The Desperate Seven ~ An Early Deer Hunting Saga in Itasca County


My great-great uncle George Boxell enjoyed writing about the exploits of his hunting party in the years between WWI and WWII. George and his older brothers John and Robert, along with a handful of other male relatives traveled by train from Howard Lake, Minnesota to hunting camps north of Deer River, sometimes staying for a month. He wrote about the good years and the bad, the moose and deer that got away, and the ones that became legends. He wrote about the prowess and fumbling of each members hunting and cooking abilities. He wrote about the laughter, storytelling, and friendship, but George did not set it to verse as Emil Rockel was known to do.

Rockel was a sportsman from the Twin Cities who hunted in Itasca County, befriended Clyde and Clarence Jellison, and became part of a hunting party known as the “Nasty Seven.” Rockel’s nicknames were Dutchy, Shotgun Willie, and Shakespeare. Rockel loved to write poems about whatever caught his fancy, but especially about the camaraderie of men at work and leisure. Several of his poems are included in the book “This is Where I Belong ~ Stories as Told by Clyde Jellison,” put together by his daughters Shirley Moreira and Ruth Dickie in 1982.

In the book, Clyde shares the memory of a hunting adventure with his brother Clarence, and friends Charlie Brown, Jim Crawford, Rueben Long, Emil Rockel, and Ralph Zupond. “We hunted together one fall at the head of Bass Lake –the fall of 1919 or 1920. We all camped at Smith’s shack as no one was living there at the time. We hunted there about a week and had pretty good luck. Everybody got a deer except Zupond. He had been shooting, but he missed.

One morning we started out and Jim Crawford put him on a good stand—told him just what to do. He told him, ‘When you see the deer come out of the woods, you’ll think he’s going to cross down the road, but you stay right there because the deer will make a turn and come right back where you are.’  Rube Long and I made the drive, the rest of them stood. We scared out a nice big buck, and it came right up on the runway where Zupond was. He saw the deer and thought it was going to cross down the road, so he left his stand on the run and went down the road. When he got there, he happened to remember what Jim had told him, and he stopped, looked around, and the deer jumped right over the stump on which he had been standing! He took two or three shots at it, but he missed. When the drive was over, he told us what he had done, and I tell you Jim Crawford was pretty mad about it. That ended the hunt, right there!”

Not long after the hunting season, Rockel set it to verse.

The Desperate Seven

By Emil Rockel

Would you like to hear the story of a hunting trip I took,

Up in Itasca County, near the town of Bass Brook?

There were seven in the party, and they camped at Smith’s shack,

I knew that no game warden could follow that outfit’s track.

They were known as the ‘Nasty Seven’ and desperate was that band,

Which wouldn’t stop at slaughter, the worse outlaws in the land.

They started out one evening and that night prepared their camp.

All ready for the ‘morrow and the weary huntsman’s tramp.

Jim Crawford was the Captain of that desperate outlaw band,

He directed operations with a skillful leader’s hand.

An old-timer in that country, he knew every pine tree stump,

He could go thru’ the brush like a rabbit and make the rest of us hump.

One day as he neared a hilltop, he sighted a young deer’s ‘flag,’

He put his gun to his shoulder and Jim and the deer played tag.

He didn’t make a killing, there wasn’t a chance to hit,

We didn’t blame the Captain, for he always did his bit.

Rube Long was the Captain’s partner who made many a drive

Thru’ those northern woods together, towards the Captain’s other ‘five,’

When he tracked deer thru’ the valley he bayed just like a hound,

And to six of the desperate seven ‘twas a weird, uncanny sound.

One day while doing some tracking, he stopped very suddenly,

For before him a young fawn was leaning against a small poplar tree,

This animal had been wounded, and terrible it had bled.

But Rube never knew until later, that he’d killed a deer that was dead!

Clyde Jellison was a good marksman, that trick he considered a treat,

He’d seen service in Europe and would rather go hunting than eat.

He was the first man up every morning, you just couldn’t keep him in bed

Then he’d play his harmonica, you might know what the rest of us said!

One day while we were out hunting, and he was crossing a bog,

He shot what he thought was a deer but was only an Airedale dog!

That critter was all fuzz and whiskers, not as large as a baby calf,

When the rest of the outlaws saw it, they joined in a hearty laugh!

Now Clyde has a brother named Clarence, who also belonged to the band,

But he was slightly crippled—lost three fingers from one hand.

He was tall and lean and lanky, thru’ the brush he could go some.

And whenever a deer he sighted you could hear those bullets hum.

A big one came toward him one morning, he knew that he wasn’t slow,

It came along like a whirlwind, but he plugged it, a beautiful doe.

The rest of the day we were luckless—many miles we did tramp

Thru’ valleys, bogs and o’er hilltops before we struck supper and camp.

Charles Brown was the oldest villain of that nasty outlaw band,

He had plenty of training and handles a gun just grand.

