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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

December 1998

Illustration © Tom Lowes

The Butternut Buck

A favorite hunting yarn from one family's archives.

Dave Crehore

Illustrations by Tom Lowes

When I was a boy in the 1950s, my grandfather gave me three gifts that weren't toys or books: a faded photograph of himself carrying a whitetail buck, the buck's mounted antlers, and a story that went with them. The photo and the old rack are going to stay in the family, but you're welcome to the story:

Grandpa and Wally crested a cutover hill and stopped for a rest, their breath shooting out in clouds of steam. It had snowed about an inch that morning; the afternoon was cold, crisp and windless.

The tracks of a rutting buck they had jumped an hour earlier cut diagonally down the slope before them and disappeared into a cedar swamp.

"We could spend a week in that swamp and never see him, George," Wally said. "I'll bet he's gonna circle around in the swamp and try to sneak back out to his ladyfriend. There's a couple hours of good daylight left. Why don't I go down to where his tracks head into the swamp, and you go over about a hundred yards west, and we'll just wait and see what happens."

"Sounds good to me, Wally," Grandpa said. Grandpa trudged off downhill, then turned and took a stand on the edge of the swamp where he could see into the cedars.

A half-hour passed. It got colder. A chickadee hung upside down from a branch a foot from Grandpa's rifle barrel, sang a quiet dee, dee, dee and flew off.

Suddenly, a stone's throw back in the swamp, something moved. Was it another chickadee, a jaybird, or the buck? Grandpa froze, and stared. "I figured there was a 50-50 chance the buck was there," he said when he told me the story. "I couldn't see him. All I could do was hold still and wait him out."

A hundred rapid heartbeats went by. Finally, the buck took a cautious step forward and Grandpa saw its outline against the green and brown background of the swamp. He thumbed back the hammer of his Winchester 94 and eased the little rifle to his shoulder. The buck took another step and turned, looking directly at him. Grandpa lined up the sights on a spot behind the buck's front leg and fired.

The 30-30 went off with a crack that sent snow cascading from nearby cedar branches and made Grandpa's ears ring. Obscured by powder smoke and the falling snow, the buck seemed to disappear. Grandpa plunged ahead a few steps, looked again, and saw that the buck had fallen in its tracks. He could hear Wally yelling off in the distance. He levered a fresh cartridge into the chamber and walked the remaining 30 yards or so with the rifle ready for a second shot.

But no more shooting was necessary. The buck lay motionless, sprawled in the snow. Grandpa opened the action of his rifle and leaned it against a tree. Grabbing the buck by its forelegs, he dragged it a few feet, turned it belly-side-up and rested its shoulders against the side of a massive old white pine stump. He admired its eight-point rack for a moment, then drew his hunting knife from its sheath and prepared to make the initial cut.

And that's when all hell broke loose.

Illustration © Tom Lowes

My grandfather, George J. Crehore, was born in Sheffield Township, Ohio, in 1883. In 1902, he started to learn the pipefitting trade at a shipyard in Lorain, Ohio, on Lake Erie. But early in 1908, the economic depression of those years hit the shipyard, and at 25, Grandpa found himself without a job. He shipped out as a deckhand on a lake freighter, but the lakes trade was pretty slow as well. In midsummer, the freighter laid up for the season in Manitowoc, and Grandpa was out of work for the second time in a year. Luckily, the Manitowoc shipyard needed a pipefitter, and Grandpa settled into a good job that lasted until 1913, when he returned to Ohio and went into business for himself.

The Manitowoc years were eventful for Grandpa. He mastered his trade. He got married. George and Charlie, the first of his five children, were born. He bought a house on Western Avenue. He formed a lifelong friendship with Wally, another shipyard worker. And he took up deer hunting.

Actually, the deer hunting was Wally's idea. He hunted in Ashland County, taking the old Wisconsin Central railroad from Manitowoc to Spencer, and then north to Medford, Prentice, Park Falls and Butternut. At Butternut, a farmer with a wagon and team would meet Wally and his friends at the station and haul them about 15 miles to a dilapidated pioneer log cabin in the woods. Since Grandpa was from northern Ohio, where deer were only a memory at the time, Wally convinced him that his life would be incomplete until he went deer hunting "up north by Butternut."

And so the late fall of 1909 found Grandpa at the deer camp with Wally. The deer season was 20 days long that year, from November 11th through the 30th. About 103,000 hunters bought $1.00 licenses that allowed them to take "any one deer" in the 31 northern counties that were open for deer hunting. South of a line from Peshtigo to Prairie du Chien, deer were rare and the season was closed. There was no deer registration back then, so there's no record of the total kill, but rail shipments of deer that season totaled 3,985 – slim pickings.

About noon on November 12, their first day of hunting, Grandpa and Wally caught a doe and a good-sized antlered buck in the act of creating more deer. The doe scented them, shook off the buck, and bolted into the woods. The buck turned and glared at the two men.

