Ray Russell is a private man who keeps mostly to himself and enjoys his own company. He has known pleasure in his life and also suffered the loss of many friends or loved ones who are no longer here. A considerable time passed before Ray got comfortable enough with the idea of having his story told. When Ray did start to open up to me, the similarities of his story and that of my own father was profound. As I listened to the different chapters in Ray’s life and observed his sensitivity for certain aspects, it was like being with my Dad and going over his life also. We opened a door to Ray’s memory that leads to some painful or sad places where he would rather not go, there was also some of what he did share that remains not mine to relate. Hopefully what is written here will serve to reflect the essence of this special man we New Hampshire trappers hold so dear.
Ray was born March 9,1925 across the river, as they say, in Vermont. The Russells made their home in the small rural town of Fitzwilliam Depot, a part of the southwestern quadrant of the Granite State. Fitzwilliam Depot had been a local commercial center ever since the railroad came there in 1848. Granite quarrying was the major industry but peaked during WWI and went into decline along with the local agriculture so that during the time of Ray’s youth the town was reaching a low point in population and opportunity. Some of the family owned quarries lingered on, as did sawmills and related wood working factories making products such as close pins and buckets. Not until the 1960’s would this area find an influx of retirees and summer residents with the bulk of the working population commuting to neighboring Keene. It was during this period of renewal that the town dropped the railroad title of Depot, and became just Fitzwilliam. Forest habitat has reclaimed the once vast agricultural landscape, yet the internal land sections remain outlined or intersected with rock walls from the now grown over native pastures. Most of the houses in the village center date back to 1850. The Russell home was a couple hundred yards from the railroad that intersected the town and although they were within what we would today call the urban zone, most folks kept a milk cow and chickens that wondered loose in the yard or sometimes onto the not so busy town road. Subsistence gardening and gathering wild fruits and berries was typical. The neighbors all lived pretty close to the earth in very basic housing. Most of the folks were regular residents working hard with some just hanging on. Times were tough all around so that all folks were kind of in the same boat.
Ray’s grandfather was of French and Indian descent, always making his way in the quarries as a stonecutter and fireman/engineer for the steam engines. Some men worked at chopping in the woods, some worked for the railroad, many did roadwork for the town, and a few found mill employment, but most were unemployed at least seasonally. Ray’s father was a very good man and labored hard at whatever was available at the time. Days off from regular employment were always maximized in an effort to otherwise provide for the family. Being a hound’s man, superb hunter, and tracker, Ray’s dad utilized these skills to additionally provide for his family. Money was always hard to come by and just like all the generations back to the first subsistence settlers in the area, wild game for the table and fur for cash was a general necessity to make ends meet. The hound’s men and the trappers did not get along as they both vied for the same resource with an age-old sense of competition based on survival. We are talking depression era when men lucky enough to find employment made $1 a day, yet a single red fox was worth $25. Fox were quite scarce, however the occasional success produced much needed income. Ray’s father was a serious dog man and had no use for the competing trappers. Ray’s father and grandfather both had him in the woods very early, when he was perhaps only five. Ray is forever grateful for that quality time his elders devoted to teaching him the art and craft of animal tracking, for it is a skill that has served him well through the years. The Russells kept hounds for rabbit, fox, coon, and bobcat. Ray’s father was demanding of his dogs, and he didn’t show much patience or tolerance for kids tagging along, instead preferring the company of serious hunting adults in this activity that was more business than sport. Hunting hounds with his Dad was difficult and emotionally painful, so Ray stayed away, preferring to hunt mostly alone. It was while doing his own thing that he managed some exposure to trappers and trapping.
