicken pie, homemade rolls, and a birthday cake for any child who had a birthday during camp. For the children who’d hunted berries the night before she’d make pies. And if you caught a fish she’d fry it up for you. Our iced tea came in tin cups and you could have your fill of food and drink—as much as you wanted. But everyone’s favorite was Chief Kickapoo Stew.

Once every session Cotton stood before the assembly at supper time and wove his tale about the meal we were going to have. He had an imposing stature. He sat tall in the saddle and stood tall before the boys and girls who revered him for the forthright and pious man we knew him to be. He was long and lean with a ruddy complexion and a shock of white hair. His smile told he cared for us, and in the best of ways, that smile said we were family. His eyes narrowed as he verbally painted his Indian friend and blood-brother Chief Kickapoo who lived somewhere in the woods nearby. Earlier that day, said Cotton, the Chief gave him a bag of game he’d hunted and killed. There was some raccoon, a rabbit, a piece of deer meat, and a rattlesnake in that bag and Cotton gave it to Mattie to make the stew. Every eye trained on Cotton and the only sound you heard was his voice as we sat mesmerized at the prospect. And the stew was wonderful—like nothing you’d ever tasted.

Several years back my wife Veronica moved her church membership to Chapel By The Sea here on Tybee. One day after church she came home and said she’d “met the nicest lady from Macon named Linda Cox.” Linda moved to Tybee with husband Jay in 1980 and taught school here at St. Michaels many years. I’d often spoke with Veronica about my three great summers at Cotton Harrison’s Camp but it took a while for her to make the connection. When she realized Linda was Cotton’s daughter, and then told me, I was elated. After nearly fifty-years I would reconnect with my old friend and mentor. I guess the first thing I asked Linda was if she knew how to make Chief Kickapoo Stew. She gave a sly look and smiled. “Yes I do,” she said. “But it’s not going to taste like you remember. You won’t
like it.”

The recipe called for one onion, one green bell pepper, two pounds of ground beef, two cans condensed vegetable soup, salt and pepper. It didn’t sound like much of a recipe to me but my next stop was Tybee Market. Much to my chagrin Linda was right. The stuff was the antithesis of what I’d remembered nearly half a century. Why was it so good back then and so bad now? “It’s because of Daddy,” she said. “He just made it seem so exotic and so wonderful with his story. But you didn’t know what was really in it. It wasn’t really exotic or wonderful at all.”

Well, here’s my take on Chief Kickapoo Stew that’s as good as the memory I’ve carried all these years.

(Editor’s comment: Billy’s recipe is written out in detail below – please, try it and let us know how you like it!)


4 chicken leg quarters, about three and a half pounds
1 pound chopped smoked pork (from your favorite barbeque joint,  or make your own, no sauce)
1 ½ pounds very lean ground beef
3 ½ cups chopped onion
2 -1 pound cans creamed sweet corn
1 -1 pound can whole kernel sweet corn
2 -14 ½ oz. cans diced tomatoes with juice
1 -14 oz. bottle ketchup
3 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Put the chicken in a pot and cover it with 1 inch of cold water. Bring to a boil and boil gently for ten minutes. Take the pot off heat and let stand forty-five minutes. Remove the chicken from the pot and reserve four cups of the stock.

Pour the stock into a large, heavy pot (not aluminum.) Place the onion and ground beef in the stock and bring it to the boil, breaking up the beef as you go. Turn down the heat and simmer until the meat is no longer pink.

Meanwhile when the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove it from the bone, discard the skin, and chop. You can use a food processor but don’t over process. Add the chopped chicken and pork to the pot. Add all other ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to very low and simmer an hour or so. Adjust seasonings. Stir frequently because this stew burns easily. It freezes well.

Bon appetit!


Billy Doniel is a published author and a gourmet cook. He and wife Veronica live on Tybee year round. You may contact Billy at

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3 Responses to “The Plumbline”
  1. V. Doniel says:

    Over the years Billy has shared many of his childhood memories with me and Cotton Harrison’s Camp is one of the top five. There is so much more to the story I wish he could share,it would take a book. Linda Cox’s parents enriched countless lives through their camp. Oh my, I think Americans like the Harrison family are on the endangered list. I can only say to my children and grand children this is the way things used to be.

  2. Deb (Chapman) Fagan says:

    What a wonderful recollection for stirring the child in me. I attended Cotton Harrison’s camp and to this day my most vivid childhood memories remain off of Zebulon Road – waiting for my name to be called during the lunchtime mail call, the little store where I replenished my daily supply of Sweetarts, playing fox and hounds where I received my first kiss (always a fox, never a hound), praying for the horse with the softest mouth, bragging about my pro-marksmanship, those biscuits, those biscuits, those biscuits. Thanks for sharing your memories. It made my day.

  3. Editor says:

    Thanks so much for the comments.

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