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Link Snacks legal fight splits Minong, Wis., family

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SHELL LAKE -- A legal battle among a family of multimillionaires in the Minong area, spawned by a father-son rift in 2002, might finally be resolved next week, after six weeks of testimony in Washburn County Circuit Court.

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In 2005, Link Snacks, owned by Jack Link and son Troy Link, sued Jay Link, Troy's older brother and Jack's son.

Jack Link and Troy Link argue in the company's lawsuit that Jay Link, the former chief operations officer of Link Snacks, had to be fired because he wanted to be in complete control of the company, and was lying to employees about company business in order to further his own interests.

The case has added a healthy helping of gossip to the tiny hamlet of Minong -- population 521, according to the town's sign.

Link Snacks Inc., a multi-million Minong-based jerky company, employs 380 people in Minong and 1,500 workers in related companies.

"While plaintiffs' preference was to have Jay Link's employment at the company continue, ultimately, he was unwilling to do so, unless he was given autonomy, authority and control over the business, as CEO, and was not required to report to his father in any capacity," Link Snacks attorneys wrote in court documents. The company also accused Jay Link in court documents of lying to fellow employees at Link Snacks and others outside the company, all of which he's denied.

Jay Link contends in court documents that his father began resenting him after Jay Link tried to buy out King B Snacks, a competitor.

"Perceiving the deal brokered by Jay as a threat to his position, Jack made an all-out effort to thwart it," Jay Link's lawyers wrote. "Despite the success of the Link Meat Snacks Business and the Link Family Enterprise, in 2002 things began to unravel between Jack and Jay. ... Jack began to resent his son passing him by. Seeing their relationship crack, Troy seized the opportunity to force his older brother out."

Both sides are suing for damages, and are asking Washburn Circuit Judge Eugene Harrington to settle how much money Jay Link should receive based on a 1995 agreement, tied to the amount of shares in Links Snacks and other companies Jay Link had when he left.

Link Snacks had offered $34.6 million to settle. Jay Link said in court filings that the company and the family's other companies were worth hundreds of millions, and he was at one point willing to buy everything for $500 million.

Depending on how much in damages are awarded, it could potentially mean liquidating part of the Jack Links empire.

The Link family is more than just the biggest employer in town, and a major employer in Washburn County. A traveler passing through can readily see the indelible mark past and present Link family members have on the community.

In addition to Link Snacks, the family's businesses in the Minong area include a Link truck stop, Link Brothers Ford dealership in Minong, a recreational vehicle dealership, Grandma Link's restaurant and Big Bob's furniture store, owned by Jack's brother Bob Link.

Almost everyone in town works, worked for or knows a Link personally.

"Everyone knows who they are," said Jon Martin, owner of the Village Scoop, a coffee and ice cream shop. "It's a shame it got all aired in court."

"This is just unfathomable to people around here," said Frank Zufall, who originally broke the story of the lawsuit in the Spooner Advocate, and has covered it ever since.

"This is rural Wisconsin. People don't typically make a lot of money," he said.

He said his newspaper's sales in the area have jumped from 195 papers a week to 305 a week since the trial began.

Floyd Rudy is one of those temporary readers.

Rudy, who lives a few miles outside of Minong, said he and many residents in the area have been glued to the weekly accounts in the paper.

But it's not just about getting an inside look at the town's most famous, wealthiest family.

"They're sorry to see it happen," Rudy said.

Meanwhile, Jack Link's brother Bob sits in his furniture store every day happily avoiding any talk of the trial, just wanting the trial to be over.

"I don't care who wins," said Bob Link. "I love them all dearly."

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