Some years ago I wrote a feature on the two bear cubs that populated Sussex, and their handlers, the Weber sisters. Recently, I was asked to rewrite this story.
In Sussex, on Main Street east of Silver Spring Drive lived the mega family of Joe and Linda Weber. With their children they made up two percent of the population of the village of Sussex in 1951. (Sussex population in the U.S. Census Bureau in 1950 was 679)
The Weber family had 12 children.
Mr. Joseph Weber was not a local raised boy. He came to Sussex as a mature man at age 20. Born and raised in 1909 in Crandon, Wisconsin, at 14 years old, he was finished with school, and landed a job at a Crandon-area railroad. It consisted of an 11-hour work day for $1.25 per day (about 11 cents per hour.) He learned the business of track maintenance well, and assorted other facets of the business.
At age 20, he wrangled a job at the Templeton (east Sussex) Wisconsin Central-Soo Line Railroad. He was appointed to section boss and held the job until he retired at age 57.
The Weber tribe acquired a two-plus story home on Sussex Main Street, where today one finds the Sussex Professional Building. Joe Weber really got into the fabric of Sussex as he was a volunteer, leader, pusher, coach and organizer. He became a member of the Sussex Volunteer Fire Company in 1932 serving 16 years.
Now back to the Weber girls and the bears.
Joe had an uncle back in Crandon. He had a government job up north around Crandon. As a part-time hobby he trapped for fur. At one time in early 1951 this uncle was checking his trap line, and there was a small black bear caught with an injured foot. He bagged him and quickly found two more baby bears with no mother bear in sight.
The uncle had a solution, first doing a length regeneration of the injured foot bear cub with the North Woods resort. They adopted it, cured it and let it loose. The other two bear cubs were for Joe Weber to raise and have fun with in Sussex.
The first interaction with the Weber family was when the bears were sitting in the back seat of a four-door car on a trip from Crandon to Sussex. The cubs were all eyes and looking at the outside world. The Webers ended up using their garage as a cage. This allowed Sussex residents to come by and see the Weber bear cubs growing up. The community became attached to the bears.
The Weber children were in charge, especially the two sisters, Lois and Jeanie, along with Don. The three of them would lease the bears and walk the village for mutual entertainment. There was the tale of Don taking them to the nearby Donkle's Tap. The folk tale is that the bears relished the bottle of free beer, and wobbled home on their heavy leashes.
There was also a story told of going to Woodchick Sussex Sweet Shoppe. The cubs watched Don and the girls eat ice cream cones, and when each cub was given an ice cream cone of their own they adopted an upright walk with their raised paws holding the cones so they could lick them down to nothing and then lick their paws for leftovers.
Occasionally the bears got loose, and once ripped up a neighbor's garden, but a call to the Webers got the cubs back to their cages. They were extremely tame. The Weber home and open garage was a community attraction.
Another big story was the girls and Don once took the bear cubs to the Sussex Swimming Quarry off the Bug Line Trail so they could test the water. First, the cubs would walk out in the shallow area and then swim out to the 22-feet deep water. They loved it.
Finally, they were back for a treat on dry land and Lois, Jeanie and Don walked them home.
Early in 1952 the bears had grown to good size, and the Webers had to get rid of them. They were donated to the Poynette State Game Farm. Soon afterward, Don was on his way to service in Korea.
Today, the vast majority of the Weber family is dead, mother Linda died before her time, and Joe died tragically in Sept. 25, 1967. After his service, Don really never came back to Sussex, and lived out his life in Wyoming.