A Catskill Catalog: Feb. 24, 2010

There’s this great video posted on the video-sharing Web site YouTube. Go to YouTube.com and search for “1955 Game Warden.” You’ll find an eight-minute movie about the late Bryan Burgin of Margaretville.
Bryan Burgin was already a legend when I got to the mountains, widely known and respected as the founding father of hunter safety in New York State. A longtime game protector in the Central Catskills, Bryan had gone on to create and lead the state’s hunter safety training program, the first in the nation. Every New Yorker seeking a hunting license must take the certified Hunter Safety course and pass a final test to qualify for a first-time hunting license. Bryan Burgin started that.
Born in 1908, Bryan joined the NYS Conservation Department as a game protector in 1932. By 1947 his work in the Catskills was featured in an article in the Conservationist magazine, which reported his $2,200 annual salary, supplemented by $60 per month to cover expenses incurred carrying out his duties in his own personal automobile.
“A tough life, but a good one,” is the way Bryan characterized his career in “Life of a Game Protector,” appearing in the September ’47 issue of the magazine. Fifty-five years later the article was reprinted, as nostalgia, in the August 2002 issue.
Eight years after the original publication, the production company RKO-Pathe came to the Catskills to make Game Protector Burgin the subject of an eight-minute short in its Sportscope series. In the ’50s, shorts were a staple of the movie industry. A night at the movies might include a cartoon or two, a short or two, a news reel, a coming-attraction or two, and a movie or two.
The shorts were supposed to entertain and inform and, very often, transport an increasingly urbanized audience to simple times and pristine places. I had an uncle who was a great Gadabout Gaddis fan. He was able to bring home, and project on his living room wall, theatrical-release shorts of Gadabout, the Flying Fisherman, a kindly, adventurous, elderly gent who touched down his single engine Piper Cherokee at various backcountry wilderness spots to fish.
“Game Warden” reminds me of the Gadabout films, short, black and white movies where the natural setting and pastoral surroundings are featured players in a story that is more about where it happens than what happens.
For such a story, Bryan Burgin was the perfect leading man. A big man, tall, broad-shouldered, square-jawed, Bryan in his state game protector uniform was right out of central casting. I always thought he looked like John Wayne. He had the Duke’s solid-footed stance and stride, as well. When Bryan Burgin walked into a room, or, more importantly, up to a creek side, people took notice. He wasn’t intimidating – his manner was too dignified, too quietly self-assured for that – but imposing.
I took Hunter Safety with the late Jim Ferraro as instructor. Bryan made a guest appearance and presentation, and, I remember having a sense that we were getting gun safety from the source, like learning a little basketball from Dr. James Naismith.
Of course, Bryan already knew me. I was a new teacher at the school, and Bryan always took an interest in what was going on with the young people at the school. A new teacher would not have escaped his notice, and didn’t.
The short movie “Game Warden” begins at the Burgin house in Margaretville, where the smartly uniformed officer bids his wife good-day on the porch of their whitewashed country home, climbs in his solid four-door sedan, and heads for “the dappled stream and cool forest,” stopping, first, at the old wooden covered bridge in Dunraven that once spanned the East Branch.
Central casting couldn’t supply the actors to play the assorted fishermen, “timid city folks,” and various game-law violators featured in the film. RKO-Pathe resorted to extras, locals looking for a lark. That’s Ros Sanford fishing out his fishing license for Bryan’s perusal. He’s the late father of Catskill Mountain News publisher, Dick. Is that Ros’s father, the legendary publishing pioneer Clarke Sanford, next to him?
The deer poacher was played by Margaretville’s Burt Tubbs. Burt was a legend in his own right when it came to hunting and fishing. A Fleischmanns native who ran an Army-Navy surplus store on Main Street in Margaretville before going to work for the city, Burt taught the outdoor-arts to a couple of generations of locals. He was often the sportsman-source for Clarke Sanford’s outdoor observations in Clarke’s weekly column The Mountaineer.
Old-time locals will have fun trying to identify the rest of the cast.
The rest of us can simply enjoy the film’s evocation of the Catskills of another time, a time when everyone knew everyone else in small mountain towns, including the arresting officer and the poaching perpetrator. We’ll either be amused or outraged by the relocation of an offending beaver. Perhaps, we’ll be surprised by 1955’s standard of water fit for human consumption.
Certainly, we’ll be introduced, or re-acquainted, with a legendary mountain lawman, an important Catskill conservationist, Bryan Burgin.