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  • Patrick Durkin

Explaining a Great Wisconsin Moose Hunt that Never Was

Updated: Oct 3

When pondering whether to post vintage hunting photos on the internet, heed this advice:


Don’t make claims about the time, place, hunters and quarry unless your family’s photo albums hold the originals. Even then, skip all such details unless you can vouch for Great-Grandpa’s memory and integrity, and verify Great-Grandma’s scribblings on the photos’ borders or backsides.


Realize this: On Instagram alone, you’re challenging a pool of 1.3 billion fact-checkers to find fault in your post. And choose your hashtags wisely, because they wave red flags at legions of deer nerds, gear geeks and amateur historians waiting to showcase their expertise. Given one chance, they’ll delight in your humiliation.


About a month ago, for example, a skeptical reader sent me a cropped Instagram post showing three hunters with four bull moose hanging from a stout beam. Its description read: “BaM! Awesome snap of Northern Wisconsin moose hunt... circa 1933. Hunting is History!”


Hmm. The reader’s doubts were valid. Wisconsin didn’t even hold a deer season in 1933, so how could it have held a moose hunt? Vast clearcutting, and unregulated market and subsistence hunting decimated Wisconsin’s game populations a century ago, closing deer season in odd-numbered years from 1925 to 1935.


The photo was intriguing, however, so I emailed it to Scott Craven, a retired wildlife professor at UW-Madison. Craven confirmed the photo couldn’t be from Wisconsin, at least not in 1933. He quoted H.T. Jackson’s classic book, “Mammals of Wisconsin,” where Jackson wrote “the last known killing of a native moose in Wisconsin occurred Sept. 11, 1921.”


Likewise, A.W. Schorger’s natural-history collection, “Wildlife in Early Wisconsin,” notes that moose were never abundant in the state in recorded history, even in far northwestern counties like Bayfield, Douglas, Burnett and Ashland.


“With the exception of caribou, moose was the least numerous of the deer family,” Schorger wrote. He also learned that explorer Henry Rowe Schoolcraft consulted Chief Kabamappa about moose hunting in 1832 while visiting the chief’s village near modern-day Gordon in Douglas County. The chief told Schoolcraft he must visit the Brule River’s most remote branches to find worthwhile moose hunting.


So yes, moose existed in Wisconsin, and today an estimated 15 to 30 randomly roam the state’s Northern forest, but they’ve never produced huntable numbers in modern times.


Craven also noticed something else in the photo: The hunters’ clothing looked Scandinavian, not American. Maybe they were hunting moose in Norway, Sweden or Finland. Or possibly they were Scandinavian immigrants hunting in Alaska, Canada, or northern Maine or Minnesota.


After reposting the photo and Craven’s insights on Instagram, I assumed someone would offer more clues and possibly pinpoint the photo’s source. Sure enough, a couple of readers claimed one hunter held a Swedish Mauser, but the consensus identified the hunters’ rifles as American-made: From left, a Remington Model 8 semiauto; Winchester Model 54 bolt-action; and Savage Model 99 lever-action. In fact Rick Hutton, product-line manager for HFH Gear in Bozeman, Montana, said the likely chamberings were .35 Remington in the Model 8, and .300 Savage in the Model 99.


Other readers noted the left-side hunter was wearing a Stormy Kromer cap, a fabled hat made in Ironwood, Michigan, since 1903. Other readers noticed what looked like a buck white-tailed deer at the photo’s right edge. Other readers, however, claimed the partial deer was a young elk, red stag or red deer.


Either way, most clues pointed back to North America, but not Wisconsin. And yet, Oklahoma photographer Ryan Willis eventually posted indisputable proof the photo is from the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.


The original full-frame 8-by-10-inch horizontal photo is titled “Men and the Spoils of Hunting,” and it’s from the WHS’s Angus Boyd McVicar collection. It also shows four bucks on the pole, a fourth hunter holding what’s likely a Winchester 1886 rifle in .45-70 Gov., a dog beside what’s likely a Winchester 1894 rifle, and four fish and a black bear on a truck or wagon.


Still, I remained certain it wasn’t a Wisconsin scene, so I visited reference archivist Jennifer Barth at the WHS in mid-September. She found the photo’s negative, and explained that McVicar ran a Madison photo studio from 1926 to 1941, taking pictures, developing film and making prints for customers ranging from walk-ins to the Capital Times newspaper.


Handwriting on a folder holding the print’s negative said the original photo was taken in Canada, and the “exposure” was created in Madison on Nov. 11, 1933, for a man named Nicholas Annen.


Unfortunately, we’ll probably never know when and where in Canada the men were hunting. Tim Ream is the visual-materials archivist at the WHS. He said commercial studios in McVicar’s era often photographed customers’ photos, given that prints wear out and negatives get lost. Therefore, it’s unlikely McVicar was in Canada to photograph the four hunters with their quarry.


After all, that was before cameras became small enough in the late 1940s for mass production and common carry. In fact, the Boone and Crockett Club’s book “Vintage Hunting Album” said only 15% of trophy entries during the 1930s included photos.


And even though McVicar kept good records, his folder didn’t specify where in Canada the photo was taken. Further, it’s unlikely McVicar’s archives will reveal answers. When asked how many photos and negatives McVicar and his successor, George H. Stein, entrusted to the WHS, Ream laughed politely.


“The way we record the amount probably isn’t relatable,” he said. “Our catalog lists the negatives based on the cubic feet of boxes they fill.”


In fact, because McVicar and Stein’s work began in 1925 and ended in 1983, their archives fill over 65 cubic feet of boxed photos, negatives and reference materials. Therefore, the 2,000 images in the WHS’s McVicar/Stein gallery are a minimum count, and a fraction of the “millions” of photos and negatives the WHS stores.


“Honestly, when you’re dealing with donated diaries, photos and other materials from families, businesses, schools and government agencies, you don’t know the content or origin of every item,” Ream said. “Every collection is unique, and people often don’t write down the names of people and places in photos.”


Ream thinks McVicar’s “Spoils of Hunting” photo was probably just a copying job for a client. “He recorded the day he photographed the photo, but the location of the original scene wouldn’t have mattered to him,” Ream said. “He just needed to make a good reproduction for his customer.”


And so if you share this photo of a moose hunt in Canada, and someone demands its creation date and GPS coordinates, invite the critic to study Angus B. McVicar’s 65 cubic feet of photos and negatives at the Wisconsin Historical Society.


We’ll eagerly await the results; #WasteOfTime.

Four hunters pose with their moose, whitetails, fish and bear in this photo from Canada, taken on or before Nov. 11, 1933. — Wisconsin State Historical Society photo

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