White Beaver's Trap

Michelle Kelly

Catalog Number: 2008.040.01

Flamboyant four-time La Crosse Mayor Dr. David Frank Powell was born in New York in 1847 to a white doctor father and a Native American mother. After his father died in 1855, the Powell family moved to Nebraska, where Powell spent his teen years working as an apprentice to a pharmacist and scouting on the frontier with his two brothers.

 Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

 Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

While scouting, Frank Powell met one of the most famous frontiersmen ever: William “Buffalo Bill” Cody. The two became good friends. As an adult, Powell frequently starred in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West acts when they were near La Crosse.

Powell moved to La Crosse in 1881 to open a medical practice. His two brothers came to La Crosse to join him, calling their joint practice “Powells’ Medical and Surgical Institute.”

 +2La Crosse re-dedicates Powell Park to one of its most colorful residents
La Crosse re-dedicates Powell Park to one of its most colorful residents
David Franklin “Doc” Powell would have been happy Thursday to see the children running aroun…

Frank Powell allowed the use of his home as a makeshift hospital for the city of La Crosse before the Sisters of St. Francis arrived in La Crosse and built the region’s first hospital. He even came out with several patent medicines after moving to La Crosse, including White Beaver’s Cough Cream, Yosemite Yarrow and Wonder Worker. The La Crosse Historical Society has an empty bottle of White Beaver’s Cough Cream, which claimed to cure “coughs, colds, bronchitis, croup, pleurisy and other diseases of the lungs.”

Unfortunately, some of his treatments were met with controversy, especially the Wonder Worker. Powell advertised the Wonder Worker as “equally beneficial if used internally or externally.” Wonder Worker led to Doc Powell being banned from practicing medicine in Minnesota. However, this did not stop him from opening a practice in St. Paul. He would visit the practice once or twice a week to supervise several assistants — never practicing any medicine himself, to comply with Minnesota law.

The colorful Doc Powell was popular in La Crosse, and he was elected mayor for four terms. While mayor, Powell ran for governor but lost both times he ran. During his tenure, Mayor Powell’s accomplishments included the introduction of uniformed police and full-time firefighters, improved railroads and schools, and the installation of electric street lights.

Doc Powell embraced his Native American heritage and cultivated an image that played to the public’s appetite for the romanticized imagery of the fast-disappearing “Wild West.” The walls of the waiting room in his La Crosse office were covered in Native American artwork and memorabilia, and it was reputed to have a shooting gallery.

This beaver trap is said to have hung on the wall in his office, perhaps to remind visitors of his nickname: “White Beaver.” It eventually made its way to a wall at the Golden Harp Saloon on Pearl Street, which was known to accept old guns and other objects in payment for bar tabs. While there is no way to prove or disprove the story, in his later years Powell could very well have used the trap to pay off his tab.

This beaver trap was donated to La Crosse County Historical Society in 2008 by Malcolm Clark. 

This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on July 28, 2018.

This object can be viewed in our online collections database by clicking here.