When I heard this guy’s name, I knew I had to meet his mama. “It’s Soda,” he told me last spring when I met him at the Lake of the Ozarks, where he guided hunters during turkey season. “S-O-D-A, and my last name is Popp, P-O-P-P.” Soda Popp.
Soda’s mother is a 90-something, reed-like woman with a classic face, porcelain skin and sky-blue eyes. She delighted my friend Kathy Etling and me with stories she told on the bank of the Osage River on her property near Eldon, Mo.
Earlier, she had been waiting there for nearly 2 hours for us to show up. (We ran late because I had crawling around in the woods that morning, trying to sneak up on a few gobblers.)
She ultimately had given up on us and headed over to her other son’s place of business – a factory pig farm – to wait for us inside the air-conditioned building. We caught up with her there.
Her other son, Rado Popp, raises thousands of pigs each year for market. We stood inside the lobby area of his office, and looked through the window at hundreds of female piglets as they trounced and then, bounced off one another in their pens. Whenever a worker would enter through one of the side doors, all the piglets would freeze – as if playing a game of freeze-tag.
We headed down to the river to check the trotline that Rado had set earlier. On the way to the river, we drove by fields of wheat that had been fertilized with pig manure.
Rado, Soda, Kathy and I boarded the johnboat and set off to check the trotline. In fact, I did the work, pulling hand-over-hand along the rope until we’d get to another hook, where there would either be a piece of liver or a catfish. Soda pulled the catfish off the hook.
We were almost finished, when I let my mouth get the best of me – meaning that since I talk with my mouth and hands, I forgot to keep one hand on the line. I illustrated the point of a story I was telling by using both hands, dropping the line. The others just looked at me for what seemed like a minute of silence and then, started laughing.
Rado paddled us back to the shore and I had to run the line again. After checking the line, we visited with Mrs. Popp. I soon understood why she gave her sons such interesting names, because after talking to her, I wouldn’t have expected anything less.
Dorothy James (yes, related to Jesse) Popp worked alongside her husband at a grocery store they owned in Jefferson City, in the Lincoln University neighborhood, for several years. When he died in 1984, she set her sights on moving out to the family farm – a place she and her husband had visited for years. The farm had been in the Popp family since 1854.
Mrs. Popp loves the farm, maybe because she was raised on a farm near Vienna, Mo. – a section that ran for a mile on the Gasconade River. She recalled, “You couldn’t see a light. We were that isolated.” She described trotline fishing in the summertime, and going to dances with girlfriends.
After she married her husband, she learned to shoot. She said, “My husband and I hunted rabbits out here. I shot a .410. … After rabbits began to get pretty scarce, I started coon hunting. Then I raised coonhounds from pups, Black and Tans, and we got one from Arkansas and he was a white dog.”
Her husband had no desire to coon hunt, so she would take her gun and her dogs and head out into the night. She chuckled and said, “My husband stayed home all the time and kept the fire going while I was out coon hunting.”
Soda added, “She could walk you to death, I tell you what, when she was hunting coons.”
She took her sons along with her, and any of the boys in the community who were interested in learning to hunt. She said the most difficult part was trying to teach some of the boys how to cross the river.
She sold the coonskins and the family ate the meat. She said, “I love coon. I fix all my meat the same, just like beef.” Later she joked, “Now, one thing we didn’t eat was possum.”
Mrs. Popp also hunted squirrels. Her husband liked to hunt with her, and she must have been a marksman extraordinaire, for she recalled, “I killed 20-some squirrels one time out of a 25-shot box.” She says she did not have to practice, quipping, “I didn’t want to get any better!”
She quit coon hunting a couple of years ago, and lately has been going out into the woods less and less for deer and turkey hunting. She killed four deer two years ago, and when her sons asked her why she did not wait for a bigger buck to come along, she told them, “I don’t have time to sit out there.”
Her farmhouse walls – Soda likens the place to a living museum – were filled with family photos, plaques, mementos on shelves and big buck trophy heads.
Unfortunately, Mrs. Popp seems to be slowing down somewhat. She seems resigned to the fact that she cannot do what she used to do, saying, “I guess it just goes with age.”
Her attitude, though, remains youthful and strong. When asked what the men of her generation thought about her hunting, she joked, “They just had to get used to it.”
Published in May 2006.