Fur, Fish And Game

My main interest during my teen years, when I was almost completely isolated from the world, was trapping skunks, raccoons, mink, weasels, and (mostly) muskrats; but I only trapped on our own land and the volume was limited. [20.128-6]

We always imagined that every hollow tree was full of 'coons and John Knutson (who was older than Pa) got a bright idea when I was about 14. In October he borrowed a pair of pole climbers for me so I could climb the hollow trees. There were hollow trees, old broken off ones or with holes high up in them, all over between their place and Ask Lake and in Teisbergs' woods. He and I took Perley along and went 'coon hunting.

I must have climbed 50 to 100 hollow trees and looked down into them with a five-cell flashlight, but we didn't find a single 'coon. They weren't as plentiful then as now and they were probably all lying out in the cattails on muskrat houses that time of the year.

He and I tried going through the woods at night, too, and Perley did a lot of running and sniffing around, but she didn't tree any 'coons. We needed a hound with a better smelling and tracking instinct. [20.135-1]

John Knutson came over to our place the day I trapped my first 'coon and he said, "Don't waste all that meat." We hadn't thought of eating it. The next day I was going to work for him, driving the horses while he held the handles on the brush breaking plow, so I took the 'coon meat along. Mrs. Knutson roasted it, with dark brown gravy, and I thought it was the best thing I ever ate. [20.135-2]

The fall after raccoons ate 28 of my ducks, the Bjork Brothers, from near Battle Lake. came down with three mongrel dogs and turned them out in the cattails. The 'coons were sleeping on the muskrat houses. The dogs would get near one and surround it and there would be a real dog and 'coon fight in the water until one of the boys would wade out in hip boots and shoot it. Then the dogs would take after another one. [20.134-5]

Perley ran down there, too, and got right into the melees. Perley wouldn't go a foot out into open water for a duck or pheasant but she plowed through any amount in the cattails after 'coons. [20.134-6]

The Bjorks shot eight duck-fed 'coons. They gave us four of them, for which we got $32 -- more than the ducks were worth then. Also they skinned them right there and we got all the 'coon meat. We really liked roasted 'coon meat by them. We worked harder then and got hungrier than now. [20.134-7]

Fur farming was a new industry that was just getting started, so I thought that's what I would do. I sent for every fur magazine and fur farm equipment catalog I could find and had visions of all the hillsides covered with steel pens full of every kind of fur animals, like the pictures I had seen in the magazines. [20.128-7]

Fur prices were considered really high then (1924 to 1928): $1.50 for skunks and average muskrats, $8 for raccoons, $20 for mink and silver fox. Breeding stock was selling for up to $1,500 a pair. Everyone had the fur farming fever and people all over the country were starting out with wild-caught animals for breeding stock. [20.129-1]

Pa and Ma were cooperative. They were in favor of me getting something of my own to keep me interested in staying home and doing the farm work. [20.129-2]

Evidently some fence manufacturer promoted the idea that all you had to do was fence a slough, let the muskrats multiply, and then reap the harvest. Leonard and Sydney Ellingson fenced the slough across Highway #78 from us and another group fenced the big slough on the left side of the road about four or five miles north of us.

The nearer fence cost about $1,000 and the bigger one up north about $1,500. It was made of heavy wire netting with 1" x 2" mesh, four feet high and buried a few inches in the ground. There was a 12" band of sheet metal at the top and two or three barb wires above that on steep posts. The tin was fastened to the netting and barb wire every few inches with hog rings. [20.129-3]

The muskrats did multiply, but there was almost no feed for them in those sloughs without any cattails. Apparently no one thought of that. One fall the slough was just boiling with muskrats, but they didn't harvest any. In the spring not a muskrat was swimming when the ice went out.

The whole deal was a complete fiasco; they took up the fence and sold it, for various uses, a little at a time. (We still have some of it that we used for gates and a 'coon pen for pets, etc.) [20.129-4]

Others got burned in a big way when the Depression hit and they were stuck with silver foxes, etc. that had cost them a fortune. Even bankers got caught, as city people invested in the $1,500-a-pair breeding stock and put them out on farms for the farmers to raise on shares. [20.129-5]

My first animals in confinement were three skunks. I caught them in traps up on Bert Lee's farm along the south side of Beaver's mallard slough. I brought them home, one at a time in a gunny sack, and put them in a brooder house where the shop is now. I didn't tell anyone what I was doing.

