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Terror of the '20s

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Detroit Lakes,Minnesota 56501
Detroit Lakes Online
Terror of the '20s
Detroit Lakes Minnesota 511 Washington Avenue 56501

For years, the preserved body of Old Three Legs, a 125-pound, 7-foot-long timber wolf, has been a popular attraction at the Becker County Museum.


The rogue wolf roamed a half-dozen counties from 1916 to 1926, slaughtering livestock with murderous zeal and terrorizing everyone from schoolchildren to lumberjacks.

On Thursday, the Old Three Legs collection became complete: The 30-30 Winchester that Fred Darkow used to bring down the notorious wolf was donated to the museum by his grandson, Detroit Lakes native Tony LaSalle.

"The fact that he shot the wolf was kind of an accident," said LaSalle, who now lives in Hastings with his wife, Char. "(The wolf) ran across his line of sight after he had just shot a deer up near Itasca... he had shot wolves before, but he wasn't after Three Legs at all."

It was no accident that Darkow downed the great wolf with one clean shot through the shoulder, however -- he was an excellent marksman, perhaps the best shot in Minnesota at the time, according to the Historical Society.

Darkow had been a Cavalry scout in the Army, regularly bringing in wild game to feed the men, and he was also an excellent boxer.

No deer stands for him. "He would stalk the animals," LaSalle said. "He'd walk day and night and he'd get his deer."

Although the 1931 Field and Stream article reported that Darkow had to stop and take a deep breath before shooting the wolf, LaSalle -- who had hunted with his grandfather -- didn't believe it.

"He was a machine. He was unflappable," he said.

The story of Old Three Legs starts in April 1916, according to a history compiled by Ken Prentice and distributed by the Becker County Historical Society.

That's when "Dynamite" Bill Foster, an expert hunter, watched a mother wolf kill six of her seven pups near Ponsford and go into the woods with the seventh.

"For two years, tracks indicate that the mother wolf taught her son well, and then the wolf turned on its own mother and killed her! Ole Ystersund, a rural mail carrier, came upon the mother wolf's body.

"The big wolf begin his reign of terror alone," Prentice wrote. "Dogs by the dozen, of known courage and fighting ability, were literally torn to pieces trying to defend the barnyard. Wardens, trappers and farmers all got on his trail.

"When Elmer Cox, a farmer in northern Otter Tail County, found 16 of his finest ewes dead one morning, he realized he was ruined. He made a solemn vow then and there that he would rid the countryside of this killer, no matter what the cost!

"With a pack pony, traps and camping outfit, he tracked the wolf from Otter Tail County up into Clay County and then over through Becker, Mahnomen, Itasca and Hubbard counties," Prentice wrote. "The story of Elmer Cox versus the wolf became a legend in the north woods."

"Time after time the wolf eluded him, but the determined man continued. At the Lou Tegner farm he made his last-ditch attempt. Tying a fat lamb to a tree on a knoll, he ringed the tree with three staggered rows of traps. Carefully and skillfully he concealed all evidence.

"The next morning he couldn't believe his eyes. The wolf had made his way thorough the maze of traps, seized the lamb in his mouth, and retraced his steps. But when the rope grew taught, it threw the wolf off balance and its forefoot came down into a concealed trap.

"The lamb was torn to bits in fury and, turning on the stake that held the trap, the wolf chewed the end of it to splinters. When he leaped outside the circle of traps, the stake pulled out, and the wolf was gone, dragging the trap and stake with him.

"Cox quickly organized a party of six neighbors and a pack of fierce wolfhounds. All day and into the night they followed the wolf's trail. Another day and another night -- and still there was no indication they were gaining on the wounded animal.

"At noon the third day the men unleashed the dogs in hopes that they would catch the wolf and hold him at bay. At intervals during the afternoon the men found three of the dogs with their throats torn out. And at dusk the other dogs, strangely cowed, slunk into camp.

"Early the next morning they found the trap and stake with the remains of the paw neatly clipped off. That very night the wolf killed a calf on the John Grammar farm and from that time on was known as Old Three Legs."

For 10 years the wolf terrorized the countryside, defying professional trappers and hunters sent in by the government to kill him.

As he grew older, the wolf was reportedly seen working with two coyotes, which would drive game towards him in exchange for a share of the kill. As far as is known, Old Three Legs never mated.

Most North American wolves fear and avoid people, and as far as he knows have never killed a person in Minnesota, according to DNR officer Earl Johnson, who gave a presentation at the museum Thursday.

Three Legs' behavior towards humans was so unusual that expert at the time decided he had rabies or a brain infection and was therefore not a natural wolf, Johnson said

But wolves did eat people in Europe, particularly Eastern Europe, where people were less likely to have guns to defend themselves, he added. Europeans brought that fear of the wolf with them to America.

The timber wolf population in the state has grown to more than 3,000 from a low of about 750 in the 1950s, when people hunted wolves from airplanes, he said.

The population has rebounded to the point where wolves are no longer federally protected under the Endangered Species Act, and are now managed by the Minnesota DNR.

The state will likely enact a wolf-hunting season within about five years, with the goal of a sustained population of about 1,600 wolves, he said.

Wolves have begun to exhibit signs of losing their fear of humans -- standing and staring at people from about 50 yards away, for example, or snatching dogs off porches.

"That's not the way an animal that's afraid of you acts," Johnson said. "It's time to start harvesting some wolves -- we want to maintain that respect for humans."