O?Melia Deer Camp is long lasting reminder of Northwoods hunting tradition
As hunters head to the woods this weekend for the annual deer gun hunt and bring with them many of the amenities available to modern hunters, there is still one place where tradition and the past mean much more than the comforts of modern technology.
For almost a century, a small cabin in the middle of 1,800 acres of woods nestled between Sugar Camp and Three Lakes, the deer camp owned by the O’Melia family has held to the traditional values the cabin represents.
“Deer camp is still a great time,” current camp boss John O’Melia said. “We will have 22 to 23 hunters here that first weekend. We have relatives, friends. We have people that come from out of town, out of the state.”
And they come for a taste of what life was like back in the mid 1920s when John’s grandfather A.J. first built the cabin on the site and started accumulating the land.
“He would just buy a piece here and a piece there,” John said. “Pretty soon he had 1,800 acres of land to hunt on.”
John is the fourth camp boss the cabin has had and his duties are no less than they were when A.J. served a the first boss many years ago, setting the rules for the week.
“He is the boss but he is not bossy,” said John’s brother Patrick O’Melia.
“It is my job to set the rules, decided who is going to sleep where and make sure the cabin is ready,” John said. “We have a camp cook that does all the cooking and we lay down the ground rules for the hunt.”
John, who is a lawyer, and Patrick, who is an Oneida County Circuit Court judge, are often joined by other lawyers and judges during the week which led to a humorous conflict last year.
“I made a rule saying that we should only shoot deer eight points and higher,” John said. “But when I sent out the rules for the big buck hunt contest, I said anything more than six points, thinking that if you saw six points, there maybe a couple of smaller points that you couldn’t see.”
The possible winner shot a deer with seven points which led to the cabin quickly becoming divided.
“The poor guy didn’t know what hit him,” Patrick said. “Here is a cabin full of judges and lawyers and pretty soon we had divided up with both sides preparing arguments and getting ready to debate the issue. He even had one of the guys hired as his lawyer. It was all in fun of course and we had a great time with it.”
Having fun at the cabin is nothing new to this group. While the hunt is a serious affair, after the sun goes down everyone can kick back and relax but still should be on guard for pranksters.
One victim of the cabin comedians was Senator Joe McCarthy. McCarthy, hunting at the cabin, needed to reach Washington and he was pointed to an old crank phone at the wall. When he got no reply after the first crank from the operator at Three Lakes, he was encouraged to yell louder. It is not known how high the volume got before McCarthy figured out the trick.
One could excuse the Senator for putting his guard down when staying at the cabin which is nestled deep in the woods, cut off from modern distractions.
The lights in the cabin are powered by propane and a pump outside the front door serves as the tap. To heat the building, a large stone fireplace sits in the middle of the open room. It does its job very though, according to those who have stayed there.
“That fireplace can really heat the place up,” Patrick said. “We have to open the front and back door just to get some air flowing through to keep it comfortable.”
And comfort is something that abounds at the cabin and thanks to the efforts of the generations that have cared for the cabin like John and Patrick. Some things have changed as beams have had to be shored up and the trail system that takes hunters to their various locations has to be maintained and expanded.
But overall the cabin still looks and functions like it did when A.J. built it almost 100 years ago and stands as a testament to the history of deer hunting in the Northwoods.