(I smelled awfully "skunky," but I usually smelled "skunky" during the trapping season anyway. I had to leave my "outside overalls" outside, of course, but people weren't as sensitive about smells in those days.) [20.129-6]

There was a knothole in the brooder house about two inches across and Pa noticed that Perley, our little black and white dog, would stand completely motionless for long periods with her nose in the knothole, smelling the good, rich skunk air. That's how the truth came out.

The skunks got out, too. One night they squeezed out through the bottom of the door, which only had a latch near the top, and got away. One even went clear back to the original den and got back in the same trap. It got skinned that time. [20.130-2]

Once I even caught a spotted skunk (we called them "civet cats") -- the only one I ever saw. They are only about the size of a big squirrel and have rows of white spots down their backs, where regular skunks have stripes. They smell the same as skunks, too. [20.130-1]

One night I met a skunk out in the open while I was checking muskrat traps in the dark with a flashlight early in the spring. I killed the skunk with a stick and took it home and skinned it. That was the worst I ever smelled, but it was "honorable work" so Ma put up with it. She squawked a lot, but there wasn't much she could do. [20.130-3]

We had a stack of silage on the field behind the schoolhouse that year and after I skinned the skunk we went to town and got a load of that steamy silage. We went up to the Elevator to get something on the way home and you should have heard Gilford Slotsve, the Elevator man, holler about how I stunk. He said he had never smelled anything so strong as that particular combination of skunk and hot silage. [20.130-4]

About two o'clock one summer morning, sometime before the fur farming started, Perley was going crazy barking up an old oak tree about 10 feet from the east side of the house. I went out with a flashlight and saw that she had a yearling 'coon up the tree. I tied the dog to the tree and she and the 'coon were still there when we got up in the morning. [20.131-4]

I wanted to catch the 'coon alive and make a pen for it, so I put on a pair of heavy, leather mittens and a lined overall jacket to protect my arms and climbed up the tree and grabbed the 'coon. He bit so bad I couldn't hold him and he jumped.

Dog and 'coon went 'round and 'round until I could get down. They were half way across the yard when I grabbed the 'coon by the tail. He swung up and grabbed me around the wrist with his front feet. My sleeve slid up and I was getting bit and clawed something awful on the wrist while I beat him over the head with my other fist.

Pa came running with a steel barrel and I shook him loose into that. We were half way to the slough by that time. [20.132-1]

I had to go to the gravel plant with the team on the stripping crew that day, so we put an old door over the barrel and some big rocks on top. We had planned to build a pen that night, but the poor 'coon died during the day, probably from the beating I had given him, so I didn't get that one for my fur farming beginning. [20.132-2]

The summer I was 14, I ordered two steel pens to raise raccoons in and built four double mink cages. I had a pair of young "ranch raised" raccoons shipped down from Park Rapids ($25 for the pair) and bought a pair of "wild caught" mink for $25 each from Andy Bjork at Battle Lake. Their teeth were all broken off from biting the traps, but they were okay that year. [20.130-5]

When I had just the first two wild-caught mink, the male lifted the door on his cage and slipped out. The next morning, he was missing and Perley was running back and forth between the mink yard and the chicken house with her nose on the ground.

The middle section of that long shed had a dirt floor and the foundation was all undermined with rat runways. We figured the mink was in them. The shed was vacant, so we started digging and undermining the foundation, following whichever hole Perley kept her nose in.

