Over 100 years ago, Old Three Legs terrorized Becker County
In a way, you could say the carnage dealt out by Old Three Legs wasn’t all his fault, since he had a rough start in life. His mother was a “freak wolf,” with an evil reputation.
DETROIT LAKES — This is the story of Old Three Legs, a cruel and cunning timber wolf who outwitted the best of the trappers and hunters 100 years ago as he killed livestock and terrorized rural folk in the Becker County area.
The wolf is said to have lived from 1917 to 1926 and ranged across Becker, Mahnomen, Hubbard and Clearwater counties and Itasca State Park.
The big wolf was well known in the area at the time, and local newspapers noted his death on their front pages, but most of the following story about him comes from an article written by A.M. Thompson and published in the nationally-distributed Field and Stream magazine of April 1931, a few years after his death.
In a way, you could say the carnage dealt out by Old Three Legs wasn’t all his fault, since he had a rough start in life. His mother was a “freak wolf,” with an evil reputation, according to the Field and Stream story. She looked like a hyena, with the head and chest of a big timber wolf, and withered hind parts where she had survived a hunter’s bullet.
Back in those days, wolf pups were worth $6 apiece ($142 in today’s dollars) and there was a much larger bounty on the “hyena” wolf. According to the story, a Ponsford woodsman named Bill Foster had been watching the den of the mother wolf, waiting to collect that bounty.
He was watching that den the day the mother wolf came out with eight little pups following her.
“And then an unbelievable thing happened,” Thompson wrote. “The mother killed seven of the pups and, with the eighth tottering unsteadily after her, trotted off into the woods and never approached the den again.”
The surviving pup grew up to be Old Three Legs, and for the first two years of his life, he and his mother hunted together and gained a reputation for wanton slaughter.
“Like silent shadows of death,” Thompson wrote, “they would swoop down upon some unsuspecting barnyard and slaughter every living thing there for the sheer love of killing. The despairing settlers were helpless before the super-cunning of the beasts.”
Trappers and woodsmen had long known by their tracks that the two were hunting together, and Old Three Legs was blamed when homesteader Theodore Gleesing found the bitten and torn body of the mother wolf.
“The viciousness she had implanted in his heart proved her undoing,” Thompson wrote. “Her body hung on display for two weeks in front of the Ponsford Mercantile Company and was viewed by hundreds of townsfolk and grateful farmers.”
Old Three Legs continued his bloody ways alone, but he didn’t stick to livestock and deer — he attacked at least one person as well.
Earl Ratcliffe, a teamster for the Duluth Log Company, was on his way to pick up the first load of the day.
The big wolf had brought down a doe beside the logging road and was eating when Ratcliffe approached on his horse-drawn wagon.
As the wagon passed by, the wolf leaped at the horses. “The horses bolted at the same time, and the collar of the off horse struck the wolf in midair, sending him rolling in a swirl of snow,” Thompson wrote. “The wolf was up in an instant and leaped again, this time at the man.”
Ratcliffe, who was not armed, had desperately yanked a sled stake loose. He swung it and knocked the wolf to the ground a second time.
“The terrified horses fairly flew down the road,” Thompson wrote, “with the wolf in full pursuit. As the wolf drew alongside, Ratcliffe hurled the heavy stake and struck the wolf in the side. This apparently discouraged him, for he gave up the chase.”
By the time Ratcliffe and some other men from the camp had armed themselves and returned to the dead doe, the wolf was gone.
“This incident was something unheard of in that country,” Thompson wrote. “Wolves in a pack have, on rare occasions, been known to attack humans, but for a lone wolf to attempt such a thing was almost unbelievable.”
Three weeks later, the big wolf visited the Grover Amundson farm and killed 40 sheep, a cow and a heifer — all in one night. The bloody night was a heavy financial loss for the farm, and neighbors said it contributed to the death a few months later of an already frail, emotionally struggling Mrs. Amundson.
Mr. Amundson sent their two children to live with relatives in Minneapolis. He brooded alone for several months, becoming grim and silent before disposing of his livestock and taking to the woods with his traps and guns, determined to put an end to the big wolf.
His quest dragged into weeks and then months, but it finally seemed to pay off. “In avoiding one trap, the cautious beast had planted his left forefoot directly into another,” Thompson wrote. The wolf chewed the stake until it loosened, then headed north, dragging the stake and metal trap through the snow.
Less than two hours after finding those tracks, Amundson and eight other men, along with eight tough hunting dogs, were hot on the wolf’s trail. They were all confident that the wolf had howled at his last moon, and they followed the trail feverishly until nightfall, when they stayed at a farmstead.
“At daybreak, they took up the chase, and towards noon let the dogs loose,” hoping they would hold the wolf at bay until they could catch up and kill him, Thompson wrote. But it was not to be: Late that afternoon “they found three of the dogs, at intervals of a mile or more apart, with their throats torn out. When they made camp that night, the remaining dogs came slinking back, whimpering and cowering in fear.”
Midmorning the next day, they found the stake and trap, still holding the wolf’s paw, which had been neatly chewed off.
Still, they pursued, believing that the wolf hadn’t eaten in three days and hoping he would weaken from the pain and loss of blood. They stayed the night at another farmstead, but early next morning they got the dispiriting news that the wolf had killed and eaten most of a calf on the John Grammar farm during the night.
