By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Paul Ekblad owned this land free and clear in the late 1970s when he started studying land-trust laws and the U.S. Constitution. Between 1980 and 1983, he quit-claimed his "allodial freehold" to two protectorates called Hillside Trust and Blessing Farm Trust, whose trustees are scattered throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota. Then he stopped paying property taxes, standing on the belief that his land was "constitutionally free from any feudal arrangements." In 1988, during one of the most severe droughts on record, the first of his legal disputes with county officials began when Ekblad diverted irrigation water to his strawberry crop from the Trade River, a small creek running through Hillside acreage. Burnett County charged him with diversion of public water without a valid DNR permit and fined Ekblad $696, to be paid within 90 days. Ten months later, a circuit court judge found him in contempt of court for failure to pay the fine, and sentenced Ekblad to a month in the Siren jail, which he served. In 1991, Ekblad attempted without success to sue several DNR officials "who have acted without constitutional jurisdiction in this matter" and government agents "caught prowling around my buildings when the land was lawfully posted."
It was during this time, Jean Ekblad remembers, that the Board of Supervisors began to "get aggressively serious" about the hundreds of delinquent property tax cases on the books in Burnett County. A majority of these were levied on lots up at Voyager Village, against tax deed holders from out of state who'd watched membership fees go up and land values go down until they simply vacated the area. These properties were seized and auctioned off by the dozen at public sales over several years. The district attorney claims to have no exact figures as to the total amount garnered from these sales, but calls the level of delinquent back taxes at the time "astronomical, somewhere near the million-dollar mark." Burnett County was falling so far in the hole, he says, the county board was informed that public schools in Grantsburg and Frederic were in jeopardy of going bankrupt.
The county board also discovered a number of properties, including the Ekblad's Blessing Hill and Hillside Trusts, occupied by a network of Wild River Patriots who had intentionally refused to pay overdue taxes, sometimes for up to 11 years. "At that point, we determined this Patriot group to be comparable, in philosophy and certain tactics, to the Posse Comitatus over in Tigerton Dells," Ken Kutz recalls. "We identified Ken Edaburn and Sonny Lundeen and Paul Ekblad, especially Ekblad, as being the minds behind a whole rash of cases showing up in court. They were, I'd guess, about 10 years behind the Posse, and not as militant, but it was prevalent over a four-county area and based in Burnett. We started getting calls from the Wisconsin Department of Revenue, who saw this stuff blossoming and maybe getting out of hand. A lot of the paperwork we were forced to deal with had been generated by Ekblad--I'd say it was more than any other case we've handled, with the possible exception of a first-degree homicide."
That paperwork--a bail of documents pocked with handwritten marginalia and correction fluid--was, says Jean Ekblad, an attempt to stop the county from proceeding to seize deeds to their 200-acre trusts on delinquent property tax charges dating back to 1980. That year, the amount owed was listed with the county treasurer as $800. By 1992, after the Hillside and Blessing Farm titles were finally transferred to Burnett County, the debt was calculated, by a low estimate, at nearly 10 times that amount. By 1993, Ekblad had appeared before at least three different judges a dozen times, refusing the assistance of any court-appointed lawyer "as they do not comprehend the intricacies of my constitutional stance." He cited Article I, Section 14 of the state constitution, the Organic Wisconsin Constitution of 1848, Fourth Amendment guarantees against illegal property seizures--clear and simple bans, in his view, on the county's practice of evicting residents from their farms and profiting off subsequent sales. The judge, once again, ruled against Ekblad.
What happened next is still a topic of coffee-break talk around the government center on a slow day. After serving another 30 days on contempt of court charges, Paul Ekblad and his family were forcefully evicted from their farmhouse and escorted off the property with, as his wife recalls, " a few belongings--boxes of photos, some clothes, a few utensils--that we might be needing." But, she adds, they left most of their possessions inside, planning, as they did, to return once a higher court ruled in their favor.
In January 1994, Burnett County accepted sealed bids on three 40-acre parcels of Hillside Trust land, and awarded the deeds to buyers from St. Croix Falls and Luck for a total of $39,100; soon after the sale, Henry Forsyth, a friend of the family's from Clear Lake, bought the Blessing Farm property on which the farmhouse is located for $40,000 and turned the place back over to the Ekblads. While the actual amount of taxes owed is still in dispute ($7,000 by the Ekblad's count, $23,000 by the clerk of court's), it is a matter of record that the county is set to pocket between $56,000 and $72,000 by the time all contracts are paid. Two months after the sales, in March 1994, Ekblad filed an official protest in the form of liens totaling $12,209,500 against the personal properties of the Burnett County Board of Supervisors "for violating their oaths of office in the stealing of my land and my sovereign... dignity."