Once the terror of Becker County, a kinder, fluffier, wolf now at local museum
By: ERIC HAHN, Staff Writer November 27, 2002
Is it local legend or just a bad reputation?
To some, Becker County’s celebrity wolf, Old Three Legs, was an
20th Century satanic menace who, for eight years, gobbled farm animals,
outwitted trappers and terrorized the upstanding folk in the five
As a Nov. 1935 Field and Stream article on the national wonder puts
it: “… (Old Three Legs was) a merciless killer – a monster wolf that
left a red trail of death and destruction in his wake. The phantom slayer
destroyed thousands of dollars worth of livestock, caused the death of at
least two humans …”
But, assistant director for Becker County Historical Society Erin
McMillan offers a more humane account of Old Three Legs.
She argues, that three legs was slower than the other wolves after
chewing his own foot off to get out of a trap. For subsistence, he had to
chomp slow moving farm critters, much to the ire of area farmers.
People later blamed Old Three Legs for everything from evil-eyed
window peeping to causing frustrated trappers to die alone in the woods
while suffering Captain Ahab monomania.
“Basically, he was a crippled wolf living all alone by himself,”
McMillan, who has researched the Old Three Legs fiasco. “So, he lived on
As for the supernatural image, American Indian trackers deemed Old
Three Legs a spirit wolf after failing to catch him, McMillan says.
She also casts doubt on his aggression toward humans by noting there
hasn’t been a single documented case of a healthy wild wolf attacking a
human in North America.
So, regardless what one believes about Old Three Legs’ intent, he
a real wolf (his stuffed body is on display in the Becker County Museum),
who really irked locals into witch (wolf?) hunt.
The legend and lore surrounding Old Three Legs are just as important
culturally as the true story.
“Three Legs should be revered for having the strength and the
to last that many years,” says Historical Society assistant director Joann
To honor the memory of the lame lobo, the museum is selling some Old
Three Legs themed items in its gift shop.
One is a Becker County commemorative plate. The decorative porcelain
souvenir with an etching of the wolf sells for $15.
The newest item, custom made for the museum’s annual Christmas Tea
social, is a plush toy version of Old Three Legs, with missing paw and
The Christmas Tea is Sunday, Dec. 8, but the wolves can be bought at
the gift shop before then.
The teddy wolves, which sell for $11.95, are a way of raising money
for the organization, and to show a kinder, gentler side to Old Three
“It started as a joke,” McMillan says, “Because we wanted to appeal
kids more in the gift shop.”
The idea came when the museum staff was perusing a catalogue for
to sell in the gift shop. And, as fate had it, wolf dolls were for sale.
The joke of the Old Three Legs Dolls became reality.
“We saw the little wolf in there, and said, ‘You know, we’ve talked
about it long enough,’” Splonskowski says.
With a little at-home amputation and baseball stitching,
customized the four-legged wolf dolls to look like cripple canine.
“I’m the butcher,” she jokes.
With plush dolls and a more sympathetic explanation of Old Three
one might think the teeth-gnashing legend was going soft. But, McMillan
says she wants a more accurate depiction of Old Three Legs, and least
separate some of the fact from fiction.
“We can tell the tall tale as long as everyone knows it’s a tall
tale,” she says.
McMillan made the museum’s description of the Old Three Legs saga a
bit fairer to the villain.
“I took it upon myself to rework some of the pamphlet, because there
was so much nightmarish stuff for preschoolers,” she says. Small children
on a tours of the museum are sometimes confused and saddened when she gets
to the part in the story where three legs meets his demise via a hunter’s
“It’s a newer, happier Three Legs,” she says on the mauler’s
makeover. Three Legs’ reputation is not the only thing that needs to
The museum is kept dry to save paper documents. But, the arid environment
is hard on the museum’s mounted animals.
Old Three Legs was shot by Detroit Lakes mink farmer Fred Darkow in
1926. The notorious animal was stuffed and put on display at the McCarthy
hotel for years.
The mounted menace was later stored in barns and attics before
its way to the Becker County Museum. The glues and hide are drying out
over the years.
Some taxidermists are doubtful if Old Three Legs’ carcass could
being restuffed, Splonskowski says.
For the time being, Old Three Legs is still on display in the
continuing to be one of the most popular exhibits there.
The historical society figures it might as well have some fun with
it. “Our plan is to make light of a Becker County legend,”