“They knew that, fortified with fresh food and freed of its impediment, the wolf was more than a match for them,” Thompson wrote. “All the hunters except Amundson dropped out of the chase.”
Amundson pursued the wolf alone for the next six weeks, returning once a week for fresh food and then slipping back into the woods — refusing to listen to neighbors who urged him to give up. His face grew gaunt and wild, and he appeared more and more like a man obsessed.
“There could be only one end to such madness,” Thompson wrote. “Old Oscar Nesbitt, a trapper, found Amundson’s body, frozen stiff. He claimed that around the body he had found the tracks of the three-legged destroyer, which had come back to sniff — probably sneer — at this poor mortal who sought so long to destroy him.”
While recovering from his injury, Old Three Legs, as he was now called, took refuge in Itasca State Park, feasting on does and fawns to the point that the state posted a $200 bounty on his head.
That was enough to draw seasoned trappers from across the north country, who caught a lot of coyotes and other predatory animals, but not Old Three Legs. Eventually, they gave up, most of them convinced the wolf could not be caught.
Two renowned Native trappers from Mahnomen and Red Lake were called in and spent two weeks trying to catch the wolf, without success. “They came into Ponsford with the weirdest tale of them all,” Thompson wrote. “The animal had appeared suddenly from nowhere and stood 50 feet in front of them, grinning over his shoulder. They both fired point blank, but the wolf never budged. After they had emptied their guns, the wolf vanished before their eyes. They were extremely agitated and unnerved, and no amount of money would induce them to take up the hunt again.”
When Old Three Legs left Itasca, “he exacted a terrible toll on the none-too-affluent farmers for the loss of his foot,” Thompson wrote. The state wouldn’t help, so the locals organized huge drives with hundreds of men. A number of times it was reported that the big wolf was surrounded, but he always managed to slip away.
Finally, the locals pooled their money and sent for Julius Skauge, a professional trapper from out West.
“Mr. Skauge had an enviable record in destroying cougars, wolves and other predatory animals where other men had failed,” Thompson wrote. “Famous wolves that had cost ranchers of the West untold thousands of dollars have fallen before the cunning of this man. From Canada to Mexico and from the Mississippi westward, his reputation as a trapper is widespread.”
But Old Three Legs outwitted him.
“For three months he strung out his poison bait lines and traplines, and in the end even resorted to an attempt to run the wolf down by using relays of tough western ponies,” Thompson wrote. “And like the rest who had tried, he finally admitted defeat.”
Skauge recommended bringing in Jack Holtan of Lammers, Minnesota, who was considered a wizard with snares. It was believed that Old Three Legs had had no experience with snares.
Holtan arrived a day or two later with his cunningly contrived snares. He chose his locations carefully, and fully expected success.
But when he checked his line, he found he had failed like all the rest. “He had snared three coyotes, a bobcat, a young deer and a jackrabbit,” Thompson wrote. “Old Three Legs was not ready to be taken.”
Three Legs had never mated, never run with a pack and never tolerated the company of other wolves, so people were concerned in the fall of 1925 when they noticed the tracks of two smaller wolves alongside the huge tracks of Three Legs. What if he mated and filled the woods with super wolf offspring?
But he hadn’t mated, it turns out his two companions were some spry coyotes, who would circle and chase the game close to the big wolf. He was slowing down, but still a powerful killer, and made short work of the game — leaving some for the coyotes.
But even Old Three Legs couldn’t live forever.
“It was fate which finally decreed that this bloody career should come to an end,” Thompson wrote.
Five deer hunters — Harry LaDue, Fred Darkow, Jack Robbins and George McCarthy of Detroit Lakes, and Herb MacArthur of Ogema — started out one morning in late November of 1926 from Jerry Wettle’s camp on Bad Medicine Lake. McCarthy and Darkow took posts about a half-mile apart, while the others began a deer drive.
A few minutes later, McCarthy was startled to catch a glimpse of the famous wolf going over a ridgeline a few hundred feet away. He fired twice and missed, but the shots spooked a hidden doe, who started up right in front of Three Legs.
“Straight toward Darkow ran the doe, with the old wolf on her trail,” Thompson wrote. “A strong west wind was blowing, and Darkow was downwind from the doe and her pursuer.”
He was one of the best shots in the county, but even so, Darkow nearly missed — he was aiming for the wolf’s heart, but Three Legs saw the hunter and heard the gunshot at the last second, twisting and turning enough so that the bullet missed his heart, but still hit him in the back of the neck.
“The wolf leaped high in the air and turned over and over in a swirl of snow,” Thompson wrote.
He came crashing down, already dead when he hit the ground.
According to the Field and Stream story, the wolf’s body was taken to a taxidermist in Minneapolis to be mounted, and “thousands of people who had read of Old Three Legs in the newspapers paused before the window of the taxidermist to gaze at the body of the notorious old fellow.”
When the Field and Stream story was published in 1931, the famous wolf’s body was on display atop a huge pedestal in the lobby of the McCarthy Hotel in Detroit Lakes, with newspaper clippings at his feet.
Old Three Legs is now at the Becker County Museum — a wolf whose courage and uncanny intelligence for years outwitted the craftiest trappers and hunters pitted against him.