Now it's all peaceful at Cameron Dam

Members of the Deitz family during happier days prior to the 1910 shootout with sherriff's deputies. Front, from left, Helen, John Deitz, Myra, Clarence, Mrs. Deitz and John Jr. Standing are Stanley and Leslie. Deitz was jailed after a long trila and later pardoned.

"Not gold, but only men, can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor's sake
Stand fast and suffer long."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

     Jerry Biller occasionally walks south of CTH W in Sawyer County on an old road leading part way to a 160-acre tract he owns with Guy Phillips and Mrs. Lucille Martin, two other Winter residents.
     From the road it is a short distance through second growth forest to a grassy clearing sloping to the east bank of Thornapple River.
     Biller, a furniture salesman in Eau Claire, sits at the top of the slope and envisions a small farmstead he and Phillips hope to reconstruct there soon.

Impressions remain

     It will not be too hard matching buildings that once stood there. Their impressions remain in the earth to this day. There are pictures of these in almost every state newspaper and in some history books.
     A few perennial garden vegetables can be found growing wild. And there's the road leading to the site. And, of course, there are remnants of a dam-Cameron Dam-without its gates.
      "You can sit there, and if you know the history of the place, you can see the posse in the woods, or see him crossing the Thornapple, or the children by the house," Biller said.

Man in backwoods setting

     The "him": John F. Deitz. The "posse": some 70 armed men surrounding the Deitz farm. The "children": the Deitz youngsters who grew up under the hand of a determined, notorious father in a backwoods setting framed by the bulging, powerful lumber industry.
     Those forces clashed Oct. 8, 1910 in what is one of Wisconsin's best known sagas.
     It is easy to picture Deitz moving his wife Hattie and family by wagon and horseback from the Rice Lake area, and then in 1904 from the Brunet River area tot he Thornapple where they had bought land in 1900 for $1.75 an acre from Jeannie Cameron.
     Cameron dam, among a number of dams constructed under a charter issued in 1874 to Eau Claire lumberman Daniel Shaw, "to improve the Thornapple for log driving purposes", touched on the Deitz property.

Found land posted

     In April of 1905 when loggers of the Chippewa Lumber and Boom Company arrived at the dam to oversee the upcoming log drive, they found Deitz had posted it. Deitz claimed the Chippewa Falls based company owed him $1,700 in back wages and $8,000 (10 cents per thousand board feet) for lumber which had been sluiced through Cameron Dam since Oct. 11, 1900.
     Deitz reasoned that while "the lumber company was "countin' its millions"…a few crumbs that fall to the floor ought to be mine."
     The lumber company asked Circuit Judge John K. Parish to issue an injunction blocking Deitz from stopping the drive. Judge Parish issued the order and it was hand delivered April 27, 1904. A day or two later Deitz' sons raised the dam's three iron gates, stranding some 5,000 pine logs in the empty flowage basin above the dam.

Deputies run off land

     Sawyer County authorities, led by two deputy sheriffs, were run off by Deitz and a neighbor, Valentine Weissenbach, who later was convinced of attempted murder in the incident and sentenced to a term in Waupun State Prison.
     On July 29, 1904, Deitz met with the company's manager, William Irvine of Chippewa Falls, in a clearing by the Thornapple but they were unable to reach and agreement.
     Paul H. Hass, a state historian, writes that "Deitz knew perfectly well that is claim for toll upon logs driven through Cameron dam was patently absurd;" that the decision in his case ultimately rested with Frederick Weyerhaeuser the lumber baron; and "if he bound himself to arbitration (as suggested by Irvine) or, worse yet, allowed himself to be drawn into court, he stood little chance of collecting more than a bare fraction of the ransom he had set.

Determined to wait

     "John Deitz therefore determined to do nothing except wait."
     There were a series of attempts to gain control of the dam, and public support varied back and forth for Deitz and the lumbering industry, as well as local and state officials who became entangled in the incidents.
     Stories about Deitz and his cause were carried throughout the country in newspapers which tended to side with the Deitz in his battle with the lumbering giants. Often the accounts were distorted, which fueled the Deitz legend for years after the family was finally driven from the homestead.

Made newspaper headlines

John Deitz held off a posse while hading in this barn on his farm along the Thornapple River during an assault to capture him in 1910. Deitz later dashed to his house where he and members of his family surrendered to members of the posse.

     Headlines like "Deitz Will Fight to Death" and "Family Armed Like Army" raced across front pages of state and national newspapers.
     Clarence Deitz, one of Deitz's three sons on the farmstead, was wounded in an attack July 25, 1906, by authorities led by Sawyer County Sheriff James Gylland.
     After the brief battle in which one of the Gylland posse members was wounded, Gylland said brashly, "The only way to take Deitz is to kill the whole family, for the women and the boys shoot as well as Deitz does."
     Deitz' fame spread quickly and the family received mail from all over the country.

