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ALDERFER: This is Bill Alderfer, field representative, State Historical Society, here at the home of Nelson--Nelson J. Le Clair, of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. This is the 30th of June, 1960. Okay, now we got--we'll be able to pick this up [unintelligible]. Nels, would you recap your career, when you were born and what you were doing with the Conservation Departments? This is a part of our history of the natural resources of Wisconsin.

LE CLAIR: As far as [unintelligible] quite a space from the time I was born and the Conservation Commission.

ALDERFER: How long a space was that?


LE CLAIR: Well--

ALDERFER: Well now, look, you can either tell me how old you are or maybe--

LE CLAIR: Eighty-two.

ALDERFER: Eighty-two! Okay, well, we'll figure out when you were born. [laughter]

LE CLAIR: That's, uh, 1877.

ALDERFER: 1877. And then you fished for a while here in--

LE CLAIR: Well, you see I was born in 1877, and I moved to Two Rivers from Seymour, Wisconsin.

ALDERFER: Oh yeah.

LE CLAIR: And my folks moved to Two Rivers and went into fishing at this--at that time. Well, he was fishing before, that he ever went away from Two Rivers. He was a pioneer fisherman, he was one of the first local people that went, that 00:02:00fished [unintelligible].

ALDERFER: What was, what was--that was your dad, what was his name?

LE CLAIR: Charles Le Clair.

ALDERFER: Charles.

LE CLAIR: Charles Le Clair.

ALDERFER: Charles Le Clair.

LE CLAIR: And so he, on account of Mother, he had to quit the fishing business and go away from the lake on account of sickness, 'cause she had asthma. And then he went to Appleton, and worked there for a year or so, and then he bought a farm in Outagamie County, in Seymour in Outagamie County. And that is where I was born. 

ALDERFER: You were born there in 1877.


ALDERFER: Well, you didn't want to be a farmer, evidently.

LE CLAIR: Well, I had no choice at that time, but at the same time, he--my brother Charlie had been in the fishing until he was fourteen years old, he had 00:03:00been living here with my dad fishing. And when my dad moved away, he always had a hankering of going back fishing. And so after he stayed there in Seymour, he came to Two Rivers and got married to Revera. And he went back to Seymour, and he insisted that my dad go back with him back fishing. And that is how they came back to Two Rivers.


LE CLAIR: So he came back, and I was six years old. And, of course, I was with him all the while, and that's how I got to go in and be in the fish business. 00:04:00When my dad got old enough that he couldn't work anymore, then he says to me, he says, "You take my place." And I was fourteen years old. So I took over the business of the fishing, his part.

ALDERFER: His part of the fishing. Well, you were fourteen years old then. That would put it up there around 1901. All right, now, when did you get interested in the conservation movement? You didn't call it that in those days.

LE CLAIR: No, when I got interested in conservation, there was certain people, you know, that went to Madison and wanted to pass laws to regulate the fishing, 00:05:00or that is, want to stop certain fishermen from fishing and so on. The dealers were behind it; the dealers wanted to kind of hamper the fishing industry. So, of course, the older fellas, than I was, there was the assemblymen, you know, from the districts and so on. Whenever there was something that was contrary to what the fishermen thought should be, they would go down to Madison and fight the bills.


LE CLAIR: And it kept on, and I was always with these fellas, and was very much interested. And so pretty soon, this individualism didn't work. You had to organize a fishermen's association.


ALDERFER: Oh, I see.

LE CLAIR: And so we organized a fishermen's association in the Waverly basement. We had all the fishermen come there together, and we talked things over. And I was only a young fella, but what did they do, all these older men, they says, "You be our president." So they put me president of the association. That was too much, I thought that was too much, but I accepted. And from that time on, anything that went, I was always at the head of the--well, for the fifth, I was 00:07:00spokesman for the--

ALDERFER: What were you, what were some of the things that you were--well, I don't know how to put that. What were you discussing in those days, I mean things were different in those days. What were the problems that you were trying to solve?

