Every day is an adventure for Dave Belair. At the age of 80, he may not be quite as adventurous, but he still has many stories to share and a business card to prove it.
“If I can make one person smile every day, that makes me feel good,” he proclaimed. With his sense of humor, he’s created many smiles and laughs.
Except for a few weasel traps, most of Dave Belair’s trapping equipment has been retired to his trapping shed. Standing by his weasel traps, Dave, aka “The Madd Trapper”, has snared a variety of small animals for over 50 years. A portion of his many framed pictures and signs he collects are also displayed in the shed. Photo by Jan Stadtherr
Known as “The Madd Trapper” to many who know him, Dave has trapped for over 50 years. He decided to have business cards printed because of the many people who do hand them out – from lawyers to hair stylists.
“Everyone gave me their card, so dang it, I decided to make my own,” he said. For over 10 years, acquaintances have received his card that boasts his many attributes – “Butts Busted, Beavers Trapped, Hides Stretched, Broncos Rode, Bars Emptied, Assassinations Plotted, Revolutions Started, Forests Logged, Manure Hauled, Tongues Pulled, Bears Wrestled, Opinions Offered (always right), Coyotes Snared, Fords Started, Not a Democrat, Greatest Athlete in Frohn Township, Ward of the Federal Government (retired postal office worker).”
Referring to some of the above credits, Dave elaborated. Broncos rode? “I rode a horse two times,” he replied.
He also claims to be a “certified” trapper, logger, gunsmith, dog trainer, faith healer, soothsayer, hide tanner, and whiskey maker.
Manure hauled? “Yes, I put it on the composte pile.”
Bears wrestled? “I thought she was,” he answered with a wink.
Greatest athlete in Frohn Township? “The other two were girls,” he quickly replied.
How about dog trainer? “Well, I got my dog to sit!”
And faith healer? “I put my hand on someone’s shoulder once.”
Whiskey maker? “Oh, I’ve made a martini or two in my life.”
At the bottom of his card, it states that Dave never lost a fight in Beltrami County.
But giving it a second thought, he added, “Well, I may have lost one on the school bus when I was a kid. A girl, Ruthie, was older and taller, and she tore the sleeve off my shirt. Ma was so mad, and she had to sew the sleeve back on.”
As he explained his many attributes listed on the card, his wife, Jean, covered her face, shook her head and laughed softly at the stories she’s heard many times through their 56 years of marriage. The couple has two grown children, Michele and Patrick, five grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.
Dave’s trapping shed doesn’t see as much activity today. It now stores all his traps, which have snared muskrat, beaver, fox, coyote, mink, weasels, raccoon, fishers, otters and badgers. Today he has a couple of weasel traps set near his home. In earlier years, he would have over 100 traps set out just for muskrat.
Born and raised in Bemidji, Dave wasn’t interested in trapping even though he lived in the midst of a trapper’s dream. He became attracted to the sport after he and Jeanne moved to St. Paul, where Dave began working for the U.S. Postal Service in 1957.
“I started trapping in ’59 as a way to retain my sanity,” he laughed, adding that he didn’t like the hustle and bustle of living in the cities. “I looked through a trapping magazine and saw an article on trapping fox. So a friend taught me how to trap in the Forest Lake area.”
During his first 10 years with the post office, Dave worked on the mail trains, a shift that started at 5 p.m. He rode many routes from St. Paul to Chicago, north to International Falls, west to North Dakota or south to Iowa where mail was picked up at various stations along the routes.
The postal workers didn’t just pick up or drop off mail. The interior of the train car was renovated to resemble a mail room where the employees sorted the mail during the entire route.
Once the train reached its destination, the employees would sleep a few hours and then catch another train back to St. Paul where mail was picked up, dropped off, and sorted once again. The mail trains stopped operating in 1971.
After a decade on the trains, Dave was transferred to the main office in St. Paul where he worked until 1988 when he retired. One of the biggest changes he saw in the postal service was the zip codes established in 1963.
“Zip codes revolutionized the mail system,” Dave said. “Many people thought it wouldn’t work, but it did!” At the same time, the two-letter abbreviations for the states were also initiated to shorten the address on address labels.
During those years at the main office, Dave would serve as the auctioneer for mail auctions that were held for lost mail and parcels with no return address. Items would be held up to six months before being auctioned off. There were usually around 10 auctions per year, with items including books, jewelry, and a lot of long-playing records, which were a popular item with people joining record clubs that were sent by mail.