A bad, bald-headed fellow—at least that’s what Zupond said,

I know that the hair is very thin on the top of that old man’s head.

One day while the two were together, they sighted a little doe,

Charlie sure would have killed it, but his gun was shooting low.

It sounded like a duel, as the bullets ‘round them sang,

Charlie’s gun was going ‘ping’ while the other one went ‘pang.’

Zupond came from Dakota, the far-off prairie land,

Because he had a desire to hunt with the outlaw band.

He told us a lot of stories and he made a two-story cake,

Some pancakes and some doughnuts, and they all were easy to take.

No matter how he hunted, he didn’t have much luck,

He didn’t care for small deer—what he wanted was a buck!

So, the Captain drove one to him, but he let it get away,

All because poor Zupond left his stand on that dark day.

Rockel came up from the city to have a hunt with the ‘boys,’

All he used was a shotgun which made a lot of noise!

He had no hunting experience, and he lacked a huntsman’s skill,

So, he was badly handicapped when the bunch went out for a ‘kill.’

They called him ‘Shotgun Willie’—Billie was a buckshot gun,

But he took it all good-natured, he knew it was all in fun.

But he did some execution—scattered buckshot all about,

So, the boys would have better hunting when that buckshot starts to sprout!

Eight days that bunch camped together, and they got along just fine,

There wasn’t a cross word spoken, a smile on each face did shine.

They loved to live close to nature, they loved the wild woods to roam,

All of them seemed down-hearted, when the time came to go home.

The career of the ‘Seven’ is ended, the outlaw band is no more,

I wonder if they’ll ever go hunting when they meet on that beautiful shore.

Now you have heard the story of the hunting trip I took,

Up in Itasca County, near the township of Bass Brook.

It was just one week later, that the Captain called three of his men,

Clarence and Clyde and Ruben, on a hunting trip again.

As on the previous occasion, he mapped out a plan, a campaign,

For they were more desperate than ever and hunted with might and main.

They covered the west shore of Bass Lake, the timber and brush so thick,

To get a deer in the country, a man must be clever and quick.

I didn’t go with them on that trip, but I’ll say they had some luck,

For when they came home that evening, they brought with them Zupond’s buck!

Brief Bios

~ Charlie Brown (1870-1966). He immigrated from Sweden to central Minnesota with his parents when he was five years of age. He came to Cohasset in 1901, working in the woods in the winter and prospecting for gold in the summer. He and John Nelson bought the Cook Hotel, and after it burned down, constructed a building which could accommodate 150-200 lumberjacks.

~ Jim Crawford (1879-1951). In 1893 Crawford’s family homesteaded on an island in Bass Lake that is still referred to as Crawford’s Island. He worked as a woodsman in the winter and during the harvest season went to the Dakotas and Nebraska. It was in Nebraska where he met and married Delilah Henderson. They settled in Cohasset and were the parents of fifteen children.

~ Clarence Jellison (1889-1974). The Jesse Jellison family moved to Bass Lake from Minneapolis in about 1894. When Jesse died in 1908, his sons Clarence and Clyde operated a sawmill on their property. Later the brothers built cabins and established Wildwood Resort.  In the late 1920s they sold it. Clarence married Orva Jones (sister of Clyde’s wife Dorothy), in October 1927, and in 1929 they established Jellison’s Log Cabin Camp on Bass Lake.

~ Clyde Jellison (1891-1983). He enlisted in the army in December 1917, sailed on the USS America to France in May 1918, and returned to Itasca County in the summer of 1919. After selling the Wildwood Resort he married Dorothy Jones in September 1927. He was a carpenter who worked with the Frederick Mills Lumber Company building mostly houses. Later he built bridges in Itasca County. In 1932, he and Dorothy started the Little Bass Camp on Little Bass Lake. [see for the 9.12.2021 article on the resort.]

~ Rueben Long (1885-1947). He was a farmer from Indiana who moved to the Bass Brook area in the early 1900s.  In 1911, he married Rachel Carter, a woman with three young boys. She was a sister of Jim Crawford. By 1930 he was working at the Blandin Paper Mill.

~ Emil Rockel (1886-1951). He was a letter carrier in Minneapolis but loved the northern woods of Itasca County. In the late 1920s he and his wife Ethel moved up and started the Sunset Point Resort on Bass Lake. [see for the 7.25.2021 article on the resort.]

~ Ralph Zupond (1885-1961). He was proprietor of a restaurant in Lakota, a town between Grand Forks and Devils Lake, North Dakota. By 1930 he and his family moved to and opened a restaurant in Antrim, Michigan.

I didn’t grow up in a family that had a tradition of hunting in a group, but I can certainly relate to the camaraderie! My circle of writing friends has grown via zoom and now in person during the last year and a half, and I am looking forward to attending a retreat with about a dozen writers in January!

1 Comment

  1. youngv2015 says:

    I would’ve liked to have been a fly on the wall in that deer camp. I like how you included brief bios about the hunters. I recognized some of the names and resorts from reading that series.


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