LE CLAIR: The problem was, the fishermen wanted a closed season. Instead of going out on the reefs and slaughtering the fish, by the boatloads, they wanted to stop fishing during that period, in order to let the fish spawn. And then after they were spawned, then catch 'em. And, but the dealers of the community, 00:08:00of the country, all over, didn't want that stopped. They wanted the fishermen to continue to fish and catch an abundance of fish during that time, and they bought them then for a cent a pound or two. And they made money with that, turned around and sell them for ten, fifteen, twenty cents after they had them, and it was wrong. Shouldn't do that. It hurt the market for the fish. See?


LE CLAIR: It hurt the fisherman, because he went and caught them, give this stuff away, and there was no income from it. And that's where the thing was boiling and, of course, they went down in Madison, you know, and put in bills, 00:09:00you know. They didn't want stop. See? They had a bill for a closed season, and pretty soon they wanted to open it up again, and that was the fight.

ALDERFER: Who down in Madison were helping you out, helping the fishermen out in this?

LE CLAIR: There was nobody in Madison. They, even the assemblymen from our own district didn't help the fishermen whatever. They were, in other words, they were kind of against the fishermen, see?


LE CLAIR: These people got the, that we were a bunch of racketeers, see? We were 00:10:00catching the fish in more abundance and getting all out of hand. That was the word that went around.

ALDERFER: Right, I see.

LE CLAIR: We couldn't convince the people that it wasn't so.

ALDERFER: You were trying to tell them you needed a closed season in order to operate regularly?

LE CLAIR: Yeah, yeah. We wanted a closed season, and that was enough. We didn't want rash laws, we didn't want any regulation whatsoever about the way to catch fish. They stopped the--they started to stop the fishing in inland waters. No nets and all sorts of stuff. They wanted only a certain kind of nets to be used in the water. And that's the kind of bills they were putting into the 00:11:00legislature, and we were going to fight it. And finally the state created the Conservation Commission. And the fellas they put, or appointed on the Conservation Commission were all fellas that wanted to control the fishing industry. Fellas that believed that they could control it. --Control it. Well, if you're going to put a man that says "I'm going to control it," well, he is going to try to control it. And his way of controlling it was not the right way. The Commission didn't have the knowhow to control the industry.


ALDERFER: Well, now, you worked--you worked in the Conservation department at one time, didn't you?

LE CLAIR: I was a conservationist.

ALDERFER: You were a conservationist.

LE CLAIR: I was on the commission.

ALDERFER: You were on the commission. When was that, that you were on there?

LE CLAIR: I was--appointed by Schmedeman.

ALDERFER: Schmedeman, was that in the '20s or '30s?


ALDERFER: Was that in the '30s, 1930s? '32 or somewhere around that area?

LE CLAIR: Somewhere in that area.

ALDERFER: Yeah, Schmedeman. Well, before that, you had--had you ever worked at any fisheries, or--I don't mean fisheries, but hatcheries? Did you ever get into that end of it?

LE CLAIR: I was opposed to the hatcheries from the beginning.

ALDERFER: You were?

LE CLAIR: Yes. We didn't believe in that. We claimed that the fish could produce 00:13:00its own supply without the hatchery. We didn't believe in catching a fish, squeezing a fish--the eggs of the fish in a pail, and then impregnate it and give it a railroad ride to some hatchery. No.

ALDERFER: You didn't believe in that.

LE CLAIR: Nope. Not at all.

ALDERFER: Well, now, this was Nevins, wasn't it?

LE CLAIR: That was Nevins. Nevins.

ALDERFER: Well, what about--did you have any--did you know Nevins personally?

LE CLAIR: I knew him personally.

ALDERFER: You didn't think too much about what he was trying to do?

LE CLAIR: No. He was the--he was the start of the ruination of the industry. Absolutely, because his way of controlling the fish supply was all wrong. He had 00:14:00the wrong idea. There was no--nothing that he proposed that was right. It was just opposite of right. I know that because I was with him, and I fought everything that he even introduced.

ALDERFER: Well, now, how general was that feeling against this hatchery idea around--well, just say in your acquaintance with them?

LE CLAIR: The only ones that favored it--him, this--the only one that favored that was the ones that went on the reefs and fished and caught fish, fishing for the hatchery.

