Count William Rudolph Martinovich von Rovigno was born a European nobleman but became a big-game hunter, worldwide traveler, bronco-buster, wilderness guide, and friend of “Buffalo Bill” Cody. After falling in love with Minnesota’s north woods, he settled and worked in the state as a game warden, forest guard, and wilderness advocate.
Count Rovigno was the nephew of the King of Montenegro and related in some way to many of the royal families of Europe. As a young man, he served as a diplomat in the court of the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph. This privileged position would lead to a dramatic change in the direction of his life.
In 1906, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody arrived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire with his popular Wild West Show. Because of his ability to speak excellent English, Count Rovigno became Cody’s personal interpreter. When Cody left Europe, he invited his new friend to visit him in the United States at any time.
This chance came sooner than expected. Count Rovigno believed that the Austro-Hungarian Empire would fall apart if it did not make important reforms. When he expressed this critical opinion, however, he was forced to leave his homeland. After spending time in Africa and South America, Count Rovigno decided to accept Cody’s invitation to visit the United States. He took up the life of a cowboy and outdoorsman in Buffalo Bill’s hometown of Cody, Wyoming. He helped capture wild animals for zoos and the Wild West Show and served as a hunting guide.
On one of these hunting trips, Count Rovigno met the Minneapolis millionaire Charles Gates. Gates was nicknamed “spend a million” for the way he generously gave away his money before his unexpected death in 1913. Gates must have said many good things about Minnesota, because Count Rovigno arrived there sometime in 1917 or 1918 to hunt moose and bear. Soon afterwards, he settled in St. Paul.
Rovigno found work as a mechanic, as a game warden, and in several other jobs that belied his noble birth. For a time, he even ran a sandwich cart on University Avenue, where his customers could grab something to eat and listen to stories of his previous adventures. The full truth of these tall tales was, and is, hard to confirm.
In 1922, Count Rovigno became a guard in the Superior National Forest. He was based out of the rough-and-tumble mining town of Ely, but spent most of his time roaming the woods. Forest guards like Count Rovigno helped visitors and enforced restrictions on hunting, fishing, and logging. The Superior National Forest had been established in 1909 and still had a rather small staff: only eight full-time rangers and sixteen extra guards for the summer season. Rangers and guards traveled alone or in pairs through a large wilderness, staying in tents or in a few basic cabins and shelters.
Count Rovigno’s wilderness experience led him to serve as a guide for visiting groups, including, on one occasion, a Minneapolis troop of Boy Scouts on a canoe trip. Many of the boys agreed that meeting Count Rovigno was a highlight of their trip—not because of his noble title, but because of his stories of hunting and traveling with Buffalo Bill and former president Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, most visitors to the National Forest were surprised to find that the man fixing their boat or showing them a trail was a European count.
Count Rovigno went by the nickname “Ruddie” among his friends. He made many of them in Minnesota, especially among outdoors enthusiasts. He was a strong supporter of wilderness preservation and hunting restrictions to protect Minnesota’s moose population. However, he encouraged everyone to visit the north woods. For Count Rovigno, Minnesota was “still the paradise of the hunter and the pioneer…If you want to see how small you really are, go into the woods.”
Count Rovigno was a talented mechanic and usually traveled in a motor home he had built himself on the back of a truck. After several years in Minnesota, he left in this same truck in search of further adventures. He passed away in California in 1971.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.