First we came to a fresh-killed rat, so we knew we were on the right track. Then we got close to the mink and he squealed. I had read of a similar case where they dug out a mink and it had run into a stove pipe, so we lined up a rusty 10-gallon milk can and dug until the mink came out. It ran right into the can. All we had to do was tip the can up, slam the cover on, and dump the mink back into the cage. [20.132-3]

The next spring the male died and I got another one shipped from North Dakota. He was from "super ranch raised extra dark" Alaska stock and I paid $35 for him. The usual price was $50, but he was extra cheap because another mink had bitten his tail off when he was a kit. [20.130-5]

I rode along with Nels Eian, Sr. on a fur buying trip and got another "wild caught" female raccoon for $10 up by Erhard. She had young ones the next spring, but she was nervous and killed a couple of them when they were about two weeks old. We rescued the other two and fed them with a spoon. (There are pictures of them in the old photo album.)

"Henry" Robertson (Donovan Robertson's dad) was having trouble with 'coons killing his turkeys that spring, so he fenced them in with an eight-foot fence to keep the turkeys in and the 'coons out. Later he discovered that he had fenced the hollow tree the 'coons lived in inside the turkey pen. [20.131-1]

He nailed a board over the hole high up in the tree where the 'coons went in and out, sawed the tree down, and quickly nailed a board across the hollow bottom. He called Fred Johnson, the game warden. Fred picked me up, along with some kind of a cage I had, and we went up there to capture the 'coons so I could buy them. I don't remember how we got them into the cage, but we got a big, old, battle-scarred mother and four young ones -- turkey fed and healthy. I had added another big steel 'coon pen, which was empty, so I had a place to put them.

One morning the old mother was gone. I hadn't wired the joint between the added pen and the other one well enough, and she had forced a hole and crawled out.

The young ones were still in the nest box, so I fixed the hole and set traps along the outside of the pen, assuming she would be back for them. I was right. She was waiting patiently in a trap the next morning. Back in the pen she went, and stayed. She was tamer than a lot of pen-raised 'coons and would even eat right out of my hand. After all, she had been living and raising her family less than 50 feet from the Robertsons' house and probably considered herself almost one of the family. [20.131-3]

In two years, my stock increased to 10 mink and 11 raccoons. Then the Depression hit and they were hardly worth skinning. We skinned them all anyway, but that was the end of my fur farming dream.

Several years later I managed to sell my pens to a big fur farmer at Pelican Rapids for 60 percent of what they cost, which was the same cut people with money in the bank took when the banks closed. [20.132-4]

I was allowed to go ice fishing, in the daytime, both before and after I quit school. Nobody had houses for angling then, and there were just a few spearing houses on Sewell and some of the other lakes. We stood out on the ice all day, or had a sled to sit on and a bonfire to keep our hands thawed out, and to keep the minnows from freezing.

One Saturday I met "Solly" Boe to fish on Pelican Lake, about a half mile east of Carl Peterson's. I walked over there, pulling a sled with a wooden apple box tied on it, across Ask Lake and through the brush up across the railroad track (there wasn't any highway there then), sat out there all day from 10 'til 5 or so, and then walked home again. If I remember right, I caught a perch and a small pickerel. (They hadn't "invented" Northern Pike yet.) [20.140-5]

Sometimes I rode horseback and sometimes I drove a horse and cutter to fish on the narrows. I would leave the horse tied to a tree up in the woods on the Springen farm and walk across the field to the narrows. It was hard to carry minnows on horseback. [20.141-1]

Harold Skaar was just a little kid, probably a 3rd or 4th grader then, but he would walk from town down to the narrows every Saturday to fish. One time I caught up to him and gave him a ride. He had fallen in the deep snow and spilled all the water out of the half-gallon syrup pail that held his minnows. He had put some snow in with the minnows. "I thought that was a sensible thing to do, don't you?" he said. [20.141-2]

During the "dry years," Pelican Lake got so low that all the fish died and there wasn't any fishing there for several years. [20.141-3]

Some years later, when the rains came and the lake filled up, there was fantastic perch fishing for a while. Then the "Northerns" came and I suppose they gobbled up the perch. The fishing was fantastic when they opened up the season for them. (I once caught a 13-pound Northern on a line through the ice in the narrows and speared a 13-pounder out from the road a ways, about half way along Pelican Lake to the Ashby Motel. [20.141-4]

Howard Melby and I used to go spearing suckers in the spring. We would get up about 3:30 a.m. and be out to the creeks before daylight to get those that had come into the creeks during the night and were hiding in the deeper holes. [20.142-3]