About the time Ray was ten years old the wanna-be youthful hunter was befriended by a character everyone called Pancho. This older man of Finnish decent, William Carl Winters, was a subsistence hunter and trapper. After a period of countrywide travel in empty boxcars and some serious adventure in the southwest, Pancho had returned to the place of his birth and settled in or settled for his simple life next to the tracks in Fitzwilliam Depot. Pancho was an easy-going fellow that wore an old slouch hat and was a life long bachelor. Pancho could so mesmerize a youthful audience while telling a story from life experience with considerable description and much emotion that it was like going to the movies. Pancho had a sidekick named Lamo Michelson. This other Finnish fellow who had a wife and family was also a trapper. Both Pancho and Lamo worked seasonally as section hands or gandydancers for the railroad along with their trapping in the fall and winter. Ray was perhaps ten years old when he first began to follow these two trappers while tending their lines. Pancho put the pack basket on their younger sidekick and Ray hauled whatever burden was his to share. The main targets were muskrat they called mushies and fox. The mushies bought the beans and the fox was the gravy. Because of the competitive nature of so many families depending on the natural bounty for income, all trappers and hunters were very secretive and generally not inclined toward helping another learn technique or good location. In the beginning, Ray might be asked to wait beyond view, as the actual traps were set. Back at the cabin it was a lot less secretive as Pancho and Lamo were more inclined to socialize as they did their fur handling. The front room of Pancho’s two-room cabin usually was the gathering place for this small community of trappers consisting of the two seasoned mentors and a changing group of kids. They would all sit around the wood stove with kerosene lamps for light and skin that days catch. There was friendly competition between the two trappers with Lamo perhaps the better fox trapper. As they argued about sets and technique a kid could listen in to pick up lots of pointers. Pancho and Lamo would sometimes have a few brews and the guarded conversation would lighten further. Ray listened intently to the every word of his mentors, for the knowledge they inadvertently shared. Ray was given ways to help in a process that soon had him able to do his own fur handling. Eventually he was present on the right occasions and learned much about the traps or animals, and just by being around so much he picked up the basics on sets or proper location. Ray’s second cousin Ernie Meattey was soon part of this small trapping community and both boys regularly made the three hundred yard dash along the tracks to hang out at Pancho’s cabin. Ray and Ernie have always been more like close brothers than cousins. Pancho often let the boys shoot his 22-caliber rifle for practice. In many respects, those early years from the ages of 10-14 were the best in Ray’s life, when two kindly old trappers took these boys under their wing, serving as mentors to start the very fine trapper we know today. Many other local boys were offered similar mentoring by the two benevolent old trappers but Ray was the only one that really took to the craft as a lifelong endeavor.
One time Ray was talking to a farmer who wanted to get rid of some woodchucks in his cow pasture and hay fields. The farmer lent Ray some rusty old traps that were hanging on a nail in the barn and told him to get after them. Trial and error eventually honed his skill as a chuck trapper and additionally with rabbits using home made box traps. Both of these quarry were not so much damage control work as an opportunity to try out different methods and ideas, but critter problems with peoples chickens and around their gardens made the willing trapper’s efforts welcome. The traps were increasingly utilized to catch muskrat, which had market value and allowed Ray to trade for additional traps and equipment. It would be a long time before Ray caught his first fox. The farmers didn’t want the dead chucks lying around and preferred that the holes be filled in to prevent injury to their horses or cattle. Ray would stuff the rodent down the hole and backfill it with some dirt from the apron at the entrance. The young trapper noticed that some unknown critter was digging up the chucks and dragging them off. Ray started to set traps on the woodchuck graves and eventually caught his first red fox. Prior to this experience, Ray had no system, he just tried things. Eventually the successes accumulated and techniques developed. There were a lot of chicken farms with dead chickens thrown out with the manure. Red foxes frequented this source of protein and Ray developed ways to catch them in manure pile sets. Working alone, Ray was not afraid to try something. Ray said, “ If you can’t do something right the first time, you gotta get out there and try it again. Then you learn. The animals will teach you. Pick out what works for you.”
Ray’s dad would not tolerate trapping or trappers so Ray’s catch and traps when not in use were always stored in the lean-to shed off the back of Pancho’s cabin. Ray’s mother knew what he was up to but both of them kept the secret from the patriarch of the family. Cousin Ernie didn’t have this problem, as his dad was not so opposed to trappers. It was frustrating for Ray having to do all his trapping on the sly, to not be able to talk trapping at home or show his elation when that first fox was taken. Ray turned to Pancho and Lamo to exhibit his pride and enthusiasm, and so it was that they were chosen to share this right of passage with the young trapper. Ray has never let very many get really close but for those in that small group he is forever loyal. Pancho and Lamo passed on before the returning fisher was numerous but were both around long enough to see some of the earliest coyote trapped by their mentored protégée and loyal friend. For Ray having his mentors see those first coyote, and having them know that they were an important part of it, has more meaning than many other accomplishments in his life.