"He was about 50 yards away," Grandpa said later, "but you could see that he was good and mad. He gave us kind of a disgusted look that said 'I'll remember you!' We were too surprised to shoot. And then he took off and we tracked him into the cedar swamp."

"I shot him," Grandpa said, "and he went down in a heap, but just when I touched the knife to him, all hell broke loose!"

The buck thrashed back and forth and struggled to its feet. Grandpa staggered and fell backwards, his knife flying off into the snow. The buck swapped ends, lowered its head and stabbed its antlers at Grandpa's mid-section, worrying him like a terrier with a rat. Weaponless and flat on his back, Grandpa grabbed the buck's rack in self-defense, and was amazed to find that the deer could lift him up from the waist and slam him back down again. One of the larger tines of the buck's antlers slid into the fly of Grandpa's woolen "cruiser" pants and ripped it open, showering buttons.

Grandpa heard Wally yelling again, much closer, and then there was a deafening roar as Wally's 30-40 Krag went off at point-blank range. The buck leapt straight up and fell kicking at Grandpa's side. In seconds, it was dead.

It got very quiet in the woods again.

"My God, George, are you all right?" Wally said, his voice shaking.

"My God, yourself," said Grandpa, sitting up. "You coulda killed me!"

"George, he was going to open you up like a melon!" Wally said.

"Don't get personal," Grandpa said.

The two men turned the deer over. The Krag's big bullet had hit the deer in the brisket and had left an exit hole the size of a fist. But there was no other bullet wound.

"He went down like a ton of bricks when I shot him," Grandpa said. "I must have hit him somewhere!"

"George, look at this," Wally said. He pointed to where a ragged chunk had been shot out of the buck's left antler about an inch above the skull. "This is fresh," he said. "You knocked him out!"

Grandpa walked out to the edge of the swamp and looked back. "I fired from here, and I held right behind his leg. There's no way I could miss by two feet at this range." And then Grandpa noticed a broken cedar branch dangling down about ten feet from where he had been standing. With his right eye focused on the rifle's front sight, he hadn't seen the branch. It had deflected his 30-30 bullet up and to the right, blasting a piece out of the buck's antler and knocking him cold.

"Nice deer you got there, Wally," Grandpa said.

"Hell, it's your deer, George," Wally said. "You put him down for a ten-count, and then you 'rassled with him for a while – he's yours."

"OK," Grandpa said. "And since you saved me from a fate worse'n death, I'll carry him the first hundred yards."

Back at the cabin, Wally got out his Kodak and snapped a picture of Grandpa with the Butternut Buck on his shoulders. By that time, the other hunters in the party had hung a half-dozen deer on the buck pole, and two days later the whole gang was on the train back to Manitowoc, their deer stowed away in the unheated baggage car.

Illustration © Tom Lowes

The train pulled into Manitowoc about 10:30 at night. The deer were unloaded. The hunters checked their rifles and duffles with the stationmaster, lifted the deer to their shoulders, said their goodbyes and headed home down the dimly lighted streets. None of them had cars; the Ford Model T had only been introduced the previous year.

Grandpa said the dressed weight of the Butternut Buck increased about ten pounds per block as he staggered home with it, across the Tenth Street bridge, west on Franklin, then up Water and Clark streets to Western Avenue. Grandpa wasn't much of a drinker, but he was disappointed when no one came out of the tavern at Tenth and Franklin to admire his deer.

The only people he met were two elderly German-speaking ladies on their way home from a sheepshead game, and they seemed to be scared of him. But as Grandpa used to say, how would you like to meet a 250-pound man with a six-day beard, wearing a bloody Mackinaw and dirty woolen pants that wouldn't stay buttoned, carrying a deer down your street?

The ladies crossed the snowbank into the street to let Grandpa pass. "Waltrud, mein Gott, wer ist das?" one of them said.

"Ich weiss nicht," said the other. "Ein Jäger, ein schmutzliger Jäger!"

(Waltrud, my God, who is that?)

(I don't know. A hunter, a filthy hunter!)

When Grandpa finally got the deer onto his front porch, Grandma met him at the door and kissed him. Someone, at last, appreciated the Butternut Buck! He dumped the deer onto the porch floor and straightened up, groaning.

"George, for heaven's sake, button up your pants," Grandma said.

"I can't, Anna," Grandpa said, and told her the story.

Grandma didn't know whether to laugh or scold. "You had him by the horns, and Wally shot him right on top of you...heavenly days!"

Then she smiled coquettishly at Grandpa. "I hope you thanked Wally. He did you a real favor."

"Yes, I thanked him," Grandpa said. "But Wally likes apple pies. You'd better bake a couple tomorrow and take them over to him. You're the one who wants a big family."

Illustration © Tom Lowes

Dave Crehore is DNR's Regional Public Affairs Manager for northeastern Wisconsin. He lives in Green Bay.