Inside the desperate search for 4-year-old Minnesota boy 'Punky,' gone missing in 1938
Four-year-old Hickle Harley Ware went missing from Bungo Township in 1938, and no trace of him was ever found despite an exhaustive search.
BUNGO TOWNSHIP, Minn. — Connie Ritter never met her Uncle Hickle, but his life would significantly impact her own for generations to come.
Ritter grew up hearing the story of her mom’s little brother, Hickle Harley Ware, who disappeared 84 years ago.
On June 11, 1938, 4-year-old Hickle was out with his two older brothers near the family’s farm southwest of Pine River in Bungo Township in Cass County, Minnesota. His brothers went to round up some loose cattle, and when they returned a few minutes later, the boy had vanished without a trace.
Search crews of at least 1,500 people, including National Guardsmen from Camp Ripley, searched the thickly wooded, swampy area for about a week without finding any sign of Hickle.
The case remains unsolved to this day, a decades-old mystery still impacting those who didn’t even know the little boy.
“It was just how we grew up,” Ritter recalled. “My mom was very, very protective of my brothers and I, and this is just something that made me the mom that I am.”
While the Cass County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have records going as far back as 1938, Hickle’s disappearance and the subsequent search can be pieced together through articles from the Brainerd Daily Dispatch, Pine River Journal and Cass County Independent, publications that all ran front page pictures of the stocky little 4-year-old who community members came to know as the Lost Boy, the Missing Ware Lad and the bright youngster affectionately nicknamed Punky.
June 11, 1938, was a Saturday. Details of the afternoon vary in the different newspapers, but all put Hickle out in a meadow near the family’s farm with his older brothers, 13-year-old Richard Jr. and 10-year-old Bob, between noon and 1 p.m. that afternoon. The two older boys left to round up the cattle, telling Hickle to stay where he was until they returned.
“Gone but a few minutes,” according to testimony at the time, the boys came back to an empty meadow.
Richard and Lois Ware searched for their missing son that afternoon and evening, knowing he was prone to wandering off in the woods he knew so well, even at the young age of 4.
Cass County Sheriff Clarence Merry came onto the scene at 6 a.m. Sunday morning, after the family still hadn’t found the child.
Friends and neighbors stepped up to help search for the boy, last seen barefoot, wearing tan overalls with a blue and white striped shirt. The Brainerd Daily Dispatch called it the “greatest manhunt ever staged in northern Minnesota.”
Reinforcements came from the National Guardsmen stationed at Camp Ripley and Civilian Conservation Corps members from Park Rapids, Cass Lake, Akeley and other surrounding territories.
Bloodhounds were brought in from La Crosse, Wisconsin. And when they were needed elsewhere after the first days of searching, a new crew of dogs came from New Ulm. But Monday night rain may have weakened the boy’s scent, making him impossible to track.
More than 1,500 people searched for little Punky, spending the daylight hours fighting off swarms of mosquitoes and wading up to their armpits through swamplands, passing the nights sleeping in their cars or on the ground at the Ware farm.
A community collection sought to secure funds to feed the searchers and offer a reward for information on Hickle’s whereabouts.
It reportedly took over 400 loaves of bread and 35 pounds of butter to make sandwiches for the search teams each day — a daily cost of $500 to $700. With inflation, that would amount to $10,000 to $14,000 in 2022.
Roughly $100 was left over for the reward, doubled by a contribution from Richard Ware himself. A $200 reward would be roughly $4,100 today.
Some searchers said they heard a “faint pitiful cry like that of a child” at one point.
Others reported fresh tracks in the mud Sunday and Monday, seemingly made by a child. A report in the Cass County Independent places fresh bear tracks nearby.
Later coverage in the Brainerd Daily Dispatch quotes law enforcement saying the report of fresh footprints were erroneous, and Hickle likely died during his first night in the woods.
A June 17 article in the Brainerd Daily Dispatch stated Lois Ware believed her son was dead, while Richard Ware held out hope of his safe return.
That same day, the Cass County Independent printed an account of the past week’s events according to Lois Ware, who said her son would not have wandered into deep water on his own. Perhaps someone took him, she said.
The mother’s hope of finding her son alive seemed to stem from her high esteem for the child. He was described as a “sturdy youngster,” “a tough kid” with a “fine physique” and “practically immune to mosquito bites.” He knew how to drink fresh water from streams and eat berries to keep up his strength, she said.
