AITKIN — Julius Howard is the man who started it all for the future hunters of the Howard family.
In 1880, Julius homesteaded 40 acres of property, located on the outskirts of Aitkin. The home he built still stands and has been used by five generations of the Howard family for their annual deer hunting traditions. Howards travel from all over the state to hunt the land, some staying in the home that Julius built — now known as the hunting shack which was modified in the mid 70s — while others stay with family members in the Aitkin area. Family members stay to hunt for a day, some for the weekend, while others stay for the full three weeks of the deer hunting season in that zone.
It doesn’t matter how long they stay or how many of the Howards have come to the hunting shack over the years, one thing that’s for sure is the memories are vast and the number of deer hunting stories are endless.
On Friday, a few of the Howards — Todd Howard of Brainerd, Duff Howard of Ottertail and Terry Howard of Park Rapids — made their trek to the hunting shack to get ready for the opener and share a few hunting stories.
Duff and Terry are cousins and Todd is their second cousin. Duff’s father Francis and Terry’s father Leonard “Ole” were Julius’ nephews.
Duff, who has been hunting the land since the 1950s, said Julius was a farmer and a logger and died in the early 50s. He said the house was vacant for 20 years. Todd’s grandpa, the late Larry Howard, took ownership of the land and used the home as storage. After Larry’s death, Todd’s father, Dale Howard, and his uncle Dan Howard, took ownership of the land.
The Howard family started their own hunting shack corporation called FOLD, which is named after the four elder Howard brothers: Francis, Ole, Larry and Dick. The corporation owns an additional 280-acres of land that surrounds the original 40-acres for hunting. Today, the sons and nephews of the FOLD brothers are owners of the corporation.
On average there are about 20 Howards at the hunting shack during the deer season, and there have been as many as 32 who experience the hunting tradition.
The hunting shack consists of a sitting area, which includes one bunk bed, a kitchen and a sleeping area which includes four bunks. A high stairwell leads to a second level which includes more bunk beds. The Howards say the shack comfortably sleeps 12.
A full kitchen was added in 1984, otherwise the Howards cooked in the sitting area.
The shack has no electricity or running water, but there’s a generator. There is a wood stove for heat and a rustic outhouse.
The Howards have kept a log book of their deer hunting adventures for many years. Todd, who currently is the person in charge of writing in the log book, like his grandfather did before him, said they write about what happens on each particular day, from deer stories to what they had for lunch.
“This is evidence to settle any arguments,” said Duff with a laugh. “But we haven’t had any arguments yet.”
The Howards annually name a Hunter of the Year and are given a traveling hat, which is made from a children’s Army helmet and faux fur. Todd, Duff and Terry have all been named Hunter of the Year: Todd in 1997, 1999, 2000 and 2009; Duff in 1988, 2002 and 2005; and Terry in 2011.
“There was a lot of luck involved in that,” said Terry of last year’s deer hunt.
Duff said he has been sitting in the same deer stand for 25 years and has had “excellent luck.”
“That’s why I keep going back to the same spot,” said Duff. “Plus then I know that I will not get lost.”
Duff said his biggest buck earned a Boone and Crockett score of 148 points.
Todd recalls his first deer he shot at age 15 or 16. He used his grandfather’s .30-30 that held seven shells. He was in his deer stand and saw seven deer come out of the woods. Todd shot at the first deer. It ran away and he shot at it again and broke its back and it “bellered.”
“I emptied my gun two more times and I never hit her,” said Todd. “I got out of my stand and finished her off with my dad’s gun.”
Todd said his biggest deer was two years ago when he shot a 10-pointer at the edge of a willow bog, 10 yards away from his stand.
Terry said one of his memorable deer hunts was back in the 1980s when he shot a doe. He said the doe went down and he went to the doe and kicked it to make sure it was dead and it didn’t move. He said he was ready to gut it out and the doe took off.
“That really startled me,” Terry said. “I must have just knocked it out; it wasn’t a killer shot. It ran toward my uncle’s farm so I couldn’t shoot it.”
Terry shot a 9-point buck in 2011 to earn the Hunter of the Year honor. He said he started to nod off when he saw the buck about 100 yards away from his deer stand.
“I shot it and it folded like a chair,” said Terry.
Terry has been in charge of making the Friday dinner since 2004. He said his father used to cook before he passed away.
“I sleep in the same bed that my dad slept in,” said Terry. “We have a lot of memories here. This is where our dads and uncles came and stayed ... It’s an old farmhouse and has a lot of character.”