The Tragic Death of Nettleton the Forester
On a clear late November afternoon two days before the start of the Wisconsin deer season in 1937, Royal Nettleton, 29, a Nicolet National Forest junior forester, climbed a tree.
He was creating a map of the area and wanted to orient himself by looking for the tallest landmark in the area, the Jones Dam fire tower—the newest of 16 observation towers recently built on the Nicolet—when he heard two rifle shots in quick succession. The first was accompanied by the whine of a bullet; a second bullet tore through his upper right thigh leaving an 8-inch hole and Nettleton yelled out “you shot me” as he fell 8 feet to the ground. In agony, blood spattering the snow, he cried out for help but there was only one other person within the sound of his voice and there would be no help.
Earlier in the afternoon Nettleton had been chatting with employees of the Menominee Bay Shore Lumber Company at their camp located off the Quinlan railroad spur two miles south of the small town of Long Lake in Forest County. He left the camp about 2:30 p.m. to begin working on a fire detection map—a basic map that required no fancy surveying equipment, just a compass and sight observations—as part of his forester duties. Nettleton had driven about half a mile north of the camp, then walked part of the railroad spur and into the woods where he found a large tree to climb.
In a heartbeat the young forester was fighting for his life. Bewildered and in intense pain, Nettleton managed to walk and then crawl towards his pickup truck, crying out for help along the way. Leaving behind a trail of blood, Nettleton managed to travel nearly a quarter of a mile before two lumberjack brothers found the severely injured man and brought him to the logging camp. From there he was rushed to the hospital at Stambaugh (today incorporated into Iron River), Mich., about 40 miles away.
The rifle bullet had passed through Nettleton’s thigh, pushing muscle tissue out from the exit wound. He had lost a terrific amount of blood before arriving at the hospital. The massive wound had destroyed blood flow to Nettleton’s thigh and gangrene began to set in. It wasn’t long before the green-black tide of decay began to reach out from the wound to his entire leg. The limited capacity of 1937 medicine could not stop the progression. Within three days of being shot out of a tree Royal Nettleton was dead.
Royal M. Nettleton—known as Roy to friends and co-workers—came to Wisconsin from his hometown of Eugene, Ore., to work for the Nicolet National Forest in 1933. A graduate of one of the United States’ premier forestry programs at Oregon State University (OSU) in Corvallis, Nettleton’s career path seemed destined to align with the U.S. Forest Service. As an undergraduate “Fernhopper” (the name OSU forestry students gave themselves) in 1931 he had written an undergraduate thesis—a Bachelor’s degree requirement—titled “Personnel Problems in the Forest Service.”
The thesis was a very detailed and oftentimes critical assessment of existing Forest Service personnel practices. Young Nettleton was a strong proponent of a well-trained and professional work force filled with people, like him, who were enthusiastically committed to the profession of forestry. He felt that by doing a better job of recruiting and selection the agency would “secure good men from the start.” In a section on “weeding” he wrote, “The bolshevick [sic], shirker, untrustworthy, and troublesome man cannot be tolerated.”
The local newspaper, The Eugene Guard, reported in March of 1931: “Royal Nettleton of Eugene, senior in forestry at Oregon State college, was one of 20 seniors in the school of forestry who took the junior forester examination given recently. This examination is given once a year to the graduating seniors and those ranking highest in the examination are eligible for the United States forestry service.”
Bright and energetic, Nettleton made the grade. Hired as a Junior Forester he was posted to the recently established Nicolet National Forest.
In the early 1930s the Forest Service system of lands in Wisconsin was rapidly enlarging. The Weeks Act of 1911 had enabled the agency to purchase lands—a great step beyond carving federal forest out of existing public domain lands—and in Wisconsin the Forest Service was purchasing, generally for a dollar or less an acre, the cutover, fire ravaged and abandoned remains of the big lumber woods. In an era of increasing national conservation awareness, the goal of the Forest Service was to stop the fires, protect the fire scarred soils, and reforest the devastated landscape while providing for multiple uses by the public.