ALDERFER: Oh, fishing for the hatchery.

LE CLAIR: Fishing for the hatchery.


LE CLAIR: They were the only ones that said, "Well, that was a good thing."


ALDERFER: Now, what was this going in the reefs? This is something I have never heard about. There's evidently a couple of different kinds of fishing that you can do.

LE CLAIR: Well, now here. The trout and whitefish has certain places in the lake that they spawn, and that's what we call a reef. It's a big rock bottom bed in the lake, stone, rock, and stone, all. And that's all certain. And if you want to find the reef, alls you gotta do is--they're the ones that invented the telephone, as far as that's concerned--is just take a rope and a grapple, and 00:16:00you drag it behind your boat, and you'll find out where the reefs are.


LE CLAIR: And then you set your nets on there, and the trout and whitefish come and lay their eggs there, and it's the only place they lay their eggs.

ALDERFER: Well, now, you were one of these--would you describe yourself as one of these people who would have let it all alone except for the--except for the closed season? You felt that was--you were fighting for a closed season, but other than that you didn't want any other kind of regulations?

LE CLAIR: No, no.

ALDERFER: Well, now, of course, things have changed and there is a lot of regulations.

LE CLAIR: Well, there's too much regulation.

ALDERFER: There's too much regulation? Well, who would you say besides--we talked about Nevins here--who would you say was responsible for this regulation? I mean about fisheries now and fishing.


LE CLAIR: The fellas that was responsible for these regulations, mesh laws, and equipment laws, for certain kind of nets and everything, was Frank Graass.

ALDERFER: Frank Graass.

LE CLAIR: Yes. The worst man that the state of Wisconsin has ever produced. He's the biggest liar, the biggest humbug that the state has ever produced. He's the fella.

ALDERFER: Well, why did he want all these laws?

LE CLAIR: Because he was the bookkeeper of Kalmbach, that wanted to control the fishing industry. Kalmbach was a dealer. We had dealers here in town. We had two 00:18:00dealers in town that bought material for the fishermen to go fishing, and then they wanted to control them. They had to fish the way they said or else, and they bought all the fish that they brought in, and they paid them what they wanted. And that's the way the thing was. And the first ones that found out that it wasn't the proper thing was the Le Clairs. We started our own shipping. We shipped our own fish. We wouldn't, we wouldn't stand it, that we had to go and 00:19:00dump the fish on their dock, and they ship it, and then pay whatever they felt it was worth, so we shipped our own fish to Chicago. We were the first people that built our fish sheds, icehouses and shipping equipment, and shipped our own fish. And, of course, the fishermen all followed suit. They all done their own. We didn't tell them to do, but they done like we did. And in Sturgeon Bay, Kalmbach, when he found out that the fishermen went down there, you know, and fished, and they shipped their own fish, they didn't come and sell their fish to him, he got [unintelligible]. And then anything he could do against the 00:20:00fisherman, why, he did it. So, you see, that's how your laws are passed.

ALDERFER: I see. Well, what are the changes in the fishing over the years that seem to you to be most important to the industry?

LE CLAIRE: You mean the harm that it done?

ALDERFER: Well, harm or good. Is there anything good about it these days? Or was there any good that was done for the fishermen there?

LE CLAIR: Well, the biggest harm that was done to the fishermen was your mesh law.

ALDERFER: Mesh law.

LE CLAIR: Mesh law. You can't regulate a net to catch certain kind of fish. It 00:21:00don't do any good. You've got to allow a two inch mesh to catch a chub. You got to have a four inch mesh, or bigger, for trout and whitefish. Well, now, how can you say, well, you got to have a two inch mesh to catch [unintelligible], and you got to have a four inch mesh to catch trout, when it is set in the same water? How can it be done?