Wrote of his plight

     Hass wrote, "Deitz was at his best in print, and from this typewriter flowed a torrent of letters - to public figures, to personal and corporate enemies, to the newspapers of Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota whose readers were his constituency.
     "Dietz was a fundamentally honest man, and he shrank from willfully misrepresenting his case; but, as a skillful propagandist and backwoods lawyer, he selected and arranged the facts to suit his purpose. He clung tenaciously to a few technicalities - the land was not his, but Hattie's; no lawman had ever properly served him; no mention of the dam occurred in his warranty deed - and stressed what seemed obvious to the public at large: that a poor man stood no chance in court against a wealthy corporation; that his son had been shot by a hired gunmen; that the criminal warrants against him had been devised to remove him from Cameron dam just long enough to run the logs downstream."
     "The widespread sympathy which John F. Deitz enjoyed was not, s the lumber companies seed to assert, entirely of his own making, for assuredly he did not exist in a vacuum. His twisting of Weyerhaeuser's tail came at a time…" when "a tide of hostile criticism against the ramparts of American capital" and public "agitation about 'the trusts' reached unprecedented heights."
     On April 4, 1907, a Sawyer county grand jury brought indictments against Deitz, Hattie, sons Clarence and Leslie and daughter Myra for allegedly resisting arrest and attempted murder in the Gylland posse incident.
     On Sept. 16, a representative of Weyerhaeuser came to the Deitz residence with Deitz's brother William and paid Deitz the contested $1,717 in cash and obtained a release from Deitz for logs stranded above the dam. By mid-March of the next year Weyerhaeuser crews had removed the $45,000 worth of logs.
     But the Deitz story did not end here.
     Deitz became an embittered man and, according to historians, cast himself as a revolutionary of sorts.

Schedule final log drive

     In 1910 the Chippewa Lumber and Boom Company announced that it was holding its final log drive, a decision which Irvine said marked the end of the logging era in northern Wisconsin.
     On Sept. 6, 1910, Deitz and two of his sons went to Winter to vote. Afterward Clarence got in an argument with the president of the school bard, Charles G. O'Hare, about the county's agreement to provide a school teacher and $20 a month board so the Deitz children could be educated at home.
     Deitz entered the argument and so did logger Bert Horel, who knocked Deitz down. Deitz reacted by drawing a pistol and shooting Horel through the neck, seriously wounding him. Deitz and his sons retreated to their farm.

Deitz fired upon

     On Sept. 13, someone fired a shot at Deitz as he was going from his house to the barn.
     On Oct. 1, Sheriff Mike Madden and deputies Fred Thorbahn and Roy Van Alstine ambushed a wagon occupied by Clarence, Myra and Leslie. Clarence and Myra were wounded and Leslie fled back to the farm where Deitz was being interviewed by a Minneapolis newspaperman. Clarence and Myra were taken in the wagon to Winter.
     By Oct. 6, a ring of armed men had formed around the Deitz farm. They were joined by about 30 men from the Kaiser Lumber Company camp north of the Deitz farm.
     About mid-morning Oct. 8 the posse began working its way toward the Deitz house. Firing began about 9:30 a.m. Scores of bullets hit the house where Deitz and his wife huddled with their children.

Deitz runs to barn

     Deitz ran to the barn. In the gunfire that followed, Oscar Harp, a deputy was fatally wounded. About 3 p.m. Deitz ran back tot he house and later his daughter Helen emerged waving white towels.
     Deitz, wounded in the hand, and his family surrendered. Souvenir hunters began rummaging through the Deitz house.
     John, Hattie and Leslie were charged with murder, but the charge was dropped later against all but Deitz.
     Deitz represented himself during a trial at Hayward but failed to convince a jury - which included four lumber company employees - of his innocence in Harp's death. On May 13, 1911, he was sentenced to life in prison at Waupun.

Sentence commuted

     Appeals were made for a new trial and Deitz's release over the next several years, with money from sympathizers aiding his cause. Gov. Francis McGovern commuted Deitz's sentence to 20 years in 1914. After more appeals and petitions from citizens, Gov. John J. Blaine pardoned Deitz and he was released in May of 1921.
     After more appeals and petitions from citizens, Gov. John J. Blaine pardoned Deitz and he was released in May of 1921.
     Deitz died May 8, 1924, and is buried in a small cemetery south of Rice Lake. After the Oct. 8, 1910, shootout, the Deitz family never again lived on the Thornapple.
     Hass wrote, "Fifty years afterward, it is plain that the drama that was played out on the Thornapple made no lasting mark on the history of the Wisconsin pinery. A man died violently, a number of lives were drastically altered, but the central event of the time and place - the passing of the great forest - was neither stayed nor hastened by a single day.
     "John F. Deitz is remembered, or rather half-remembered, as an aberration, a kind of natural calamity: he happened and was gone.
     "In a grim sense, he was simply another waste produce of the warning days of lumbering."
     In that spirit, Biller says it is important that the Deitz farmstead be restored for its historical value, "to our area, and the whole state of Wisconsin."
     "Was victim of times"
     "The time to do it is now while there are still some who remember," Biller said.
     "You know, the main question in all of this is what would have happened if the Deitz story would have happened today," he said.
     "I believe that in this day and age, with the more liberal courts and all, John Deitz would have won his case. He was a victim of the times."

A disagreement exists over the spelling of Deitz' name. The State Historical Society and news accounts in this newspaper used the "Deitz" version, while a book, "The Battle of Cameron Dam," by Malcolm Roshold, uses the "Dietz" spelling.

--Dave Carlson

Extracted from the Eau Claire Leader Telegram
Special Publication, Our Story 'The Chippewa Valley and Beyond', published 1976
Used with permission.

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