Updated: Oct 21, 2019
With an inherited fortune and an appetite for adventure, Tippah County land baron Paul J. Rainey made the most of his 46 years. He hunted wild game in Africa and the Arctic, was a pioneer in wildlife documentary filmmaking, and kept the town of New Albany thriving with industry and a grand hotel. Rainey died in 1923, but his legacy and part of his former estate, Tippah Lodge, remain, along with tales of his fascinating life.
Written by Keith Gore Wiseman | Photographed by Joe Worthem | Historical photos provided by Steve and Rosa Bolin and Union County Heritage Museum
Paul James Rainey was a millionaire playboy who did everything all the way. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1877, Rainey inherited millions from his family’s coal and coke businesses, and he spared no expense pursuing his passions, which included hunting, photography, dogs and horses. His affinity for hunting dogs led him to Mississippi and the establishment of Tippah Lodge.
His siblings referred to him as “Poor Paul,” because his wealth was decreasing while they worked to increase theirs, but Rainey’s wealth appears to have been ample. And although his life was quite short, he certainly made the most of his money.
Legend has it, Rainey fell in love with north Mississippi while hunting in the area. He began buying land in Tippah County, and hiring locals by the hundreds. In 1901, he built Tippah Lodge. It was the first home north of Jackson to have electricity and indoor plumbing. It is said that Rainey had an indoor, heated swimming pool, a 50-stall, round polo barn, and a private rail car siding between Ripley and Cotton Plant. Rainey was known to host extravagant parties there, and even built a hotel in New Albany to house his guests.
Tippah Lodge was originally a ramshackle farmhouse, which had been expanded by adding onto the front, back and both sides by local carpenters. It did not compare with Rainey’s mansion in Long Island, his English country house, or his estate in Africa, and the land surrounding it was about half the size of his 23,000-acre duck-hunting marsh in Louisiana. But then, Tippah Lodge was an outpost, not a permanent residence. With his hunting and partying headquarters established, Rainey got on with his pursuits.
Jill Smith is director of the Union County Heritage Museum in New Albany, which has archived an extensive collection pertaining to Rainey.
“It’s quite a story,” Smith said. “Rainey was entertaining sportsmen in the trophy room at Tippah Lodge, and floated the idea of hunting wild game in Africa with dogs. Local consensus was that lions would surely wipe the dogs out, but Rainey decided to try it.”
Rainey hired Er M. Shelley, a Michigan-born dog trainer, and a local teenager, Roy Stewart, to work dogs with him on a 2½-year safari in Africa. Shelly wrote about the trip in “Hunting Big Game With Dogs in Africa,” which he published in 1924.
Lila Stewart, Roy Stewart’s daughter-in-law, is a retired teacher who lives in New Albany. Lila maintains an extensive family archive, including photos and mementos from Roy’s travels with Rainey, plus stories and items she has compiled relating to Tippah and Union counties.
“With only a sixth-grade education, Roy came home one night and told his family he was leaving for Africa with Paul Rainey,” Lila said. “We know more of the story from Shelley’s book than from Roy, because he didn’t talk much about it. In fact, he didn’t talk much about anything!”
Shelley went ahead to Africa to condition dogs and horses and equip the hunt. He brought over a “well-broken pack of bear dogs” from Mississippi, and he received over 20 young, green hounds from Mississippi in the charge of Roy Stewart. Needing horses, he went to the race track and bought “all the winners of the principal events.” He also hired more than 100 porters, 16 pack mules, a wagon pulled by 18 oxen and a six-mule dog dray to support the expedition. Despite the skepticism, Rainey was so successful hunting with his Mississippi dogs, the practice was eventually outlawed because it was too lethal.
While Rainey took down game in great numbers, he also brought back live specimens over the years, and donated them to the Bronx Zoo, including two polar bears from his arctic expeditions. Rainey was also a pioneer in wildlife documentary filmmaking. The first of three such films, “Paul J. Rainey’s African Hunt,” released in 1912, ran for more than a year and grossed at least a half a million dollars.
Seemingly charmed lives are often short, tragic and mysterious, and Rainey’s was no exception. Rainey met his end aboard ship while returning to Africa with his paramour, May Peters Graham, her sister, his own sister and friends.
Legend has it that Rainey confronted another passenger for being too familiar with Graham, and the man hexed him, saying Rainey would be dead by his next birthday. Rainey retorted his doubt as he would be 46 on the morrow, but, die he did. His family made no public announcement of the cause of death, and he was buried at sea, so wild theories flourish about his death to this day.
Rainey’s devotion to wildlife lives on, now in connection with conservation. The 26,000-acre Paul J. Rainey Wildlife Sanctuary in Louisiana, owned by the Audobon Society, was established a year after his death. A decade later, his sister, Grace Rainey Rogers, commissioned renowned sculptor Paul Manship to create the Rainey Gates at the north entrance to the Bronx Zoo.
Tippah Lodge today is the home of Steve and Rosa Bolin, who are just completing a round of renovations that include Rainey’s trophy room, where his African odyssey began.
"We always passed the house and liked it, but we had not heard of Paul Rainey," Steve Bolin said. "We drove up the driveway one day and asked the owners if they would like to sell it. Then we learned that this was Rainey's headquarters, and that just 100 acres of the 12,000 he owned remained. We are restoring it to maintain that history, and we call the place the Rainey Plantation."