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John R. Eggers: Being a game warden can be a dangerous job

It will be 73 years ago this July that the worst tragedy involving Minnesota Game Wardens or Conservation Officers occurred. It happened in my hometown of Waterville, Minn.

I was reminded of the incident this winter when I was in my fish house and I heard the sounds of approaching snowmobiles. A moment later someone rapped on the plywood walls and said, “License check.”

I didn’t have my license with me because it was still in my summer fishing tackle box. The kind officers walked me to shore to get it.

I was reminded again of the tragedy when a bunch of guys were recently nabbed in this area for the illegal catching and selling of walleyes.

Let me tell you a little about Waterville before I tell you about what happened. Waterville is located 60 miles south of Minneapolis and in the heart of the southern Minnesota lakes region. It is known as the Bullhead Capital of the World. The city is built on the shores of two lakes joined together by the Cannon River, which eventually flows into the Mississippi. I don’t know of anyone who has gone from Waterville to Bemidji via the Cannon and Mississippi but it could be done.

There were quite a few families in Waterville who made their livelihood by commercial fishing and living off of the land. They seined through the ice in the winter for carp, sheepshead and buffalo and they also seined fish in the summer. They trapped turtles for a living, raised mink, harvested ice, gathered ginseng and horseradish, and sold frog legs. We also had our share of expert trappers and hunters. Waterville was kind of a hunting and fishing mecca.

On July 12, 1940, Bryant Baumgartner, who was 54, operated one of Waterville’s commercial fish businesses. On this particular day he was visited by three game wardens who wanted to do a license check on his operation.

Minnesota had recently changed its fishing laws and the three wardens were out making certain people were abiding by the new laws.

When I was young conversations with my friends frequently turned to keeping an eye out for the game warden. We had this idea that wherever we went fishing or hunting, there was a game warden lurking not far away.

Some of us even talked about becoming a game warden. All of us liked being out of doors and to have a job that took us out of doors would be like having no work at all.

My father was a stickler for making sure we had the right number of crappies or the right number of mallards or wood ducks. “Make sure your duck stamp is signed.” One of my most prized possessions is a duck stamp signed by my father in the 1950’s. I have it framed and hanging on the wall near my desk.

The game wardens that came to check Baumgartner’s license that day were A. Melvin Holt, 55, of Worthington, Marcus Whipps, 45, of Kasota, and Dudley Brady, 50, of Windom.

The story is that Baumgartner had enough of game wardens. He became annoyed and felt he was being pestered too much. You might say, he was just fed up.

In general, most people tolerated game wardens. We knew they performed a badly needed service, but we just didn’t want to be bothered —kind of like this winter when I heard, “License Check.”

Growing up I heard stories about people who just dropped a stick of dynamite in the water to catch fish. I assumed it was done because lots of people talked about doing it. Nothing has changed; people still break our game and fish laws. We are thankful for our Conservation Officers who are lurking out there.

When the game wardens asked to see his license, Baumgartner went inside his fish market and a few minutes later returned holding a 12-gauge shotgun.

Most game wardens were not armed and no doubt wardens had been threatened before by someone holding a gun. It just wasn’t taken too seriously. Usually the person would eventually come to his senses and drop the gun. Not in this case.

Before the three could react, Baumgartner gunned down each one. He then went behind the building and took his own life. The result was one of the most tragic events that has ever happened to law enforcement officers in Minnesota.

The incident was not talked about too much in my hometown. It wasn’t something we wanted to take ownership of. We were a small town, we had law abiding, church going citizens and the town profited a great deal from tourists who came to town to fish bullheads. The last thing the town wanted was to scare away the fishermen.

Being a game warden is similar to being a police officer or firefighter. It’s certainly not an easy job and it certainly isn’t always a safe job. I don’t always agree with our hunting and fishing rules and regulations, but I know that without them and without Conservation Officers, there wouldn’t be much of an out of doors to enjoy. Our Conservation Officers deserve a pat on the back.

Now where did I put that fishing license?

— John R. Eggers of Bemidji is a former university professor and area principal. He also is a writer and public speaker.