It took Bill Lorenzen more than a decade to put together the story of a 170-year-old flintlock rifle and the 149-year-old story of what was reported to be the last wild bear killed in Wood County.
But his detective work and some helpful and generous folks helped him fill in the blanks and now he knows: The rifle, now in his possession, belonged to his great-grandfather, who used it to shoot that last great bear.
This full-circle historical and family tale is a perfect one for telling around the hot stove in winter, and so:
"Grandma Sylvie told me of the story of her father, Washington Avery, and his killing of the last grizzly bear in this area. I never realized at the time the truth of the story she recalled to me at such a young age."
Nor did he realize that he one day would end up with his great grandfather's historic, almost forgotten rifle.
Lorenzen, 48, grew up and took a job with the county, and in 1989 also started a nuisance wildlife-control business. Both occupations played coincidental but crucial roles in the tale.
He was doing work on office space for the Wood County Genealogical Society in the summer of 1991 and met Lolita Guthrie, " a very special and dedicated woman" at the office. In conversation he mentioned the story of his great grandfather and the bear and Mrs. Guthrie knew it. She said she would try to find an historical account of it, and some months later she produced a copy of Pioneer Scrap-Book of Wood County, Ohio, which included an account of the last bear hunt.
"I read the account with great interest. ... Although I never doubted grandma's story, this somehow added something special to the story of my family."
The pioneer scrapbook contains an account, "Last of Big Game," that quotes the Bowling Green Sentinel of Nov. 27, 1884, which published a story of the hunt as recalled by a county old-timer named Evers, who was there.
"It was late in the fall of 1858," the account begins. "There was a nice tracking snow on the ground."
The passage goes on to describe how "Wash. G. Avery" was out deer hunting north of Bowling Green. Lorenzen has narrowed that down to the vicinity of Newton and Nims roads in what then still was the Great Black Swamp.
"The bear came through the woods as he was watching for other game," Lorenzen said. His great-grandfather lost all interest in anything but the bear and proceeded to draw down on it with his .50 flintlock rifle.
"The ball struck the bear in the thigh, inflicting a flesh wound of no consequence," the old account states. The bear headed east, Avery in pursuit. He soon was joined on Sugar Ridge Road by friends Joe Ralston and G.O. Walker.
The trio of hunters tracked the bear to McCutchenville Road, present-day State Rt. 199, in Webster Township. It was dark by then, so they decided to stay the night at the Ten Mile House in Scotch Ridge.
At daylight they were joined by Jesse Williams, a Perrysburg harness-maker and an unnamed friend. They tracked the bear all the way north to the Ottawa County line, where the bear began to circle back, crossing McCutchenville Road within a mile of where the story began.
Another hunter, "Old" Jake Hedinger, turned loose a couple of dogs, which pursued the bear and pulled it from the lower trunk of a tree. The bear, still full of energy, took off toward Plank Road [State Rt. 25] and Sugar Ridge Road. More men joined the hunting party as the bear headed toward what was called Rudolph Ditch, now Toussaint Creek, off Devils Hole Road.
Toward the end of the day Avery got another shot at the bear, his ball this time striking it in the back. A short time later another hunter, William Mears, shot the bear again, the dogs in hot pursuit. The bear, dying, took a last powerful swat at one of the dogs, mortally injuring it. And it was finished.
The hunters, jubilant, took the bear - estimated at 250 pounds [and likely a black bear with a brownish coat, not a grizzly] - to Thomas Tavern at Scotch Ridge to celebrate. There they divvied up the meat, Avery receiving the hide as well.
The storied flintlock that Avery used in the hunt, Lorenzen later determined, was built in 1837 by the gunsmithing firm of Slack and Son, of Springfield, Ohio. It was a 50-caliber flintlock, full-stocked in tiger maple, a sturdy frontier piece that a homesteader could depend on.
The rifle faded into the family woodwork for generations, it seemed, waiting for a twist of fate to resurface. That came in 2002.
Lorenzen got a nuisance-animal call from the sheriff's department in the wee hours one morning, whereupon he was asked to help "an elderly man who had an animal intruder in his home..." The sheriff's dispatcher also advised Lorenzen that the "old sportsman" kept a loaded double-barrel shotgun in the house and he should be mindful of it.
The old man, a bachelor, was Howard Avery, and he proceeded to ask Bill if he was one of Avery Lorenzen's sons. "He went on to say he did not know my dad personally, but he knew how my father had been given my mother's maiden name, as this practice was common in our family tree. In short, the old man was a shirttail cousin and the men spent hours comparing family notes.
Bill proceeded to eventually trap the animal intruder, a raccoon. "Howard offered to pay me for the job, but I refused the money and thanked him for filling me in on our family tree."
The men continued their friendship and visits, and on one of them Bill mentioned Grandma Sylvie's bear tale. Howard has heard the same, told essentially the same way.
Months later, in failing health, Howard allowed that he had something to share and Bill fetched it as directed. From the back of a deep old closet came Washington Avery's bear rifle.
"That's Wash's gun that shot the bear," Howard explained to an amazed Lorenzen. The old man explained that at the time of Washington Avery's death, his younger brother, Joseph, told Howard about the gun and made him "promise to keep the gun, the story, and the history in the family and never to sell it.
"Howard agreed and kept the gun all those years. I'm not really sure why fate smiled on me to be so blessed with making that same promise to Howard," said Lorenzen. "But I am thankful for that and expect no less from my own son some day."