During the period of Ray’s youth, you could sell raw fur or buy traps at the Sears & Roebucks store on Main Street in Keene. Many Sears employees were trained to grade raw fur coming into the store and purchase the catch outright, or credit the tally to an ongoing trade account that could be utilized to purchase anything in the store or catalogue. Kids were encouraged to handle all the sporting goods and given lots of advice on trapping equipment specifics. Just a few doors down at 5 Main Street, and directly across from the Town Hall, was Honest Abe Fine and his outlet for raw fur. Ray remembers a Felix Fine perhaps the son or brother to Honest Abe. Felix would take the time to critique the fur handling and teach you how to do a better job. Ray says, “ Felix was a nice man who always tried to make you feel good about your fur handling or trapping and often gave a kid more than what the fur was worth to encourage them.” So it was that Ray sold his catch and purchased his first traps all size number ones, some single longspring and some jump traps.
The school bus that hauled the few kids from Fitzwilliam Depot to Keene High School was an old black hearse converted for this purpose. There were two wooden benches on each side of the hearse so that the boys sat on one side and the girls on the other all facing each other. Ray would carry his dried pelts in a brown paper bag on the ride to school and put them in his locker for the day. After school there was a considerable wait before the school bus was ready to make its last route back to Fitzwilliam Depot. It was during this waiting period that Ray would hustle on over to Sears and trade his catch. The kids on the bus were always complaining about the smell and occasionally it was a problem with the locker at school also.
During that Depression era most everyone in those parts were hard pressed. Cloths were not so good for an outdoorsman’s use as they are today. Most everything Ray wore was old or worn out hand me downs. A hunter or trapper was often wet and usually cold. Ray remembers working with pick and shovel for the town at age 14 for 22cents per hour and summer employment in the gravel pits when he would labor barefoot to save his shoes for school. There was always the need for cordwood chopped to length with an axe. The 8’ lengths were referred to as sled length with the going price to chop and stack a 4x4x8 cord at 50 cents.
Hard conditions made for equally hard men, and such tough preparation would serve us well when our country’s survival was challenged as a result of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ray had to wait until he was seventeen and in the eleventh grade before he could enlist in the Marine Corps. After boot camp at Paris Island, Ray became a rear gunner in a dive-bomber squadron as part of the 1st Marine Air Wing. One and a half years serving in the Pacific is one of those periods in Ray’s life that has to many painful memories, so we shall let this part of the story lie.
After the war, Ray came back to Fitzwilliam Depot and completed his High School equivalency. Ray was a good student and excelled in math, he had always hoped to go to college some how and become a math teacher but things just didn’t fall into place. Troubled by his war experience and amazed that he survived, there was a period of adjustment and recovery needed as he gradually entered the work force and got on with his life. Chopping cordwood, working in a foundry, a wood working shop, lumber companies, and seasonal construction were all occasional employment when you did anything available to turn a buck. In 1955 Ray got employment on the B&M Railroad and made that his career for thirty-two years, retiring in 1987.
All during his employment years, Ray trapped whenever the opportunity allowed. Ray remembers that in 1949 he was trapping bobcat in deeryards for the $20 bounty. Ray was making about $25/ week then at his job. The bobcat pelt was worth about $2 and a fox was worth perhaps fifty cents. It was during this period that he started to occasionally see a coyote track. Ray did not know what the animal was that made these tracks and considered that perhaps they were wild dogs. Yet domestic wild dogs that were harassing the deer would get caught in his bobcat sets whereas these critters shied away. By 1952 Ray was convinced that the occasional tracks were coyote, but admitting such brought on critism from folks who would adamantly insist there was no such thing. Ray learned to keep his opinion to himself. Within a few short years Ray had caught his first coyote in a set intended for a bobcat. That first coyote was taken by Ray in North Richmond on property owned by CL Lane Lumber Company. Ray took that critter home and hung it on the side of his barn where a lot of local folks could stop by and view their first coyote up close. By this time other folks were seeing an occasional coyote in the wild and once and a while a deer hunter would shoot one and bring it out. Folks were referring to this new animal of the forest as a coydog, based on the unproved assumption that the rather large canines were a cross between wild coyotes and domestic dogs. Ray is convinced that the specimens he harvested were all coyote. It was during this period in the mid fifties that Ray began to show increasing interest in the coyote as a targeted species.
