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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

The O'Melia cabin, Thanksgiving morning 1996. © O'Melia Family
The O'Melia cabin, Thanksgiving morning 1996.
© O'Melia Family

October 2004

Generations of good company

The family deer camp provides enduring comfort, sanctuary and fellowship.

Donald Bluhm

There's a cabin full of memories and ghosts on a hill in a section of third growth forest in northeastern Oneida County. Truth has suffered some serious setbacks within its walls, but laughter has rushed in to fill the void and together they have helped create a structure as strong as its iron-cored hemlock logs.

The cabin is a grand monument to camaraderie, mute testimony to the friendship of those who have come, hunted and left behind something of themselves. It has been a November destination from as far away as Australia, the longest trip ever made to deer camp, though Africa is a close second. Whiskey glasses and cigar ashes have been spilled on the premises almost as a matter of ritual, while dime-limit poker pots have humbled some and exalted others.

There's an old hand-crank telephone box on one wall and more than a few embarrassed recollections – with snapshots to prove them – of trying to reach the operator in Three Lakes with two shorts and a long, except that she always seems to be on a coffee break.

A jack pine beam spans the cabin's width, shaped and smoothed by an old-fashioned drawshave. The beam is almost black, but shiny from half a hundred coats of varnish and oil. Seventeen nameplates, so far, have been fixed to it, each with two dates marking the beginning and the end of the lives of hunters whose temporary residence enriched the camp in so many ways. Many more have graced the camp over the years, but those 17 have a particularly strong hold on the thoughts of the current generation. This gathering place, like a dwindling number of such enclaves in Wisconsin, is a camp of tradition, embraced by ordinary men as well as the extraordinary because class distinctions are checked at the door and if you wear a cap to the dinner table, you'll pay a $10 fine whether you're a bank president or a day laborer.

An oval pewter plaque that hangs on the main roof-bearing column announces the camp was established in 1920, although there is no real agreement on the exact date, and that alone is worth hours of argument every November.

Here, one name and two dates are etched for eternity: A. J. (for Albert Joseph) O'Melia, who was born in 1889 and died in 1964. In between those years he earned one of the first law degrees given at Marquette University; raised a family of five, including three more attorneys; and was the founder and first camp boss of what is now a sprawling 1,850-acre chunk of private timberland. It seems that he always had a thatch of snow-white hair and was more at home in a wool shirt than a vested suit in a courtroom, even if that is only a fond memory. A.J. created an environment that has been seasoned by several hundred personalities, shaped by several thousand stories, and nurtured by every visitor's affection for the woods and the wildlife that surround the cabin.

Temporary occupants over the years have added to the lore. An English professor, thought to have been a faculty member of what was to become the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, spent some time in the area writing children's books. He and his wife kept a neat home for several years just off an old narrow-gauge right-of-way that led to Three Lakes. Their homestead is now just a shallow depression on a coniferous ridge.

There were two older Rhinelander buddies who spent a number of Novembers together on the property in a 10 by 16 foot shack – "shack" being a rather generous description – that contained two cots, a small table, a wood stove, a large supply of liquid sustenance, and (during deer season) a horse. They were said to have spent almost every day during the hunting season fine-tuning their hunt plan, which, as it turned out, required considerably more planning than executing.

There were 10 acres on the northeast section of the property where "the Germans," settled because they didn't like the idea of serving in the Kaiser's army. A half wall of cobblestones that served as part of a root cellar is all that remains of their presence.

The property's centerpiece remains the hunting cabin. In the center of that building, more or less, stands a colossal fieldstone fireplace at the intersection of the cabin's four wings. The walls are old-growth hemlocks taken from nearby land. And even after more than eight decades you couldn't budge the cabin with a D11 Caterpillar. There seems to be a lingering aroma of cigar smoke in the room, one that may be imagined, or not. On the backside of the fireplace there is a propane "restaurant" cook stove with six burners, two ovens, and a griddle, because 20 or more hunters can eat a lot of food in two weeks, and "preparation" is nine-tenths of the hunt. For the last several years a grandson, Brian O'Melia, has been flown in from Arizona to cook for the crew, a job similar to the one he has held at a large hotel in Phoenix.

Electricity is forbidden at the cabin; gas and propane lights add to the ambiance around the dinner table. © John O'Melia
Electricity is forbidden at the cabin; gas and propane lights add to the ambiance around the dinner table.

© John O'Melia

There are 17 Army-surplus wood bunks in three of the cabin's wings, all but one of them double, and two handmade, 10-foot-long dining tables set end-to-end along the east wall. A round poker table sits under the beam with the names, and two additional propane wall heaters add to the cabin's warmth, though after the first 24 hours and a full cord of wood, the fireplace produces more than enough heat even on the coldest nights. At one time there was a barrel stove near the west wall, but it burned through and was removed, as was a large kerosene heater on the opposite wall that became harder to start than some of the hunters. There is a large screened porch that runs across the front of the cabin with an open deck beyond that looks over a 40-acre lake.

