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Uncle Ben's Fish Stories

Uncle Ben Corbin — who homesteaded on Beaver Creek in the 1880s, sold catfish to his neighbors in Emmons County, earned a reputation as a frontiersman who could live off the land, and gave that wonderful wedding dance for his daughter in 1894 — had another persona: the Wolf Slayer. The reputation goes back to his time in Iowa, where Corbin swore he could “catch more wolves in a month than any man living; but the money must be in sight first.”

There were still big gray wolves west of the Missouri, but the beasts Corbin hunted for profit were what people called “prairie wolves,” that is, coyotes. By the 1890s the hills along the Missouri River were grazed by great mobs of sheep, the cattle industry having been hit hard by bad weather and bad markets in the 1880s.

Corbin saw opportunity in the situation. The state already had a wolf bounty. In 1891 Corbin commenced lobbying commissioners to stack a county bounty atop that of the state. The state paid two dollars for a wolf scalp; the county commonly added a dollar or two — a dollar for pups, two for adults.

One June day in 1893 Corbin came into Williamsburg with a litter of wolf pups. “The poor, helpless little creatures had won Ben’s sympathy, and he had determined they should have a longer lease on life,” reported editor Streeter at the Emmons County Record. It turns out there was a county bounty increase scheduled for 1 July, at which point Corbin dispatched the pups. Wolf hunting was not a sentimental business.

Through the 1890s Corbin made good money on wolf bounties, using techniques such that the newspaper sometimes referred to his place on Beaver Creek as a “wolf farm.” Indeed, it does appear he was treating the rogue canines as livestock. He had a method — to be described another time — of extracting pups from a den without digging them out. Thus the den remained, and the mother coyote would whelp there again the next year. Corbin had a system. The papers frequently reported his tallies — scores at a time — of wolf scalps turned in to Emmons and Burleigh County authorities.

By 1897 Corbin was growing up with the country, sort of. He opened a store-hotel-restaurant in the hamlet of Glencoe and every week took out a column-ad in the Emmons County Record to promote his business, his multifarious enterprises, and — his persona.

Corbin invited travelers to stop in for food and lodging and “a new set of yarns, the old ones being worn out.” Travelers on the Bismarck-Winona stage run were given flat rates of $1 lodging and $.25 per meal — meals dispensed by Aunt Becky Corbin. The key to the establishment’s popularity was barely disguised in the invitation, “Go to the Corbin Drug Store at Glencoe for patent medicines and hard and soft drinks.”

When travelers called, Corbin promised, “the catfish ring the dinner bell.” And a steady stream of fish stories emanated from his headquarters. There was the one about the catfish of Beaver Creek crawling into the root cellar and eating the potatoes. In 1899 Uncle Ben told editor Streeter he was “thinking of surveying his farm and platting it for a town-site. Heretofore he has depended on the catfish paths for boundary lines.”

Uncle Ben’s most serious contribution to fish-taling came late in 1899, beginning, “You have probably heard some fish stories in your time, and possibly some of them were not true. . . . But what I am going to tell you is absolutely true.” Corbin says he first stretched a gillnet to catch buffalo suckers for bait, 64 of them. With these he baited 44 hooks, took 19 catfish three pounds each in a hour, and was awaiting action on the other 25 baits. If there be doubters, we are assured, “Mr. Corbin is perfectly willing . . . to show the doubter the river from which he caught the fish.”

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