July 21, 2023
Paul Schadegg was home for only a few minutes when he noticed his neighbor from the south, Paul Billberg, driving up his roadway. As the Billberg vehicle slowed, Schadegg knew he was about to receive company. It was the late summer of 1964, and neighbors visiting neighbors was a typical weekend activity. Schadegg welcomed the visit. He had arrived home moments earlier, having visited another nearby neighbor living about a mile down the only a few minutes when he road, Alfred Gavelin.
The Gavelins were hosting a rummage sale for their relative Rudy’s belongings. “They were selling all Rudy’s belongings, including the antlers from the buck he killed during the 1963 hunting season. Rudy wanted $25.00 for them, since that’s what he paid to have them mounted. That was a lot of money at the time, but I wanted them, so I paid it,” Schadegg remembers.
The “Gavelin Buck,” as the antlers get referred to, caused quite a stir among the nearby residents of northwestern Minnesota’s unincorporated community of Wannaska. Schadegg has fond memories of the many people gathering around the buck. He witnessed the excitement among the small crowds and listened to the conversations sparked by the deer.
He noticed how fast word of the buck spread and how soon people began showing up to see it. That is why he bought the antlers that summer in 1964. Being a member of the community, Schadegg thought the antlers would be a great reminder of the camaraderie and friendships that make the small community a welcoming home.
“When Paul Billberg stopped over that day in 1964, he said he was going to buy the antlers from me. Of course, I told him that would never happen,” Schadegg recalls. Billberg’s only history with the deer was that Rudy Gavelin shot the buck very close to the Billberg property line. Despite Billberg’s persistence, Schadegg did not sell him the antlers.
“I didn’t look at them for value or size; I looked at them for the excitement they brought to the area,” Schadegg adds. Unfortunately, no one thought to record the events surrounding the hunt that produced this incredible deer. However, we know a few details from the hunt that allow us to paint a picture of the hunting party and some of the events that took place on that day nearly 60 years ago.
RUDY’S HUNT TO REMEMBER
Rudy and Alfred Gavelin were brothers and bachelors that lived together and farmed southwest of Wannaska. They both were respected and well-known in the area as avid trappers and hunters. They were also known as being fun-loving characters notorious for having a good time, a life trait that made them ever popular with the younger crowd. “You never knew what to expect from those two,” Dale Billberg says with a laugh.
Four Gavelin brothers were in the hunting party that day in November of 1963, along with another two locals; the hunting party consisted of six men. Old photos show the party members dressed in traditional red hunting coats, and several wore wool pants. Those photos also show us bluebird skies and men with their hunting coats open, giving the assumption of a warm day. Another thing we learn from the photos, which also lends some information about the hunt, is that there was no snow on the ground. Without snow, tracking a buck would be nearly impossible inside the willow-choked bogs where the old deer are known to hide. So, it is assumed that Rudy killed the big buck during a deer drive.
Much of the land in southern Roseau County used to be swamp land. The boggy soil held water, causing the land to become too wet to farm. Therefore, it was necessary to cut ditches to drain the swamps. The ditches helped to dry the land enough to allow for the clear cutting that created much of today’s open farmland. In 1963, the Billberg homestead was still primarily covered in red willow. There were also few roads in the area, which created large pieces of land with little to no access. That untouched land was rugged, and some of it was pretty large. A careless hunter could find themselves walking through several miles of misery if they made a mistake. They had to know what they were doing and needed woodsman-ship skills to traverse the large sections of unbroken cover.
Deer drives included putting a couple of posters along known deer escape routes and sending drivers through a section of cover to flush any deer to the posted shooters. The Gavelin brothers may have known the land well enough to know how to take advantage of these escape routes. They must have known something, because Rudy Gavelin had a deer hunting day like no other!
Besides killing the big-antlered buck, Rudy took advantage of Minnesota’s long-standing party-hunting privilege and shot a few other deer that day. Somebody made a note from that day’s hunt that states: “Rudy Gavelin shot five bucks this day that dressed out over 200 pounds.” That is impressive! We will never know if it was all planned or just happenstance, but one of those bucks dressed out at 247 pounds and carried antlers like nobody in Roseau County had ever seen.
Those antlers were so big, that almost 60 years later, they are still the largest ever taken in the county!
Unfortunately for Rudy, the 1963 deer season would be his last. He suffered a debilitating stroke during the winter of 1964. It happened during one of the worst blizzards of the winter. Nevertheless, thanks to a few locals’ resourcefulness, they saved Rudy’s life. An old Oliver 88 tractor with no cab and a one-way plow cleared the road ahead of a station wagon owned and driven by local Mortician, Jim Helgeson. He had Rudy stretched out in the back of the wagon. The guy riding along and helping Helgeson move Rudy was Paul Billberg.