Ray would regularly phone many of the top trappers of his time for advice, he was never to shy to ask questions and always found them to be open and helpful. Ray read a lot of EJ Dailey material in the 40’s and 50’s. Dailey was the Answer Man at Fur-Fish-Game magazine, and Ray regularly wrote in with questions. Ray started to communicate with the famous trapper and lure maker Bill Nelson via mail and over the phone. Ray bought Nelson’s books and lure line and it is through Nelson that Ray learned some important means to attract and take coyote. Nelson told Ray to use an old horseshoe instead of a trap in a blind or baited set. Study the individual coyote first before you ever set the trap. This method was perfect for the working man as traps would only be set when it was known that a specific animal was visiting that location and putting its foot in a specific spot. Such sets could be made at the convience of the trapper when he had a few days to make the harvest. This unique approach to targeting individual coyote for study prior to trapping introduced a whole different element to the game that is not typical of most trapping methods. To this day, Ray’s hobby is as much a study of the coyotes in his area as it is trapping. This approach has made the endeavor much more interesting and when he needs to help someone with a specific problem coyote it is all about that individual critter. Ray’s earliest efforts in trapping coyote was motivated out of frustration as a result of observed devastation in the local deeryard. His first efforts were intended to catch as many coyote as possible. What Ray found out was that a truly focused local coyote trapping effort would have serious impact, in that it could sufficiently reduce coyote population to the overall benefit of the deer herd and other prey species. By the time Ray was retired he was beginning to have the local coyote population under control and had developed into somewhat of a trapping specialist. Very seldom would Ray target any other species and little time would be devoted to hunting as all his focus was toward coyote. The aspects of the actual trapping had been replaced by an almost year round obsessive study of the coyotes in his area. Some of the things that Ray does are specific to his unique approach to coyote and include such things as; mapping travel routes and defining family groups by territory and individuals, also calling coyote at night to determine location of specific individuals or family groups. Rays trapping is now all focused on coyote, having little to do with harvesting fur. All non-target species such as fox or coon are released unharmed. Ray adjusts the pan tension required to set off his traps rather heavy, perhaps 6 pounds. It is seldom that a critter lighter than a small coyote will cause one to fire. Ray still loves to catch coyote but is well beyond his original concern when the forest had many of the big predators. Totally immersed in his independent coyote studies, Ray has a special feeling for this species and would not want a habitat totally devoid of the interesting animals. Through studying coyote all year round, Ray has developed much respect for this intelligent and challenging game species. Ray says,
“A world without coyote to play with and study would not retain much interest for me.”
Ray has progressed to being a lot more than an excellent trapper of coyote, something more akin to a coyote specialist. Perhaps most important is the knowledge accumulated during a lifetime as an outdoorsman and a trapper. Ray is in his prime to mentor us all with his unique observations gathered from a lifetime. Listen to this sample quote from his experience.
“ With the animals in the woods everything is normal until trapping season, then the store bought lures start to catch the curious pups but others get shy and become difficult to take. For these animals you need to use attractants which are natural.”
A part of Pancho and Lamo endures today within our trapping community in the legacy that is Ray Russell. So it is fitting that we honor Ray Russell as one of the special trappers in the New Hampshire Trappers Hall of Fame.
Ray Making a Coyote Set
Ray With a Fine Catch of Coyote
Trapping Buddies L-R Art Whipple, Charlie Rudolph, and Ray Russell
This picture of Ray Russell was taken on on 04-05-05 while at the monthly Board Meeting of the New Hampshire Trappers Association. Ray is not only a Hall of fame Trapper but an active and involved Director representing Cheshire County. We are busy now with Federal tax returns, shipping last seasons fur harvest to auction, and the first wave of problem beavers typical of spring. Ray and I will get together very soon and record his story of trapping in the southwest corner of New Hampshire. Ray has perspective and life experiences as a fur harvester which are historically significant and I will do my best to insure that his story is preserved indefinitely as a part of our distinct rural heritage.