Bowhunters flocked to Necedah refuge in 1940s

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D.S. Pledger
Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bowhunters: Do you think that public hunting land is crowded these days? Wouldn't it be great to have hunted six decades ago when the sport was just getting popular and there was plenty of elbow room? That might have been true in some places but definitely not at the big Necedah Wildlife Refuge in central Wisconsin.

In the 1940s, a trip to Necedah for the opener was a kind of pilgrimage for bowhunters from around the country. Roy Hoff, the editor of “Archery” magazine, flew all the way from California to be part of it.When he arrived at the airport in Milwaukee he was met by Larry Wiffen, a well-known bowhunter from the city, and his wife Shirley. Together they drove the 160 miles northwest to the refuge, aka “Whitetail Mecca.”

When they stopped 25 miles short of Necedah at Mauston on the eve of the opener, they found the hotels overflowing with eager hunters.

“The hotels at Mauston and near-by New Lisbon were not the only ones crowded” he wrote. “Every sort of accommodations in towns within 40 miles of Necedah, including tourist cabins, rooming houses and private homes with improvised arrangements in the living room, were filled. Most places had been reserved months before the season opened. We fortunately had rooms at Spikes boarding establishment in Necedah.”

The visitor from the Golden State got his first real look at the magnitude of this bowhunting spectacle at 4:30 a.m. the next morning when he arose to find auto traffic going through town in a steady procession that reportedly lasted for three solid hours.

These cars were all filled with bowhunters arriving from everywhere, all heading for the refuge. It was useless to try to get into a restaurant for a bite or two of breakfast. There are only two eating emporiums in town, and they had been filled all night and were still jammed full of hunters.

By 5:30 a.m., most of the hunters had arrived at the refuge and were picking their way through the woods in the predawn darkness. The state Conservation Department had sent a number of agents to oversee things, and it was later estimated that there were at least 4,000 deer-stalkers present (this was just within the boundaries Necedah Refuge itself).

It was said that “there were areas where a red-capped hunter peeked out from behind each tree or bush and the cars were parked so thick it looked as though a football game must be in progress.”

One observer described seeing a deer coming out of the woods that was forced to jump over the hood of a car to get to the other side of the road. Another archer tells the story of how he shot a deer in the morning and decided to wait an hour before tracking it. When he found it, there were already two other hunters who had each subsequently put arrows in it, and were now fighting over its ownership.

The spectacle at Necedah had attracted more than just hunters. News writers were there covering for the Associated Press, Holiday Magazine, the Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Sentinel.

If the town's hotels had seemed crowded, the areas adjacent to the refuge that permitted camping were equally so. Tent villages had sprung up along the highway for an entire 12-mile stretch.

At one point near the little whistle-stop of Sprague it was reported that there were 51 tents pitched in a sort of an impromptu canvas city, with an additional 33 elsewhere in the vicinity. In approximately half the area being hunted, 478 cars were counted.

“Never in the history of bowhunting including the regular deer seasons,” Hoff later remarked, “have so many hunters concentrated in one area as they did on the town roads and drainage ditches in the Necedah refuge on the opening day, September 27, 1947.”

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net.

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