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Crandon’s bear-trapping barber

Bears in Winter
Wisconsin Historical Society
A mother bear, followed by her two cubs, walks across a clearing.

The black bear is a living symbol of Wisconsin’s Northwoods. Summer visitors thrill at seeing one, and hunters look forward to the opportunity to take part in a seasonal bear hunt. Black bears are important to the Northwoods, but in the not-so-distant past they were seen as more of a nuisance with hunters taking unlimited numbers.

Bear hunting is a popular activity in the Northwoods. Black bears are highly intelligent, adaptable, and one of the few animals capable of fighting back when hunted. This makes black bears a choice prey with trophy hunters.

In the past, peoples of the First Nations hunted black bear, but not for sport. For the Ojibwe, the black bear was highly regarded not only as a game animal, but as a key figure in tribal culture. When Europeans came, black bears were hunted both for sport and as a source of meat and furs. By 1860, bears were hunted to extinction in southeastern Wisconsin, and by 1890 in central and western Wisconsin. This left bears only in the Northwoods.

Prior to the 1950s, bears were unprotected and people in the Northwoods considered them a nuisance. Bears were shot and trapped at any time of the year in unlimited numbers. This brings us to Dan Dehart of Crandon.

Dan Dehart was born in 1896 in Kentucky. His parents, Amos and Mary Dehart, moved the family to Crandon as part of the wave of Kentucky migrants who came to the Forest County area in the early twentieth century. The Dehart family did not live in Crandon; rather, they became backwoods setters and largely lived off the land. Dan Dehart’s essential formative years were in the woods rather than in school. His formal education ended after the sixth grade, and in 1910, at the age of 14, Dehart shot his first bear.

In 1920 Dehart was working as a laborer, but his main interest remained the outdoors. He loved to hunt, fish, and trap for all sorts of game animals, and this included black bear. During this period, Dehart learned the barbering trade, opened a barber shop in Crandon, and got married. His oldest child was born in the mid-1920s and by 1940 there were five additional children. But in his spare time, he was out in the woods trapping or fishing.

By the early 1950s, Dehart had trapped or shot over 100 bears, but it was a bear he did not kill that got him noticed. In March 1954, Dehart was out hunting rabbits when he noticed that the snow roof of a bear den had melted away. Inside was a mother and three young cubs. Dehart returned the next day with an armload of firecrackers. He threw the fireworks at the mother and as soon as he had scared her away, he made off with the three cubs. It was third time in his career that he had done this. Clyde Sundberg, the local game warden, came and took the cubs to the State Game Farm.

Dehart wanted to go back out for the mother and expressed his desire to set the mammoth bear traps that he normally used. He was flabbergasted over talk of new laws restricting that sort of hunting. By 1957, bear trapping was completely prohibited.

Unrestricted hunting of bears ended with Dehart’s generation, and it was only with changes in attitudes and land use practices that the black bear population began to rebound after the 1950s.

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In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.