When the phone call came early that winter morning, notifying Randy Travalia that the business he had co-owned for more than 25 years had burned to the ground, shock was his only response.

A middle-of-the-night inferno had torched the Minnesota Horse and Hunt Club headquarters in Prior Lake last Dec. 31, and the next day, only smoldering ashes greeted club members when they arrived to shoot sporting clays or chase pheasants on the business’ 600 acres.

How the blaze started never was determined.

“After the fire, we had three choices,” Travalia said Monday while relaxing in the upscale new clubhouse that opened in September. “We could have closed the business and sold the land. We could have taken the insurance money and rebuilt a modest clubhouse.

“Or we could go to the bank and borrow enough money to build the type of clubhouse and event center we wanted.”

Travalia and his partner, Bill Urseth, chose the third option, a decision they say will prove profitable — but not as profitable as if they had developed the land for new homes.

The Horse and Hunt Club grounds represent Scott County’s largest contiguous, privately owned property.

“The problem with selling the land was that no one wanted to leave,” Travalia said. “We employ quite a few people, and it was never lost on us that for a long time, this place has been a melting pot where people of like interests could gather.”

Once called “game farms,” shooting preserves have long been a part of Minnesota history. Some, such as the Horse and Hunt Club, the Marsh Lake Hunting Club near Victoria and Wild Wings in Hugo, are membership organizations; others are not.

State shooting preserves have fluctuated in number over the years. In 2001, the Department of Natural Resources licensed 42 commercial shooting preserves. By 2006, there were 82. But in 2009, only 70 were licensed. Currently, there are about 60.

To qualify as a Minnesota commercial shooting preserve, at least 1,000 birds a year must be released. Private preserves — typically owned by an individual or small group — are allowed to “liberate” no more than 300.

By contrast, the Horse and Hunt Club will release as many as 40,000 pheasants, chukar partridge and quail annually for its 500 members.

“Years ago, hunting clubs were called ‘game farms’ for a reason,” Travalia said. “The pheasants being bred at the time were big, heavy and didn’t fly well. Some roosters weighed 4½ pounds. That’s all changed. Today’s birds are similar in size to wild birds, they’re flight conditioned, and wary.

“It’s now a much more wild-bird-like experience.”

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Close-to-home convenience, year-round shooting, and bird-abundant grounds on which to train sporting dogs are primary reasons people join preserves.

But whether these facilities rise and fall in popularity in sync with wild-bird numbers, opposite their increase or decrease, or irrespective of them is difficult to determine.

Most likely, each supports the other — in large part, as Travalia indicated, because hunting preserves offer places for people of like minds to gather, share stories and build relationships.

Some of the latter was evident Monday at the Horse and Hunt Club.

Walking stands of milo, corn and other cover, a smattering of members scoured the ground for released birds.

On the rifle range, a handful of long-gun shooters sighted-in their firearms in advance of the coming deer season.

And on the sporting clays course, a group of Minnesota Twins employees broke targets thrown at angles intended to simulate wild-bird flights.

When Urseth and his original partner, Corky Hall, bought the business in 1985 (Travalia purchased Hall’s share shortly thereafter), sporting clays didn’t exist.

Now it represents about a third of the club’s revenue.

“We’ll have 800 to 900 shooters out here every week in our spring sporting clays leagues,” said Travalia, who himself travels widely to shoot competitively.

Yet the hunting and sporting clays portions of the business weren’t the only reasons Urseth and Travalia borrowed money to build a new, expanded clubhouse.

The facility also is intended to accommodate the club’s growing banquet and event business.

“In our old clubhouse, our members sometimes were inconvenienced by a wedding party or other event we were hosting, because our restaurant and bar and our event room were on the same floor,” Travalia said. “Now we’ve completely separated them, with the banquet hall upstairs, and the hunter check-in, bar and restaurant downstairs.”

Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited and other conservation groups regularly hold fundraising banquets at the Horse and Hunt Club, which also plays host to up to 50 wedding receptions a year — sometimes as many as four in a weekend.

With the inclusion of an outdoor wedding pergola and seating area alongside the new clubhouse, that portion of the business is likely to expand.

Still, day to day, the majority of people who visit the Horse and Hunt Club do so with a gun in their hand, a dog on a leash — or both.

“Basically,” Travalia said, “the only reason we exist is to have fun.”


Dennis Anderson danderson@startribune.com