Dave recalled that some of the more unusual items were four mink jackets that sold for $250 and $500 each. “One buyer, who paid $500 for a jacket, brought it to a furrier who said the jacket was worth $2,500. That was a good buy!” Post office employees were not allowed to bid on items. Today, auctions are held online.
Dave claims that the checkered wool shirt jacket was his trapping uniform. In this photo taken during the 1990s, Dave holds a coyote and beaver which he trapped. Contributed photo
Several years before he retired, Dave and Jeanne bought 40 acres of land north of Pine River where they planned to retire just a couple miles off State Highway 371. Using machetes, axes and saws, the couple cleared brush and small trees on the property and built their home. Dave planted hundreds of small pines, maples, dogwoods, ash and other small trees that he would dig up and bring home while checking his trap lines.
Dave loved being up north, and he said it “killed him” to return to the cities on Sundays. As soon as he retired in 1988, the couple moved to their new home where he was able to expand his trapping and enjoy life up in the great north woods.
Remembering the sadness he felt when having to drive back to the cities, Dave was inspired to sit in a lawn chair along Highway 371 north of Pine River with an American flag on holiday weekends during the summer. His reason was to wave and smile at the travelers headed south back to the cities.
“Some of those people may have thought I was crazy, but that didn’t matter,” he admitted. “If could lighten somebody’s load by making someone smile or chuckle, then it’s time well spent.”
As motorcyclists would pass by, Dave would give them the closed fist salute, and truckers who passed by would get the “pull the horn” salute. Very few people would actually stop, but he remembered one young couple stopped to ask why he did this, and they thanked him. A policeman stopped one time to inquire and then went on his way.
“Even some teacher friends sat with me sometimes. I referred to us as the Farewell Club,” Dave laughed. After nearly 20 years of waving to travelers, he gave up the ritual.
Dave’s adventures stretch back to his days as a teenager in Bemidji when he and a friend, “Mouse,” decided to become hobos during summer vacation and go to the state of Washington. They hitchhiked to Staples the first day and slept on hard benches in the train depot.
“During our trip we also slept in cars that were in used car lots as cars were never locked back then as they are now,” he remembered. They did small jobs for churches in order to get a dollar or two, hitchhiking all the way to Yakima, Wash. The two boys found a job in a hop field, one of the basic ingredients in making beer.
“We did that job most of the summer where we wrapped a small shoot of the hop plant around a wire on which the plant grew,” said Dave. “They called it ‘training hops.’”
At the end of the summer they began to hitchhike back to Minnesota. A driver left them off in the country near Butte, Mont., where they climbed into the loft of an open garage to sleep and snuck out of the garage in the morning. In Forsythe, Mont., the teens met some hobos by the railroad, and they encouraged the boys to ride the train. Rather than ride in the same box car with the hobos, Dave and Mouse found another box car with an open door.
“We crawled into that one and found it was full of re-rod,” he remembered. “At the next stop, we jumped out, but we were so stiff and sore from sitting on that re-rod, so we limped over to the box car where the hobos were and rode with them. They shared their food with us and told us to tear paper off the inside walls of the box car and cover ourselves to keep warm.” The train arrived in Perham, and the boys hitchhiked back to Bemidji.
At the age of 17, Dave entered the U.S. Navy for three years and was assigned to the USS Point Cruz 119, an escort carrier that was involved in the Korean War.
After retiring and moving north from St. Paul, Dave started a new hobby of collecting framed pictures, posters and signs that were displayed on the walls of his garage.
“I finally got tired of doing it so they were sold over the Internet,” he said, “but soon I started to collect them again.” Now his garage has become a gallery once again as well as the workshop in his basement. Dave is also an avid reader with shelves filled with non-fiction reading.
The Belair home has nature and wildlife paintings and prints by Rick Kelley, Dan Pierce and Bruce Miller. Pierce, a Minnesota artist, accompanied Dave on one of his trap lines, took photos of the trapper and then painted a picture of Dave checking his traps.
Dave appreciates people with a good sense of humor. The Madd Trapper enjoys matching wits with friends including the guys in the local cafes over many cups of coffee.
Living in the lakes area, Dave admitted, “Moving up here was just like dying and going to heaven!”