St Croix River Road Ramblings

Welcome to River Road Ramblings.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

1940 Armistice Day Storm --Deer Story 3

Byron, VR, Russ, Marv, Ev and Alberta.  Photo by Marley Hanson

          Two days before Parkinsons disease took my Dad, VR’s life, in 2004, a little short of his 90th birthday, he told us his story of the great Armistice Day Storm of November 11, 1940 on the West Sterling Barrens.  The people in the story have all passed on now 65 years later so the crime we reveal in this story is no longer punishable by law!

          November had started with two warm weeks that fall.  Dad, his older brothers Alvin and wife Betty, Maurice and wife Myrtle, and Lloyd were wintering on the 260 acres their father owned as speculation land in the far NW corner of Sterling along the St Croix River.    They had three separate cabins each built with lumber sawed on the Hanson sawmill.  Alvin had kept a few cows and farmed the fields that summer. Maurice and Myrtle worked in the fire towers and for the Conservation Department.  Dad and Lloyd were just arrived from their father's farm to spend the winter trapping muskrats, beaver, skunks, mink, foxes along the St Croix.

          November 11 dawned mild and very wet.  Rain had saturated the sandy land so that as Dad and Lloyd headed out in the morning to Cushing to buy their winter food and supplies, all of the low spots in the road were under water.  On the way, they met town board members Clarence Westlund and Christ Christenson inspecting Evergreen Avenue.  

          "If you will take shovels and drain the puddles off of this road before they freeze and we are stuck with ice all winter, we will pay you double time for your effort." said Clarence.  "We will start right now" replied Lloyd borrowing shovels from the township. 

          By the time they had finished it was afternoon.  The rain had changed to heavy wet snow,  the temperature was dropping fast and the wind picking up. "We better get home while we still can" said Dad.  Dad was 26 years old.  He was proud of his used Model A Ford.  He had spent much of his summer farm wages for it and the new knobby tires on the back.  The Model A with its high clearance and narrow tires with big round knobs was thought to be a real winter car.  "I hope it doesn't snow us in for long--we need to get food" he added.  

          The car struggled over the hills until they finally made it home.   Maurice met them looking worried and asked Dad "Do you think you can drive over to Herman Brown's and pick up Myrtle?  She’s at Herman Brown’s cleaning turkeys for the Thanksgiving market.”  "I give it a try!" said Dad, looking forward to the challenge. 

          Plowing through snow higher than its bumper, the Model A chugged its way up the road.  The heater was barely noticeable and the manual windshield wiper kept one hand busy.  Myrtle was glad to see him.  She hadn't wanted to be snowed in away from home.  Sterling Township's old truck with its homemade wooden snowplow was unlikely to get the roads cleared any time soon.  Getting home was even harder.  A few of the hills took several tries to get over, but finally about 4:00 they were home with the Dad and the Ford both proving their mettle.  

          Deer hunting season was still a week away.  The brothers had their guns, knives and equipment ready and each hoped to get a deer during season to help feed them during the winter.  Alvin came over from his cabin to visit Dad and Lloyd who were stoking the fire in their tar paper covered cabin.  "It looks like we are going to be snowed in for a long time" he commented looking at snow already over a foot deep and drifting.  "If you guys are short on food, let's go see if we can get a deer. There is no chance Weitz will be out today!" he chuckled referring to Chauncey Weitz, the game warden who kept a tight rein on deer poaching in the Barrens.

          Alvin was mad at the deer. He raised corn and hay on his Barrens fields along the river that summer for his few cows and team of horses.  The deer had nearly cleaned out his corn with dozens in the fields each evening all summer long.  Even after he had it in the shock they used their horns to rip them apart.  There were no deer damages paid in those days so the farmers took all of the loss themselves. 

          The Conservation Dept (now DNR) was not very popular in West Sterling.  Sportsmen from all over Polk County and beyond came to the Barrens to hunt deer, about the only place they were still found at that time.  The wardens patrolled the Barrens trying to keep deer for the outsider sportsmen to have something to hunt.  The local people, many driven to the Barrens by the Depression, felt they should have first crack at the deer for feeding them year round, but rarely dared take a chance.  Wardens would come right into your house without a warrant and search it for signs of a fresh kill.     

          Dad and Lloyd headed down into the swamps along the river on their big property, jump starting the deer hunting season by a week.  The heavy woods blunted the wind, but the snow was deep and falling steadily as was the temperature.  Dad was still single.  He hoped to make enough money that winter trapping along the St Croix to make a down payment on a farm of his own next summer.

          Muskrats sold for 60 cents; skunks $1.00; mink $15; the rare otter, beaver, fox, or weasel somewhere in between.  Good days, he and Lloyd might get 10 'rats along the St Croix and maybe a mink in one of the many springs flowing down the hill along the river.  This was at the time when farm work paid $1.00 per 12 hour day when you could get it.  

           The wind howled overhead, but the forest floor was sheltered and white, deep with heavily falling snow making it difficult to see ahead.  Dad stumbled on a deer bedded down and almost invisible just ahead.  He raised his rifle and shot at what he thought was the head.  Turns out it was the tail.  The deer jumped up, and took off, obviously wounded.  Dad quickly followed and followed and followed for the next hour or more.  There was blood, but the track filled in with snow almost as quickly as it was made. Finally just as it got dark, totally lost, but still following the track, he stumbled out on a road.   

          He knew he had to get home soon as it was truly getting cold now and in the open the wind was bitter, blowing snow so you barely could see ahead.    He was pretty sure he was on the north-south road past their cabin, and guessed he should go to the right.  He headed off with the assurance of youth and soon was at home telling his story!

          Alvin said "If you remember where you came on the road, the deer probably will be just across it. We will look tomorrow. A wounded deer beds down as soon as he stops being chased--especially in this kind of weather!"

          Next morning the snow had let up some.  It was two feet deep and drifted higher in places. Winter had dropped in all of a sudden blanketing green grass and unfrozen ground.   The deer was dead, just into the woods as Alvin thought it would be, a mile up the road.  To foil the Warden, they field dressed the deer, carefully covered the gut pile with snow and smoothed it out. Each carried part of the small buck on their shoulders carefully stepping into the same tracks making it look like a single person had walked there.  With the wind still blowing, the single track disappeared quickly leaving no trace for the Warden Weitz to drive by and see any signs of activity.  An almost perfect crime! 

          A few days later the temperatures warmed and the snow melted.  By the day before hunting season, all of it was gone.  Deer season would bring dozens of hunters swarming into the surrounding woods and the Warden haunting the roads.

           All of the snow had melted except a set of foot high hard packed ice footsteps leading from Dad's cabin to a pile of deer guts in the woods!  "We spent all day trying to get rid of those ice blocks" he laughed as he told us the story, "the best laid plans of mice and men mostly go astray!"

          Dad did make his down payment on a farm near Bass Lake next year, married and settled down to a life free of crime for the next 63 years.  His sons followed his example and except for spearing suckers in Wolf Creek 40 years ago have been free of crime themselves!