In December of 1928 the acquisition of 151,680 acres, known as the Oneida Purchase Unit, was approved for lands in Oneida, Forest and Vilas counties. In the spring of 1932, 68,000 acres were added to the Oneida Unit and nearly 205,000 acres made up an Oconto Unit. While the Chequamegon National Forest had been established in 1929— headquartered in Park Falls—the Nicolet National Forest was created in 1933 in order to better manage the freshly acquired lands in northeastern Wisconsin. The first headquarters of this new National Forest were humble—rented office space above DeByle’s department store in downtown Rhinelander.
There was a lot to be done and Roy Nettleton came to northern Wisconsin ready to pitch in. The immediate need was management of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps. The program established by FDR in 1933 would provide armies of young men for the heavy lifting—the muscle to build roads, trails and campgrounds and plant millions of trees. The US Army was busy building the camps to house the “boys” and the Forest Service was charged with providing the supervision and technical skill—superintendents, foresters, engineers and construction foremen. Eventually the Nicolet would have over 20 CCC camps—about 200 men per camp— spread across the Forest. The ambitious Nettleton began at the Scott Lake Camp near Three Lakes as a Junior Forester and quickly advanced to the Superintendent position. From Scott Lake he transferred to the Long Lake camp.
The move to Long Lake began Nettleton’s fateful journey towards the time and place of his death—a death that still had not been solved two months later, though not for lack of effort.
Initially the two brothers who had found the injured Nettleton and took him to the camp were arrested and charged with “assault with intent do great bodily harm.” Authorities based the arrests on boot tracks found at the scene.
But the real key to the investigation was the advancing science of forensic ballistics. The FBI was no stranger to the Wisconsin Northwoods—the ill-planned raid on Chicago gangsters at Little Bohemia in Vilas County in 1934 that left one agent dead was a wakeup call for the increasingly scientific investigative agency. In 1932 the FBI had established its Criminology Laboratory filled with equipment for the study of forensics. The agency offered local law enforcement its expertise in ballistics as the scant evidence from the Nettleton crime scene included one spent shell casing.
Early on, ballistics results cleared the two original suspects but a sweep of the Long Lake area resulted in the testing of a dozen more firearms. A tribute to modern forensics, the FBI finally returned a hit—a .30-40 Krag bolt action rifle belonging to Long Lake shop owner Arnold McCutcheon. When questioned McCutcheon admitted he had loaned the rifle just before deer season to Vernon Cox, 19, a local lumber camp worker. The Rhinelander Daily News reported, “Persistence had finally put the officers on the trail of the slayer.”
In early February of 1938 Cox was arrested after he confessed to T. W. Medaris, special investigator for the Forest Service, when confronted with the ballistics evidence. Nicolet National Forest officials were “lavish in their praises of the intelligent persistence which brought about the capture of the slayer of their co-worker.”
Forest County Sheriff Jesse Ramsdell stated that Cox “declared the shooting was accidental, that he had fired twice at an object in a tree which he mistook for a wildcat whose tracks he had been following.”
It would be June of 1938, seven months after the shooting, before the story of Roy Nettleton’s death finally came to a close. On June 29 the Ironwood Daily Globe reported: “Vernon Cox, 19-year old lumberjack was acquitted today by a circuit court jury of manslaughter charges in the fatal shooting last November of Royal Nettleton, U. S. forester, in the Nicolet national forest.” After deliberating for about ten hours the jury apparently agreed that the incident, though tragic, was an accident. Cox, however, was found guilty on a separate charge of hunting out of season and served some time in jail in addition to a fine.
Royal Nettleton’s wife, Genevieve, and infant daughter had accompanied his remains back to Eugene, Ore., that past December—a trip funded by donations from fellow Nicolet National Forest employees—and he was laid to rest at the Mulkey Cemetery on December 6, 1937. The passionate young forester was memorialized in Wisconsin when the Jones Dam fire tower was officially renamed the Nettleton Tower. On June 30, 1938, the Rhinelander Daily News reported, “His worthwhile counsel and his example of devotion to service and the ideals of the U. S. Forest Service left an indelible impression upon the many young men of the CCC with whom he came into contact.”
This article originally appeared in Wisconsin Outdoor News.