We’re heading into November, and that means deer hunting will soon be in full swing.
It’s a cultural phenomenon in the state, with deeply rooted traditions that go back 100 years or more. While there has been much change in Wisconsin deer hunting over time, controversy and disagreement have never been far away.
In the first of a series we’re calling History Afield, WXPR Contributor Bob Willging has the story of one of the oddest deer hunting political battles of the last century.
There’s not likely anyone around the Rhinelander or Oneida County area who remembers the Oneida County Deer Revolt of 1930. But the story was told around the barbershops and taverns of Rhinelander over 80 years ago, about how way up north little Oneida County took on downstate Big Government in Madison…when it tried to change state policy on illegally killed deer .
The “revolt,” started brewing innocently enough about one week before the opening of the 1930 season, due to begin December 1. As winter’s grip approached northern Wisconsin, small towns across the north were already slipping into the grips of the Great Depression. America’s economic collapse had sent many in Oneida County to the breadlines. The outlook for the winter was bleak.
The deer season of 1930 was to be a “buck only” hunt. County Judge H. F. Steele knew there would probably be does and fawns shot mistakenly and left in the woods. Normally those fallen deer would become property of the state, and be auctioned off to the highest bidder. But Judge Steele had a different idea: The illegally shot deer could help feed the needy. Made perfect sense to Steele, so he made a recommendation to the State’s Conservation Commission that deer found dead in Oneida County woods
of during the hunting season be turned over to local charitable organizations.
But the Conservation Commission was in no mood to entertain ideas, even charitable ones, which tampered with the state’s jurisdiction over wild game. It flatly refused Judge Steele’s recommendation. In accordance with state law, any deer killed illegally and confiscated by a warden would absolutely remain property of the state to be disposed of at the state’s discretion.
Well, the whole thing might have ended right there. Judge Steele was not inclined to pursue the matter. But Oneida County District Attorney, Earl Kennedy, had other ideas. Kennedy believed it was well within the rights of the county to claim this venison and see that it made its way to the needy.
A letter from Kennedy published by the Rhinelander Daily News on November 28 was the proverbial shot across the bow.
“Owing to the fact that a large number of does and fawns are left in the woods each hunting season… the undersigned, by authority of Section 29.05 of the Wisconsin statutes, requests that all persons knowing of a doe or fawn being killed or left in the woods bring it or report the same to Hans Rodd, sheriff of Oneida County.
The local press instantly recognized the precedent setting nature of the move:
Kennedy was in effect usurping the authority of the state by telling hunters to bring illegally killed deer directly to the county courthouse, not to the game warden.
The Rhinelander Daily News wrote: “This is the first time, so far as known here, that county officials have decided to act independently of the conservation commission in a matter of this kind,”
Emotions regarding the 1930 deer season were already at fever pitch. Nearly two-thirds of the state was closed to hunting. Downstate deer hunters flocked to the open hunting counties of the north, invoking the ire of locals. Many in the north were questioning the wisdom of having a deer season at all because deer numbers seemed low already. Editorials lambasted the state’s deer management policies. The scene was set for the north to fight back.
Though the revolt was garnering statewide attention and the keen interest of other northern Wisconsin Counties two days into the season the standoff had yet to be tested. On December 2 the Rhinelander Daily News reported that the ‘Oneida county revolt’ has developed no warfare so far.”
Eventually, the county obtained two illegally killed does. As expected, the state game warden requested the deer be turned over to him. But meanwhile, local officials Sheriff Rodd and DA Kennedy were still out hunting and could not be contacted. It was clear that the matter would have to wait until all the players had returned from their hunting camps.
By season’s end Sheriff Rodd held five illegally killed deer. Locals speculated about what would happen next - would the county succeed in beating back state authority? Counties across the north waited in anticipation. What did happen next brought the revolt full circle as the fate of those five deer ultimately rested with the man who had started the battle, Judge Steele.
On December 12, Judge Steele decided he could not counter state law and had no choice but to rule that the court could not legally give the does to the poor. But in a creative twist, instead of giving the deer up directly to the state, he ordered County Sheriff Rodd to sell the venison to the highest bidder. The proceeds would go to the state Conservation Commission.
The last chapter of the deer revolt occurred when Sheriff Rodd sold all five does at a public sale outside the courthouse on December 13. William S. Raven, a local builder, purchased the deer for a dollar each. He immediately announced he would turn over the five does to the Citizen’s relief committee, so the venison could be distributed, in the end, among the needy.
The revolt was officially over – both sides claimed victory.