Described as having “very light hair, blue eyes, and a slight difficulty of speech,” Hickle was known to disappear for short periods of time, only to be found asleep near a building.
But everyone had their theories.
One report from the June 22 edition of the Cass County Independent described a neighbor stating two strange men were in the immediate vicinity. And there was reportedly freshly turned earth near their apparent location. It was dug up and revealed nothing.
A nearby farmer claimed he saw a truck speeding by that day, with a little boy inside crying. That lead did not pan out for law enforcement officers.
Another theory printed in the Brainerd Daily Dispatch allegedly originated with a Brainerd fortune teller and put Hickle with a hermit living deep within the swamp. The old man was said to have found the boy wandering in the woods and taken him home. But without radio, television or newspaper, the man knew nothing of the search for the child and was waiting for someone to claim him.
Law enforcement reportedly did find a man living somewhere in the area described but did not find Hickle.
“Letters from spiritualists and offers of assistance from others who patently are cranks have flooded the family within the past few days,” the Brainerd paper reported June 17, 1938.
The kidnapping theories had just as many, if not more, holes than the idea of Hickle wandering off.
The land was off the beaten path, not easily accessible to outsiders. How would someone know Hickle would be out in the meadow by himself that day, and how could they have timed their attack to coincide with the brothers’ short absence?
Ritter said another rumor related to Hickle being buried in the concrete under a barn built at a nearby farm shortly after his disappearance.
“A lot of that stuff is just made up, but we don’t know for sure,” she said.
Though not prevalent in the newspaper coverage, Ritter said accusations also flew at the Ware family members themselves.
Perhaps more of a coincidence than a theory of any sort, the June 14, 1938, edition of the Brainerd Daily Dispatch tells the story of another family ripped apart in the same meadow where Hickle was last seen.
About two years earlier, the Young family went to that field and ate poisonous mushrooms, the article said. Five of them died. Nothing else about the incident was reported.
None of the theories or rumors about Hickle’s disappearance ever panned out.
“I truly believe that he was just lost, and it was sad,” Ritter said. “But they never found him. That’s what was even sadder yet. And it changed my grandma.”
A family in pieces
Ritter’s mom, Arlone Johnson, was 7 at the time of the family’s tragedy. The youngest brother, William Harve, was just 9 months old.
“My grandma was devastated,” Ritter said. “… My mom did say that she had to hang on to her youngest brother. That’s what grandma said was, ‘Hang on to him, don’t let him go.’ And so she had him in her arms the whole time, and she was just a little girl herself.”
Lois Ware (later Lois Cowie) grew ever more protective of the rest of her children, passing that mindset onto her daughter Arlone and future generations.
Ritter hardly ever let her own kids out of her sight after hearing the nightmarish story of her missing uncle.
“My children had to live with it — ‘You can’t go across the street, you can’t do nothing,’” Ritter said. “I was scared because my mom lived it, and her brother never came home.”
To make matters even more frightening, Ritter spent some of her married life about 8 miles down the road from the St. Joseph home of Jacob Wetterling, an 11-year-old boy who was kidnapped and murdered in 1989. Wetterling’s killer was finally brought to justice in 2016, when Danny Heinrich confessed to the crime and led authorities to the location of the boy’s remains.
It was a case that haunted small-town Minnesotans for nearly 30 years and exacerbated Ritter’s own fears stemming from Hickle’s case half a century earlier.
Hickle’s father, Richard Ware Sr., died in the line of duty in 1953 at the age of 51. As the police chief in Evans, Colorado, Ware was shot to death by a man issued a court summons concerning a traffic violation the previous day.
Lois Ware later became Lois Cowie after marrying Glenn Cowie and died in 1983. Hickle’s four siblings, along with a younger sister born after his disappearance, have all since died.
As time wears on and the number of people who remember Hickle Harley Ware dwindles, so do Ritter’s hopes of ever knowing the truth.
Will she ever get the answers she’d like?
“Realistically, no,” she said. “But could it help save some other child? Yes. That’s what I would like is that other children get saved and things like that don’t happen, or accidents like that don’t happen. Because who knows what it was?”
Perhaps Ritter will someday meet Hickle Harley Ware in heaven and find out what really happened on that June day in 1938. But until then, the case remains cold.
THERESA BOURKE may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.