Healthcare moved Rudy into a care facility, where he soon passed away in May 1965. Because of the unfortunate events caused by Rudy’s stroke, the biggest buck he ever shot came up for sale. That is when Paul Schadegg purchased them at the Gavelin rummage sale.
Dave Billberg is Paul Billberg’s son. Dave was friends with the Gavelin brothers and remembers them well. “I bought my first shotgun from Rudy. I was 12 years old when I bought it and still have that 12-gauge Wingmaster today. Those brothers were fun people to be around, and I spent a lot of time with them when I was growing up,” Dave remembers.
Dave saw the big-antlered buck in person the day Rudy shot it. “I was a senior in high school and happened to be in town when those guys came roaring in. It was obvious that Rudy had shot it, because he was having so much fun. The more fun he had, the more attention he drew, which brought even more people over to see the deer. I’ll never forget that day. If it was meant to be fun and bring people together, than Rudy was the perfect candidate.”
It seemed as if everyone in the area knew of and was talking about the big buck. The Gavelin brothers ensured that anyone who wanted to see the deer would get the opportunity. As a result, the buck was the subject of conversation for several years in every deer camp within five counties. The deer was still getting recognition into the 1970s, with its photo appearing in a publication titled Happy Hunting Grounds, by G. Arnold Grefthen.
In the meantime, Paul Billberg was still trying to get the antlers from Schadegg, but with no success. Nevertheless, Schadegg held firm that the antlers would never be for sale. To prove his point, Schadegg tells of a day in the early 1980s. While working in his office in Minneapolis, a gentleman walked in and laid ten $100 bills on his desk. True to his word, Schadegg politely declined the more than generous offer.
Over the years, the Billberg family made several phone calls to Schadegg, hoping they could find the right words to convince him to sell them the antlers. Unfortunately, it seemed as if it would never happen. About 20 years ago, one of Dave’s sons, Rusty, took it upon himself to pursue the antlers. He made it a point to stay in contact with Schadegg, who had moved to Bismarck, North Dakota. Rusty did not push the issue, but he always reminded Schadegg that he would someday like to buy the antlers. Schadegg’s response was always the same. Finally, after so many years of denial, Rusty was about to give up last fall when he received a text message from Schadegg that said, “Call me.”
“When Rusty called me, he asked if I was going to ever sell Rudy’s antlers to him,” Schadegg explains. “I told him like I always told him, the antlers were not for sale and never will be for sale. But then I added, ‘I’m going to give them to you, Rusty; they are now yours.’ So, that’s what I did. I gave them to Rusty.” Schadegg continues, “When I go, I do not want these antlers to be moved along without a story or history. Rusty has that. He knows the story; he has the history of the buck getting shot near his grandfather’s property line. He has a history with the hunter through his dad, with Dave and Rudy being friends. Furthermore, his grandpa Paul was after them from the start. So, now Rusty has a place where everyone can see the antlers. It only makes sense that they return to the community that showed them so much appreciation years ago.”
THE CHANGING OF HANDS
On Nov. 27, 2021, Rusty and Paul Billberg drove to Bismarck, where they met with Paul Schadegg, and the Rudy Gavelin antlers changed hands. The antlers have returned to their origins; the king of the county has returned to his homeland. “No words could possibly measure up for how thankful we are for Paul’s generosity,” Rusty explains. “It is here for good now. We will make sure this buck gets celebrated for years to come.”
One of the first items of business for Rusty was to get the antlers officially measured. “Everyone was asking, and we did not know the score. Besides, we wanted to get it recorded within the state and Boone & Crockett if it qualified.”
In March of 2022, Rusty and Paul traveled to the Minnesota Deer & Turkey Expo held in Shakopee, Minnesota. There, respected measurer Shawn Grabow had the honor of being the first person in 58 years to pull a tape over the Rudy Gavelin antlers. His final tally shows 17 measurable points, totaling 241 3/8 gross inches with a record book entry net score of 233 5/8 inches. All that antler gets carried on a 5x6 typical frame gross scoring 191 3/8 and net scoring 183 5/8. The Gavelin buck ranks as the number one non-typical from Roseau County, and the number 14 non-typical in Minnesota.
Small town America, where everybody knows everybody; Wannaska, Minnesota, fits that label. The tiny community is nearly a Rockwell setting. The south fork of the Roseau River makes a lazy bend through the middle of town. The ice-skating rink is open seven days a week in the winter. It is a place where kids grow up to be deer hunters.
Wannaska is one of the dwindling number of communities that still celebrates deer season. So, if you are ever in town, swing into the Riverfront Station. The coffee is always hot, and if you mention you came to see the Rudy Gavelin buck, you will be treated like family and welcomed into the community. However, first, be ready to talk deer hunting; it happens when you are in a community that celebrates whitetails.