LELAND – The state’s first hunting and fishing museum opens its doors here Friday with a celebration that extends into Saturday.

The Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum celebrates the history, heritage and traditions of hunters, fishers and outdoor lovers. The grand opening this weekend is free to the public.

The museum houses two and three-dimensional exhibits, images, written narratives, and audiovisuals that tell the history of hunters, fishers, and the great outdoors. The different exhibits feature deer, alligator, bear, rabbit, raccoon, fish, quail, fox hunting, duck call makers, turkey call makers, history of bow hunting and more. 

Robert Hilt Neill, secretary of the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Foundation Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

“It’s preserving the history as well as the tools. It goes all the way from the Indians that hunted with spears and bows and arrows,” said Robert Hilt Neill, secretary of the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Foundation.  “We go back a long way and we trace the history of it.”

Some of the memorabilia and artifacts date back to days before recorded history while others are familiar to most Mississippi residents.

“The outboard boat motor collection goes from 1923 to 1965, so it shows the evolution of the outboard motors,” said Billy Johnson, president of the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Foundation. “It’s an interesting walk back through time for anybody in Mississippi. Just to see the history of the people that lived here in our state before us.”

Johnson said the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Foundation’s gift to the people is this museum and the history and stories told in it.

“We had one guy last week that came up here with a pickup load and said, ‘I bought the first ever trail camera that came out. Every time they’ve come out with a newer model, I’ve bought one and replaced it but never thrown one away’,” said Neill. “This is the story of the development of the trail cameras.”

Neill said people have donated a variety of items to the museum such as trophies, silver plates and dishware, and animals.

Establishing this museum in Leland has been a tedious and long journey, both said. The effort launched on June 26, 2013, according to Neill.

“It’s been a 10 year process of implementing a plan and getting a building and getting the funds to renovate the building,” said Johnson.

Johnson said over the span of 10 years, he’s collected artifacts, stories, and photos all over the state of the people they are honoring in the museum. He said it has taken a long time, but it’s “been a very rewarding, interesting journey.” 

The museum not only tells stories, but it educates the public about Mississippi and it’s natural resources, said Neill.

“My grandsons that are 10 and eight can come in here and see what a wild turkey looks like before they can go to the woods and see one,” said Neill. 

Johnson said the museum should be of interest to people all over the state.

“But I think if you love the outdoors, whether you like to canoe or camp or bird watch or whatever, I think it’ll be great to learn about our state’s outdoor opportunities,” he said.

Billy Johnson, president of the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Foundation Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

Johnson noted that “God blessed the state” with an abundance of natural resources and these resources created a culture of outdoor loving people.

“It may be 3 million people in Mississippi, and 727,000 hunt, fish, or both,” said Johnson. “It’s not just what we do, it’s who we are.”

Neill said this is a chance for people to see the value of the outdoors and appreciate the beauty of it.

“We have not only the privilege of going to the great outdoors and seeing nature like God intended it to be, but we also have a responsibility,” said Neill.  “The people who care about the game are not the people who live in Washington, D.C. or New York City, but they’re the people who are the hunters and the fisherman.”

Johnson said he hopes this museum will be an inspiration for generations to come.

“A lot has been written about the musicians and writers from Mississippi,” said Johnson. “We’ve got several outdoorsmen in the state in the national hall of fame and never been honored in the state of Mississippi, and I think that’s long overdue.”

The museum features Mississippi Outdoor Hall of Fame inductees. These people have paved the way for hunting, fishing, and outdoor-related industries. 

The first class of Hall of Fame inductees of 2014 included Holt Collier, who guided President Theodore Roosevelt on his famous black bear hunt near Onward; Fannye Cook, who wrote the state’s first game laws, Billy Joe Cross, wild game chef and author; Eddie Slater, famous for his fishing lures and products; Paul Elias, well-known bassmaster, and Preston Pittman, five time world champion turkey caller.

The class of  Hall of Fame inductees from 2015 included Henry Milner, a pioneer turkey call maker and hunter; Jack Dudley, the state’s first nationally known turkey hunter; Melvin Tingle, longtime host of Mississippi Outdoors, the state’s popular outdoor show; Bill Tinnin, dean of the Delta coon hunters; and Paul Ott, host of his own radio show, Listen to the Eagle, and a longtime voice for wildlife conservation.

The museum will offer seminars and programs for youth and others, said Johnson.

Outside of the Mississippi Wildlife Heritage Museum Credit: Aallyah Wright, Mississippi Today

A gift shop is located at the front of the museum. The funds from the shop will go towards the museum’s operating budget, according to a booklet about the museum.

Hours of operation are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday. After the grand opening, general admission is $10 dollars, $7 dollars for seniors and groups, and free for kids under 15 years of age.

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Aallyah Wright is a native of Clarksdale, and was a Mississippi Delta reporter covering education and local government. She was also a weekly news co-host on WROX Radio (97.5 FM) and collaborator with StoryWorks/Reveal Labs from the Center for Investigative Reporting. Aallyah has a bachelor’s in journalism with minors in communications and theater from Delta State University. She is a 2018 Educating Children in Mississippi Fellow at the Hechinger Report, and co-founder of the Mississippi Delta Public Newsroom.