Friday, July 19, 2019
Art Nelson the Wyeville Woodchapper, circa 1913.Victor McLaglen

Remember Art Nelson the Wyeville Wood Chopper? Probably not

A story of Monroe County boxer's brush with fame over a century ago

With the Academy Awards coming up, it’s a good time to recall the Monroe County boxer who beat a future “Best Actor” Oscar winner in the ring 106 years ago.

Victor McLaglen actually beat himself by not heeding the referee’s commands to stop holding with one hand and hitting with the other in his fight with Wisconsin’s Art Nelson on February 4, 1913, and so the latter was declared winner by disqualification in the fourth round of their fight in New York City.

Art Nelson was a “White Hope,” the term applied to enlistees in the army of young, brawny Caucasion males whose mission was, as they looked at it, to restore American pride and virtue by separating Jack Johnson from the world heavyweight boxing title the Texas-born black boxer had won in 1908.

From 1908-1915, wrote Graeme Kent in his book The Great White Hopes: The Quest to defeat Jack Johnson, White Hopes “rolled off the assembly lines with the regularity of Henry Ford’s new Model Ts, although with less durability.”

They were hulking farm boys, ranch hands and factory workers who eagerly fed themselves into the boxing grinder to escape the drudgery, anonymity and poverty of their daily lives. For most of them, the rewards were paltry and the punishment harsh. But for a while they were heroes in the small towns that claimed them.

The 5’11”, 190-pound “Wyeville Wood Chopper,” as Nelson was called, “works every day of his existence on a big tract of timberland, and it is nothing for him to clear off an acre a day,” one article breathlessly reported. “When he feels good he just walks out and pulls up a big tree by the roots, breaks it in two and throws it aside with the ease of a child.”

Even more impressively: “When the name of champion Jack Johnson is mentioned, the blue eyes of the son of Thor shine with a dangerous light and his big hands clench together, while his massive jaw tightens with an ominous snap that bodes no good for the black gladiator if he ever hooks up with the blond-topped athlete.”

After winning a handful of fights in La Crosse, Sparta and Bangor, in late 1912 Nelson went to Buffalo, New York. His white hopes were extinguished in his first fight there on November 26 when Nelson was knocked out in the first round.

He won two of four subsequent bouts in New York, including the one with the London-born McLaglen. Reported the New York Times:

“Nelson took quite a beating, but from the end of the second round held his own, with short punches at close range with both hands which had the effect of checking (McLaglen) considerably. In what resulted in the concluding session Nelson was boxing to marked advantage, and clearly getting the better of the milling, to the discomfort of his bulkier opponent, who, although ordered to fight clean, disregarded all such orders and suffered disqualification.”

Then Nelson suffered two consecutive knockout defeats and returned to Sparta. He continued fighting around Wisconsin until he was kayoed by Ned Carpenter, another White Hope, on April 30, 1915.

“Nelson was pounded to a pulp. His eyes were puffed out, his nose was bleeding and he was so badly battered that he looked as though he had been kicked by a mule,” said the Racine Journal Times.

The Wyeville Wood Chopper’s trail goes cold after that, unlike that of the British giant who didn’t fight him clean in 1913. Soldier of fortune Victor McLaglen knocked around the globe until he made his first movie in London at age 33. Six years later he was a rich Hollywood movie star, and in 1935 McLaglen won an Academy Award for his starring role in the film “The Informer.”

Art Nelson, who the La Crosse Tribune once said “won the hearts of western Wisconsin lovers of the manly art of self-defense,” isn’t even mentioned on Wikipedia’s page on Wyeville. The only “notable” person in village history, according to it, was former GOP legislator Kyle Kenyon.

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