Vigilantes are part of the lore of the Old West, but they were also in the Northwoods. During the worst years of the Great Depression many Northwoods residents started to take the law into their own hands.
A vigilance committee is a group of private citizens who get together to enforce law and order in regions where they believe governmental structures have become undermanned or corrupt. Either way the belief is that such committees become necessary when elected authorities become unable or unwilling to enforce the law and keep the community safe. Most often we associate vigilance committees with the formation of a posse and frontier justice in the American West, but vigilantes who take the law into their own hands can become manifest at different times and different places, including in the Northwoods.
During the darkest days of the Great Depression, state and local governments were forced to make financial cuts in many areas. In the Northwoods of Wisconsin, this meant funding reductions for State Conservation Wardens and some law enforcement organizations. Because many people were suffering and had few recourses, crime began to rise in the form of petty theft, depredation of summer vacation residences, and poaching. Farmers and other rural residents reported have gasoline siphoned out of vehicle tanks during the night. Small parts were stolen from automobiles. Farmers lost vegetables, meat, and livestock. Homes were entered while people were away or asleep and burgled. In 1931 residents in Minocqua, Hazlehurst, and Sugar Camp all formed vigilance committees to help the local sheriff in law enforcement. For the most part local authorities and businessmen alike embraced vigilantes because they desperately needed the help in maintaining public safety.
However, vigilantism was a double-edged sword. While vigilantes could indeed help with public safety, having large numbers of untrained and heavily armed men taking law enforcement into their own hands could be dangerous. In Michigan, for example, vigilantes took it upon themselves to start beating up on people whose politics disagreed with that of the vigilance committee. While Northwoods vigilantes did not go quite that far, there were problems. Out west in the town of Menomonie a vigilance committee helped foil a bank robbery. Feeling the reward that the bank paid them was too small for the work they performed, the vigilantes resigned and vowed never again to act as emergency officers for the bankers. If the bank got robbed again, the bankers were on their own.
Closer to home, a heavily armed vigilance committee in the township of Cassian took it upon themselves to start patrolling the roads at night. The vigilantes stopped any car they deemed to be suspicious and subjected the driver and any passengers on board to the inconvenience of being searched. It would be considered harassment today, but in the early 1930s the county sheriff and district attorney were both struck by the sincerity and earnestness of the vigilantes who wanted to do something to stop the series of petty crimes that had been plaguing the area.
Vigilance committees remained active through much of the 1930s, but as the decade wore on the need and tolerance of them declined to the point where they were no longer acceptable.