History Afield: Remembering the State Fur Farm

Mar 12, 2015

 

Many Wisconsin hunters are aware of the pheasant propagation program conducted at the state game farm in Poynette, which annually hatches thousands of pheasants for hunting opportunities across the southern half of the state.  Few however, are aware of the fur propagation program. But as writer Bob Willging recalls in today’s History Afield, fur was once a thriving part of game farm operations.

The old boys of the state game farm were all gone by the time I interviewed Marv “Koke” Kaukl at his home in Poynette in the spring of 2000.

“I’m the last one left,” he told me with a mix of pride and sadness in his voice. “Not many people today even know about the fur program, not even those here in Poynette.”  Kaukl reminisced with me about the many days he spent grading fox pelts and grinding feed for the raccoons as a state employee during a time in Wisconsin history when fur, both wild and farmed, was a much bigger part of the landscape than today.

Kaukl, who retired from the Wisconsin DNR in 1984 after 40 years of service, spent his long career working at the state game farm located just outside the small town of Poynette in Columbia County.  A year after joining the game farm staff in 1944, Kaukl was assigned to the fur plant, a section of the game farm dedicated to the propagation of native furbearers.

 Today, the facility once known as the Experimental Game and Fur Farm is simply called the State Game Farm and its focus is pheasants, producing thousands annually to be released on public hunting grounds.  When Kaukl was hired,  the fur farm section of the facility was a hub of activity with a variety of active projects involving a variety of furbearers, including mink, fox, raccoon, muskrat, otter, and even pine marten – all part of the State’s furbearer research and propagation programs.

The Poynette facility was established in 1934 when Harley Mackenzie, Chief of the Conservation Commission, combined two existing state game farm operations, one in Door County and another on the Waupun Prison grounds (where prisoners provided labor to hatch and rear game birds from eggs.

Fur farming was a big part of the economy in Wisconsin in the 1930s and 40s.  In 1939 there were more than 1200 licensed fur farms in the state, including mink, muskrat, and raccoon ranches. Fox farms, not included in the total because they weren’t licensed by the state at this time, also were a booming business. In November, 1938 the famous Fromm fox ranch at Hamburg pelted nearly 2,000 fox a day.   In 1935 the Department of Conservation stated, “At the present time, Wisconsin’s fur farms yield more than 50 percent of the silver fox and mink furs produced in the nation.”

In other projects, fox and mink were scientifically crossed and bred to develop more valuable furs for ranchers, and artificial breeding was attempted. Some studies looked at nutritional requirements of captive animals, as fur farmers were always seeking cost-effective ways to feed their animals. A carp-feeding project looked at ways to utilize carp as mink feed.

Due in part to the influence of organized raccoon hunting groups raccoons were a prominent feature at the fur farm in the early years.

“The raccoon ranch was run by the Millard Brothers,” Kaukl told me.  “It was a large facility.” He continued, “At one time I counted over 400 female coon kept for breeding stock.”

Raccoon hunting was extremely popular in the simpler times after the Great Depression, not just because raccoon pelts were a valuable commodity but also due to the numerous field events that could greatly increase the value of a good hound. Although raccoons were not scarce, they were not abundant, and raccoon hunter associations convinced the Conservation Commission to breed and release raccoons for sport hunters.

According to Kaukl the raccoon program was funded by sportsman dollars at first, but the funding shifted to an occupational tax of .25 per raccoon pelt sold. Eventually the funding came directly from the Wisconsin Raccoon and Fox Hunters Association.

“It was a costly program,” said Kaukl. “But it had a lot of support from an influential state senator and a newspaper editor, both involved with the ‘coon and fox hunters association.”

The support was strong enough to keep the raccoon ranch running at Poynette for 20 years. When it finally shut down in the late 1950’s the ranch had produced as many as 1,000 animals a year for stocking. The young raccoons were crated up and distributed to wardens for release into the wild.

But the stocking of young raccoons was a concern for Kaukl and others at the game farm.  “A problem with the program was that the raccoon born in spring were released in August,” he told me. “Too young to fend for themselves I thought.”

Kaukl was involved in other interesting fur programs at the game farm, including the State’s involvement in the fur trade. “Trappers working the State’s portion of the Horicon Marsh had to split their take with the state,” said Kaukl. “It was a 3 to 1 split, with the state getting a one-fourth share of the take.” The pelts were sent to the game farm where they were graded by Kaukl and put up for auction. An old fur grader named Steve Collins taught Kaukl the art of grading furs.  “Beavers were pretty good money back then,” he said. “We averaged about $18.00, with blankets going for $40 - $45. That was a lot of money in those times.”

Another of Kaukl’s responsibilities involved maintaining the game farm’s live animal exhibits, and his affinity for furbearers won him some notoriety.

Wisconsin State Journal staff writer John Newhouse wrote of Kaukl’s ability to tame two badgers in November, 1954.

“If there ever was a fighting animal, it’s the squat, powerful badger. And it’s extremely rare when one is tamed, for badgers don’t cotton much to mankind.That’s why the seasoned animal men at the state game farm here are impressed with the job that Marvin (Koke) Kaukl is doing at the farm with a pair of badgers approaching maturity.”

Through the years the fur programs at the game farm were discontinued, with little remaining by the early 1960’s. With the modern day decline of the fur farm industry and the explosion in raccoon numbers in the wild, the old fur programs of the state game farm speak of a different era. All that remains today of the once vital fur section are concrete foundations of buildings long ago torn down, overgrown with woods and brush, and Marv Kaukl’s memories.