(I couldn't have the Model T pickup to drive after dark, but I could take it fishing before daylight. Ma must have thought the dark wasn't as bad toward morning.) [20.142-4]

I would set the alarm and always wake up and Howard was always ready, with his hip boots on. But when we took Norman Peterson along, their house was always dark when we came. Howard knew which was Norman's room, so we would get one of his dad's cane fishing poles off the nails on the garage wall and hit his window to wake him up, and wait for him to dress. I suppose he had been out walking or driving around with girls for hours after we were in bed. [20.142-5]

One day in the fall, Howard and I decided to drive all the roads in the country and look for skunks in the culverts. This was before the Depression and skunks were worth about $1.50 then. We were going to drive my Model T one day and his Model T the next day, but the day he was going to drive he suggested that we drive my car, because it had a box on it instead of a back seat, and he would buy the gas.

We drove all that day, had our "dinners" with us, and we didn't find any skunks. I suppose a lot of other trappers had already looked in those culverts. We did find a dead raccoon in one. (It had probably been chased by dogs and crawled in there to die.)

That night Howard handed me 50 cents for the day's gas. [20.142-6]

I decided early in life that partnerships were poor ships. Pa used to quote someone who said, "Relationships were poor ships to ride on." [20.143-1]

When we first moved to the farm there were rabbits in the woods everywhere and up in the Lee and Skaar woods there were a lot of snowshoe rabbits (hares). That is the only place I knew of where there were any "snowshoes." [20.141-5]

Down in Melby all the local "sportsmen" formed a rabbit hunting club and hunted rabbits all winter with shotguns. They formed two teams and the team that shot the fewest rabbits had to treat the other team to a steak dinner in the spring.

They ran over the whole country and through everybody's woods just like they owned them. They got a little money for the rabbits. I don't know where they were shipped to or what they were used for. They got so many points for each cottontail they shot and about five times as many points for each jackrabbit.

Then they discovered the "snowshoes" up in the Lee woods and decided to give the same number of points for "snowshoes" as for jackrabbits. Whole gangs of them would pour through those woods on Sundays, shooting "snowshoes." We haven't seen a snowshoe hare since. [20.141-6]

During the Depression, someone in Fergus got the bright idea to have the sportsmen's clubs shoot rabbits and bring them to a certain place where poor people could come and get them to eat. The Journal never did report whether the poor went for the idea and ate the rabbits or not. [20.142-1]

Pelican Lake got so low in the thirties they could drive cars right across the narrows and also over to Little (Bird) Island on the sandbars. Even our slough got so dry that we could shoot pheasants and walk right across where the water is now to pick them up. [20.152-5]

Pheasants were introduced to this country a few years before that and conditions were ideal to start with: no rain to spoil the eggs in the nests, few natural enemies (no foxes, few 'coons and skunks), lots of weeds, and little snow in the winters. They got so thick that there was a pheasant hiding in every little clump of grass. We ate pheasants by the dozens, baked with cream. I would just run along a fence or along the lakeshore and Perley would smell them out and flush them. [20.152-6]

I never was a sport hunter, just a meat hunter. It didn't take long to get two to five with just the old single barrel shotgun, and I missed a lot of them, too. [20.152-7]

I finally talked Pa into looking for a double barrel in Fergus one day. He didn't want to waste any of the few precious dollars he had on a gun, but he finally relented and we found the Hackett Special Double Barrel 12-gauge (second hand) in the Gamble store in Fergus. He finally bought it after he worked the price down to $9.75. [20.153-1]

I don't think I ever shot a duck on the wing. I was only looking for ducks to eat and I crawled miles on my stomach to line up sitting ducks and try to get two or three with one shot. I doubt if I got very many more ducks or pheasants (either one) with the double barrel. Also, with Perley being so scared of water, I had to be careful and only shoot ducks on shallow water where I could reach them with hip boots. [20.153-2]

We had a couple of little pet 'coons that we took in the house. They climbed up the curtains and across the windows and down the other side. We got by with that, too. It seems Ma was a lot more tolerant of animals than she was of us. They must have been cuter. [20.172-6]