By Grace Smith
||Each of Jerry Gardner’s products is carefully handmade and designed to meet “rigid specifications” so you don’t have to be a hunting enthusiast to appreciate his custom crafted calls and cutlery.
Armed with his daddy’s 16-gauge, double-barrel shotgun, Jerry Gardner set out to harvest his first wild turkey when he was just eight years old. When the dust settled and the smoke cleared, he had accomplished what he set out to do. But Jerry gained a whole lot more than just a turkey-hunting experience that spring day…he gained a love for the sport that would grow to become much more than a cherished pastime.
Gardner, a Shelby County native, took his passion and know-how to a whole new level in 1979 when he established Heart of Dixie Game Calls and Cutlery. Since then he’s dedicated his time to making turkey calls and deer hunting products for customers all over the United States including companies like Mossberg, Moultrie Feeders, BioLogic and Mossy Oak and for entertainers, senators and various governors. In fact, last year Jerry made 300 box calls and donated them to the Alabama Governor’s One-Shot Turkey Hunt. This year he and Jim Frost, the owner of Frost Cutlery, teamed up and put together a best-selling turkey call and a Turkey Skinner folding knife to donate to the event.
Jerry has made game calls for several celebrities including Hank Williams, Jr., Aaron Tippin, Gen. Norman Swartzkophf, Coach Pat Dye, Coach Gene Stallings and Coach Tommy Tuberville, just to name a few.
Each product made by Heart of Dixie Game Calls and Cutlery is carefully handmade and designed to meet "rigid specifications" so it doesn’t take a seasoned turkey hunter to appreciate Gardner’s custom calls. Gardner’s wife and co-owner of the company, Kris, explained quality and dependability are of utmost importance at Heart of Dixie.
"While many competitors are going overseas for lower priced goods, Jerry says that will never happen at our company," Kris said.
Jerry carefully hand paints turkey, deer, coyote, bear, wolf and various animal track designs onto the bone handles of his knives. He said this adds a special touch to the knives and makes them popular sale items.
Jerry gets prototypes made from original designs and then has a production run which is usually a 2,000-piece minimum. He said he has several people contacting him with great ideas for new products.
|Jerry Gardner presents Governor Bob Riley with a turkey call, but Riley is not the only notable owner of a Heart of Dixie game call. Celebrities like Hank Williams, Jr., Aaron Tippin, General Norman Swartzkopf and Coach Gene Stallings are some of Jerry’s other customers.
Jerry specializes in the "Camo Wood Box Call." This special order takes several weeks to complete, but he insists it is worth the wait. This call is designed specifically for achieving the desired sound and is crafted from an exclusive wood creation you’ll only find at Heart of Dixie.
The highly sought after "Dixie Darlin’ Box Call" is another of his top sellers. According to Jerry, this uniquely-designed call is made from exotic wood and produces such a distinct sound, it is receiving "rave reviews" nationwide.
Jerry’s expertise isn’t limited to game calls. Heart of Dixie also produces fine cutlery, and appropriately his first cutlery design was the Turkey Skinner. The late Ben Rodgers Lee of Coffeeville, a pioneer in the industry, worked closely with Jerry on the drop-point design, and Daniel Caudle of Clanton produced the prototype. Frost Cutlery’s Jim Frost liked the design and wanted to put the knife into production. But production was greatly limited after a tragic accident caused Lee’s untimely death. According to Jerry, that knife was the first made with Turkey Skinner etched on the blade and now, 17 years later, that same basic design has been modeled by other well-known knife makers and companies. Jerry has several designs on the market now, even a few in the well-known Hen and Rooster line of cutlery.
A few years ago, a back injury left Jerry out-of-commission for a lengthy time. During his time of recuperation, he embraced his Native American roots and learned the art of flint knapping. Jerry, a descendant of both Cherokee and Creek blood, with the help of Sylacauga resident, Drew Ellison, learned to make knives from flint just as our Native American ancestors did. He now makes these unique knives and sells them at Heart of Dixie. Jerry has been collecting Native American artifacts since he was ten years old and enjoys displaying pieces of his extensive collection at various outdoor shows across the United States.
Jerry is working on several designs right now and one of the most interesting designs is a metal blade knife that looks like a flint blade knife. He said since some flint knives can be fragile, the metal blade of this particular knife makes it more efficient at getting the job done but still gives the owner the feel of using flint.
Jerry’s knowledge of turkey hunting has presented him with many opportunities for leadership over the years. He is a life member of the National Rifle Association, North American Hunting Club, Buckmasters and a senior sponsor member of the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) which is the fastest growing wildlife conservation organization in the United States.
Having served on the organization’s state board of directors, Jerry and the NWTF have had a mutually beneficial relationship. He’s been involved with the organization since its inception in 1972 and having worked in commercial art, Jerry put the finishing touches on the artwork of the binder cover for the organization’s Turkey Call magazine. Many of his calls have been presented as special awards for some NWTF chapters. In fact, each year Jerry makes 75-100 calls for the Alabama NWTF chapter which are used for special recognition awards. When the organization held its first custom call-making contest, Jerry’s knowledge of turkey calls made him a logical judge for the competition serving alongside the late Earl Mickel, famed author and call collector from Beach Lake, Penn.
Jerry has also served as a judge for several turkey-calling contests including the Grand National Championship and the nation’s oldest competition, the World Turkey Calling Contest which is now in its 65th year.
Again teaming up with Earl Mickel, Jerry appeared in three books written by Mickel on turkey call collecting. According to Kris, Mickel’s first book initially sold for $14.95, but now the hard-to-find book sells for almost $900.00.
When Jerry harvested his first turkey at the tender age of eight years old, he had no way of knowing how the event would shape his career. But now, years later, he said he spent his whole life learning more about hunting and helping others discover the passion he’s found for turkey hunting.
"I have dedicated my life to learning about and teaching others about the sport of hunting the wild turkey and I enjoy seeing others have success by using my products," Jerry said. "When people tell me about their success, then it is all worth it."
Jerry’s business is located at Westover in Shelby County about 300 yards from his and Kris’s home. Many of his products can be found at Co-op stores across the state. For more information on Heart of Dixie Game Calls and Cutlery, visit www.heartofdixiegamecalls.com
Grace Smith is an associate editor for AFC Cooperative Farming News.