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Some Hunting Experiences Hard To “Bear”

Looking Back” article by Rose McIlveen 6/25/83

Bear hunting was a challenge engaged in by the earliest Monroe County settlers for practical rather than sporting reasons. Before the supply wagons carrying goods for sale began to find their way to the county, settlers were obliged to live on a combination of the corn they could grow and whatever game they could kill.

Monroe the Bear greets visitors at the Monroe County History Center. Killed by local business owner, Roy Schmalz, in what would later become Alaska. He received special permission by the federal government to hunt for sport.

Bear-hunting separated the men from the boys. Any reader tempted to think that tracking down that animal was child’s play should make a trip to the Monroe County Historical Society Museum to have a look at the stuffed specimen waiting just inside the front door. Then mentally scale that one down a little and you get a rough idea of why bear-hunting wasn’t for everyone.

The county’s earliest hunter was a squatter by the name of David McHolland. He was also reputed to be the first settled here. He plated the fiddle and was much in demand for parties, which probably explains why the only thing that motivated him to go out hunting was the clamor of hungry mouths around the table in his crude cabin. According to the Counties of Morgan, Monroe and Brown, when McHolland’s Clear Creek squatter homestead was sold out from under him, he cheerfully moved on to greener pastures in Bean Blossom Township where bears were more plentiful.

His nearest rival for a hunting prowess reputation was one George Sharp, who settled in Richland Township back in 1817. The county history states that back in his native Virginia he “averaged a bear a day for months.” The claim seems a bit optimistic, but is backed up with the explanation that Sharp and others were commissioned to supply all of the wild meat for a surveying expedition.

The ex-Virginian’s hunting trademark was a butcher knife with a foot-long blade. According to the county history, Sharp used the knife to kill one of the few bears found in Richland Township.

He was called in by some other hunters to lend his expertise in the winter of 1819, when some bear tracks were found after a light snowfall. The tracks led to a tree, which proved to contain a mother bear and two almost-grown cubs.

According to the county history, “one of the cubs caught a dog owned by Mr. Sharp and was crushing the life out of him, when the irate owner armed with the big butcher knife above mentioned, ran up and reaching over the bear, struck it to the heart from the opposite side. The yelping canine was instantly released and in a few moments the bear was dead.”

Sharp explained to his less-experienced companions that bears attached from the front, lash out with sharp claws and cause painful injuries. It is not known whether Sharp had earlier learned that the hard way, but it is likely that he did during his bear-a-day experiences.

James Parks, another early Richland Township settler, found a bear asleep on the front porch early one morning. The family had bearsteak for breakfast. The county history states that it tastes like pork and can be fried in its own fat.

Apart from providing table-fare, bear hunting had another practical purpose. The hides brought in 25 cents to $1 and were transformed into breeches for the men.

Explains the county history, “When the weather was fair, they were good enough, but in rainy or foul weather they took water like a blanket, and when dried were stiff enough to stand alone. Then it was laughable to see the old settlers draw them on!”