The land that surrounds the cabin has been scarred over the years, most recently by tornado-like wind shear in late summer of 2000 that flattened five acres of hemlocks about a half-mile east of the cabin. Other sections were clear-cut before more selective land practices were introduced by Wisconsin DNR foresters. Millions of board feet of timber have been removed from the land, much of it during the second wave of logging in the last decade of the 19th and early years of the 20th centuries. During many of those years the logs were taken away by the Thunder Lake Lumber Company, whose narrow-gauge rail has been described as "probably one of Wisconsin's best known logging railroads." The line ran northeast from Rhinelander, paralleling the present State Highway 17 for several miles, and eventually ending at a village known then as Robbins, but now called Sugar Camp.

While logging in Wisconsin's Northwoods has become much more selective, there is plenty of timber left on that property, including several small groves of bird's-eye maple trees. One sold some years back to a German automaker for $2,000 to be used for handcrafted dashboards in some of its models.

The property has supported many rounds of tree harvests and at one time contained a logging camp. Remnants of that camp can still be found west of the cabin. On a ridge above what is left of the bunkhouse and cook shack are the remains of the horse and ox barns. And, like the many stories of deer camp, retelling the tales of those lumbering days by Dick and Al O'Melia has reached monumental proportions in terms of describing "long and hard" days. Dick now lives in Maryland, and Al, or "Bud," as he is known, resides in Kansas. Only death would keep either out of Wisconsin in November.

They are not alone. At one time or another people from half the United States were represented at deer camp. Each fall visiting hunters begin arriving a week before the opening Saturday. Most have at least some gear stored in the two sheds near the cabin. About a half-mile to the west is an old gravel pit where rifles are sighted and test-fired and bets are made on the approaching season.

Then there are the deer stands, which must be checked every year. Porcupine damage must be repaired, squirrel nests swept away, obstructing tree limbs trimmed back and propane gas heaters tested. One of the four brothers, the late Don O'Melia, who served for a time on the Wisconsin Natural Resources Board before he passed on, had an especially, ah, unusual, blind. Over the years, the small wood structure began to deteriorate and was replaced by hay bales. To keep snow and rain off his head, O'Melia erected a large, spray-painted umbrella that, in its original life, advertised a famous Italian aperitif. The real genius, however, was a rear-view truck mirror that was installed on the front left-hand side of the stand. It frequently was useless because the occupant often fell asleep, usually with a cigar clamped in his teeth, which is not so good if your deer blind is made of straw; and, yes, it is true that he once awoke with his stand smoldering.

Other blinds scattered throughout the property include one with a shingled roof that originally rode to Wisconsin on top of a truck from South Carolina. Each hunter's favorite hiding spot has its distinctive qualities. Bud's has an old swivel office chair, along with a gas heater that doubles as a stovetop for his mid-morning hot soup or chili snack. His nearby relief station amounts to a two-by-four nailed between two young maples. Dick, the current camp boss, is about the only hunter who doesn't smoke cigars because his doctor and his wife won't let him, but he likes to sit near those who do. And since cigars are a fact of life, deer season visitors almost always enjoy a smoke whether they want one or not.

John O'Melia, who died in 1995, was the eldest brother and the immediate predecessor camp boss to Dick. He preferred a discarded, straight-backed law office chair as a throne from which to issue camp orders. It now sits empty on the front porch, but a small brass nameplate indicates the former owner, who usually spent a good deal of time each year explaining to every newcomer how his khaki pants had come to be stained with moose blood from a Canadian hunt, a stain that looked suspiciously like faded red paint.

The cabin lake (one of three on the property) is now officially renamed Dick and Don Lake, after the twin sons. Dick swears that a careful search of the spring near the lake would almost certainly yield a bottle or two from the cache of a former moonshiner who hid some of his produce there during Prohibition. If not, there's a tin cup hanging from a tree limb in the vicinity and the water is as sweet as anything you'll find in a store, and a whole lot cheaper.

Presiding, in a practical way over the property, is a third-generation O'Melia, John, an attorney with the family firm in Rhinelander, grandson of the founder, and a tireless caretaker who probably spends more time shepherding various family interests with the timberland than scanning the law books. He, more than any other, is the reason the cabin and its environs survive for visitors to enjoy. His affection for the land is the adhesive that holds it all together, keeps it running smoothly, and keeps building new memories every year.

Stories drift in and out of camp like the ghosts to whom they refer. The tales are as real, however, as the living who come to listen and to share. One rookie was discovered tracking a deer backwards through the snow because, he said, he wanted to see where the animal had been. The same fellow was almost certain he had seen a "deer nest" in the crotch of a large basswood. Another hunter was the victim of an elaborate plan that involved a papier-mache deer replica and a Bowie knife. Another insisted on the existence of "snow fleas" and no one believed him until he arranged for a University of Wisconsin entomologist to create a colored sketch of the virtually invisible insects that textbooks say are 400 million year old species.

Many others have come and gone from the cabin on the hill. The camp has an amazing safety record; no one ever has been seriously injured during the deer season. Some have been lost, however, and then found. But all have enjoyed the experience and all have been changed in wonderful, if undefinable, ways. The deer pole has sagged on some occasions – the first journal that was kept (in 1950) lists 13 successful hunters – and has been a little lighter at other times. But the memories remain strong and secure. And if they've been edited a little over the years who's going to argue? After all, as a philosopher once said, a story of questionable veracity is simply the truth misunderstood.

Donald Bluhm has hunted at the O'Melia cabin since 1960, following his marriage to Nora O'Melia. He still crafts feature stories following retirement from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.