LE CLAIR: And another thing, they got so strict on their mesh law, that if it was--they got to stretch measures, they call it. Flexible rule. I was opposed to 00:22:00the flexible rule. I says, if a mesh is measured, stretch as stretch measures. And if it measures, you can pull it until it breaks, and if it measures two inches, or three inches, or whatever it measures, that's the measurement. And a flexible rule don't work. How's that? Well, I says, you can't get a guarantee that a manufacturer can measure a flex--or, put in a measure, flexible rule measure, and guarantee that every flexible rule will measure alike. [unintelligible] I says, it's a trifle, and that's enough. And MacKenzie tried, 00:23:00you know, when this law was passed. He wrote to the companies that made flexible rules, and wanted them to guarantee that they would be absolutely alike, and they said we can't do that. You see how wrong he was? He insisted that that shall be a law, and that that law shall convict people on that flexibility, and that's wrong.

ALDERFER: Who was MacKenzie?

LE CLAIR: He was the director of Conservation. You should have heard of him.

ALDERFER: How long ago was that?

LE CLAIR: 1930.


ALDERFER: 1930. How long did he last?

LE CLAIR: Well, he first--his first work was to get rid of Kelleter. Kelleter didn't suit him, and so they got rid of him. The Conservation Commission had to tell Kelleter to resign, and then the Conservation Commission had enough grit to hire MacKenzie as Commissioner. That was the biggest mistake conservation ever made. And I was on the commission, and one fella accused me, he accused me face 00:25:00to face of hiring MacKenzie. I says, "Now here," I says, "I did not vote for MacKenzie. I didn't want him." Yeah. I says, "I didn't vote for him." He says, "How in the dickens are we gonna prove that? He's in!" Well, I says, "I didn't vote for him. I wanted somebody else." But they insisted on getting him in, you see. And he's the fella that was very much the cause of our trouble in the fishing industry.

ALDERFER: This, because of these various laws, you mean, the various laws that were passed?

LE CLAIR: He was so very much to enforce the laws, that before MacKenzie went in, we had some trouble at Green Bay. And on account of that, this--what do you 00:26:00call them fish yet--bass. No, black bass. They were shipping bass from Sturgeon Bay, and from the Green Bay area, and they couldn't catch the fellas that were shipping them. And they were blaming the commercial fishermen for this shipping of these fish. And there's a fisherman fella, conservationist, asked me to come--I was on the commission then--he asked me to come down to Little Sturgeon to a meeting. The sportsmen wanted a meeting out there. They wanted to stop this 00:27:00smuggling of bass. Well, who was smuggling? I didn't know, or nobody knew exactly, and the fishermen were all there, all the fishermen were there. And they were blaming the fishermen for this shipment.

And while we had a meeting and [unintelligible] arguments, one fella made a statement, he says, "Now," he says, "here." He says, "There is no law," he says, "against anybody," he says, "with a hook and line," he says, "coming ashore," he says, "with a load of bass." He says, "You can have the bass, it ain't against 00:28:00the law. But," he says, "let a fisherman come in," he says, "with bass," he says, "and the government got him arrested." Well, he says, "These fellas," he says, "they got a hook and line," he says, "and they go out," he says, "and they lift our nets, and," he says, "they take the bass that's in the net out. And," he says, "they fetch them ashore, because they got an open line." And that was the case that was going on. They would go and lift the nets, you know, and take the bass out, and then they would blame the fishermen for selling bass.

So, well, there was [unintelligible]. Frank Le Clair was along with me, and he 00:29:00says, "What you gonna do about it?" "Well," I says, "I don't want to call out the government." Kelleter was Commissioner. I says, "Now here, Kelleter." I says, "here you got smugglers, crooks," I says, "up there," I says, "catching bass." I says, "They ain't no fishermen." I says, "They're stealing the fish out of the nets of the fishermen. And," I says, "then they ship them." Well, he says--well, he says--well, he says, "What can we do about that?" He says, "That's the sheriff's law. See, they were stealing, see? That was the sheriff's law." "No," I says, "that ain't the sheriff's law." I said, "These fellas ain't got no license," I says, "for fishing nets." I says, "But they got a license," I 00:30:00says, "where they can have a hook and line. Now," I says, "what you got to do," I says, "is get somebody," I says, "up there," I says, "and find--find out that that's being done." And I says, "And if that is being done," I says, "if you catch them at it," I says, "well, good. Arrest them."