Local sportsman's clubs offer a number of outdoor activities

When mayhem hit, Darrell Ruch headed to the one place where he knew he would find comfort and solace – the Champaign Sportsman's Club near Mahomet.

"It's a lot like home to a lot of us," says Ruch, president of the sportsman's club. "It certainly means a lot to me."

It was on Sept. 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center towers were attacked, that Ruch decided the Sportsman's Club was the place he wanted to be. He's been going there since 1960 and a member since 1966 – so no wonder the place feels like home.

Sportsman's clubs are vestiges of an era when hunting was among the nation's top sporting activities. They also became popular places for target practice and to go trapshooting, and many even created fishing lakes for members.

Champaign County has three sportsman's clubs: the Champaign Sportsman's Club and Urbana Sportsman's Club, both near Mahomet, and the Sadorus Sportsman's Club near Sadorus. Initially, all three were formed to encourage hunting, even raising and releasing game such as pheasants.

Although hunting remains a popular sporting activity, it is no longer top dog, and some sportsman's clubs have put an emphasis on other areas, like camping.

The Champaign Sportsman's Club is among those. It was started after World War II by a group of veterans who wanted a place to hunt and fish. The group started meeting at a building on North Neil Street and later bought 18 acres on the east side of Lake of the Woods County Park near Mahomet.

"We started out as a sportsman's club for hunting and fishing. Until 1958, we raised pheasants here," Ruch, of Mahomet, says.

About 1960, then-club president Kelly Battenburg recognized that camping was on the upswing, with a nationwide surge in travel trailer sales.

"Camping was really coming on, and it was his idea to change it to more of a campground," Ruch adds.

Now the club draws the lion's share of its income from campers, and the campground is open all year. The Champaign Sportsman's Club can handle 180 campers and the campground is advertised in several camping directories, drawing travelers and camping clubs from around the country.

"We get to know each other's families, their children and grandchildren," says Ruch, a frequent camper himself. "It's more like a neighborhood – like neighborhoods used to be. Groups of people will sit around a campfire and just talk until midnight, 1 in the morning."

The camping fee is a bargain for club members at $5 per day; nonmembers pay $15 and full hookup is $18. Membership dues are $50 per year, with a $100 initiation fee. The club has approximately 160 members.

Dues at the Urbana Sportsman's Club are similar at $50 per year with a $50 initiation fee. The Sadorus Sportsman's Club remains the least expensive with dues set at $25 per year and a $50 initiation fee.

Both the Urbana and Sadorus sportsman's clubs also offer camping – and just like at the Champaign Sportsman's Club it is a popular activity at both. However, Urbana and Sadorus both keep an emphasis on target shooting, and trapshooting remains a primary sport at Sadorus. In addition, the two have fishing lakes that are frequented by fishermen.

Urbana is the oldest sportsman's club in Champaign County, formed in the early 1930s to improve pheasant hunting in the area. The group eventually bought 18 acres on what is now the west edge of Mahomet, off U.S. 150. The club has 200 members, with about two-thirds primary users of the shooting range and the other one-third making use of the campground and its 43 campsites.

"Sportsman's clubs mean different things to different people. For my family, the Urbana Sportsman's Club is a place to go camping and visit with people we've met out there. You sit around the campfire and talk or we might play a game of euchre. Everyone is very friendly. The camaraderie, that's what I enjoy," says Rex Pillow of Thomasboro, president of the club.

"It's a good place to bring your kids. We have a real family-type atmosphere and that's what we want it to be," he adds.

Camaraderie, too, is a hallmark of the Sadorus Sportsman's Club, with frequent activities at its clubhouse and grounds. It recently held a Las Vegas Night for members and before that a turkey shoot. The campground and target range also get lots of activity.

The club was formed in November 1956 and had its beginnings in Bill Wood's Sadorus tavern, Woody's. He still makes his home in Sadorus, but the bar is long gone.

"The guys kept saying, 'We ought to form a sportsman's club' – you know how bar talk is," Wood recalls. "They wanted a place to fish and hunt."

But the interest was there, and 35 people showed up for the initial meeting.

"Our first clubhouse was Willis Clark's turkey slaughterhouse in Pesotum. We bought it for $200 and moved it to Sadorus," Wood says.

Then, in 1958, the club bought 10 acres located about 5 miles southwest of Sadorus, which has expanded over the years to 16 acres. Members built a clubhouse, target range and put in a trapshoot. A 3-acre lake was constructed, too.

"I wouldn't attempt today to do what we did back then," Wood says. "You just couldn't get people to volunteer today for a project like that."

Sadorus is the largest sportsman's club in Champaign County with about 400 members.

"If we have a mission, that's to be a place where families and individuals can join and enjoy sporting activities," says president Larry Zahnd of Champaign.

Various activities also keep members of the Champaign Sportsman's Club busy. The organization hosts a number of meals at its rustic clubhouse and it even throws an annual parade.

"We have steak fries, country music shows, Memorial Day services, an annual ham and bean supper, a Thanksgiving dinner. We have an activity committee that plans our activities for the year and they are very creative. I'd say they are our most important committee," Ruch says.

"We have so many good members," he adds. "And they do so many good things."

You can reach Kirby Pringle at (217) 351-5222 or via e-mail at kpringle@news-gazette.com

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