GETTYSBURG (AP) – It’s not just the people in Gettysburg reeling this week after the tragic and sudden passing of one of their own.
But outdoorsmen, celebrities and high profile political players alike are also grieving the loss of Paul Nelson, someone they consider a visionary who transformed the pheasant hunting industry both in South Dakota and across the globe.
Nelson was killed after the recreational vehicle he was driving got swept up in a tornado near Miller last weekend. He was 73 and leaves behind a legacy as a farmer and business owner as well as a world-class hunting preserve outside of Gettysburg frequented by the who’s-who in both the country’s business and political communities.
While Paul Nelson Farm hunting preserve led to the Gettysburg native rubbing elbows with an elite class of clients, his friends say he was a humble person who was always learning, planning ahead and listening to others.
“Paul could walk with kings, and he could walk with beggars. He treated them all the same,” said Mike Bohnenkamp, a long-time friend of Nelson’s from Gettysburg. “He would visit with anybody and was friends with all stations in life.”
In the three decades he ran the lodge, Nelson walked with “kings” a lot.
Bohnenkamp said Nelson started his career in agriculture as a cattle rancher, but eventually switched to crop farming. In the early 1990s, he dedicated a portion of his Potter County property for raising pheasants and established a gaming lodge and hunting preserve.
Eventually, little by little, Nelson transformed his operations into one of the country’s most exclusive hunting getaways, attracting regular visits from notable celebrities and political figures like esteemed journalist and South Dakota native Tom Brokaw, former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem.
“He started off gradually and built it into a magnificent empire,” Bohnenkamp said. “It’s one of the, if not the best, and nicest preserves in the nation.”
Today, Paul Nelson Farm includes over 5,000 acres, 35 private sleeping rooms that each have private lavatories, and a long-distance rifle range. And with the dozens of employees who work there, it has resulted in a boon to the Potter County and Gettysburg economy.
Bohnenkamp said during pheasant hunting season, Paul Nelson Farm is among the largest employers in the area.
“He definitely supported his community and his church. He probably supported things more than people knew,” he said. “Because Paul was private.”
Like Nelson, his preserve was also private in a sense that clients could spend time there without having to worry about their whereabouts leaking out to the public. Often, someone like Cheney could be at the preserve for days on end without the locals realizing it, Bohnenkamp said.
In fact, following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, when members of President George W. Bush’s cabinet were flown to undisclosed locations, Cheney chose to hide out at Paul Nelson Farm, according to multiple people interviewed by the Argus Leader for this article.
It was that seclusion that led to the success of Nelson’s preserve.
“He’s kind of a legend in his time and what he’s done,” Brokaw said of Nelson during an interview with the Argus Leader. “That is a world-class pheasant lodge.”
Brokaw said Nelson paid attention to every detail and worked tirelessly to make his preserve a place his clients wanted to come back to.
“He was in the breakfast room every morning and in the dinner room every night making sure everything is what you want it to be,” he said.
Gov. Noem told the Argus Leader that Nelson was a friend to her and her family who helped showcase South Dakota to the rest of the world, calling him a “visionary.”
“He was a tremendous ambassador for our state and showed off the best wing shooting that South Dakota has to offer,” she said.