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Kentucky Bandits and the National Guard

Abandoned cabin
Paul Vanderbilt
/
Wisconsin Historical Society
An abandoned log shack on the Stockbridge Indian Reservation

The settlers from Kentucky who came to Forest County at the turn of the century transformed the region. But a few got involved in illegal activities, and one small group created a large enough ruckus that the National Guard got involved.

When settlers from Kentucky relocated to Forest County at the turn of the century, most did so with the understanding that there was plenty of work and that they would be able to earn an honest living. The promise of good paying jobs proved to be true, particularly when compared to the poverty that existed among mountain folk in Kentucky at the time. Nevertheless, among all the hard-working settlers who migrated north, a few bad apples came along for the ride. In 1915, some of them caused enough trouble to call out the National Guard.

Not all the settlers from Kentucky took jobs in the logging camps or lumber mills. Some went straight out into the woods and lived off the land as they had done before in Kentucky. In those days it was possible to hunt and trap most of the food a family needed and to earn a little cash by selling furs. One might romanticize that sort of lifestyle and call it rustic. However, it was quite harsh and extra money for basic staples was often in short supply. Rather than take up employment, one small colony of settlers decided to just take what they needed, which is where the trouble started.

A group of Kentucky settlers squatted in some abandoned logging cabins in the area between Gagen and Crandon. On Wednesday, December 1, 1915, three unidentified men from this colony walked into a saloon in Starks and robbed the place at gunpoint. Undersheriff Hans Rodd and Deputy Sheriff Anderson followed the bandits to a marshy clearing with an abandoned shack near Gagen. They ordered the men to surrender. Instead, the bandits opened fire.

Rodd was shot in the head, but not fatally. Anderson received a shotgun blast in the shoulder. Both men returned fire as they fell. Two of the bandits were likely wounded as they retreated into the shack. Rodd and Anderson bound each other’s wounds then returned to Gagen to organize a posse of men. Meanwhile, the Kentucky bandits cut all telegraph and telephone lines leading to Rhinelander while their friends resupplied them with fresh cartridges.

Sheriff Crowfoot and over 100 men arrived at the scene and surrounded the shack, and for the rest of the day the marsh was a battle zone. The posse exchanged gunfire with the obviously well-armed bandits. It was a standoff as the marshy land acted like a moat in protecting the shack.

The next day the National Guard unit out of Rhinelander was called in to assist in the siege. With the extra firepower provided by Company L, the men rushed the shack. Upon entry, however, they found the shack empty. The bandits had fled in the night.

As the bandits ran, they abandoned their weapons so as not to be identified as the gunmen. They wore spiked shoes of lumbermen and left prints that could be followed, but law enforcement never caught up with them. They hopped a Soo Line freight train as it climbed a hill then jumped off separately and evaded capture.

They were not identified in the press and apparently did not return.

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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.