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A Night in the Fur Shed


Paul Dobbins

    The squeaky old yellow school bus thundered down the dirt road covering the last quarter mile of the forty-minute trip from the school.  Gazing through the bus window I had been watching the scenery with little interest.  My attention had been focused on how much fur dad would be bringing home tonight and where he caught what.  In my mind I revisited over and over again the places we had set and checked traps the two prior days.  Going back to school on Mondays was tough on this youngster who loved to be with his dad running the trapline when he could on weekends.  
    Finally the squealing brakes on the bus signaled the end of the trip.  I bounded off the bus and began the long walk down the winding dirt road toward the house.  I could see from a distance that dad hadn’t gotten home yet, and I really didn’t expect him to be there yet.  He had been running quite an extensive trapline during his week off and had been getting in an hour or so after dark. 
    As I walked through the living room on my way to the kitchen, I glanced at the wood box behind the wood-burning heater.  The box held a few pieces of split white oak, but would have to be filled before I did anything else.  My job was keeping the wood box filled in the winter.  During the fall, I would split and stack the oak, ash, elm and other hardwoods dad and I had cut and hauled to the house.  Actually, dad did the cutting.  He ran the old battered red Homelight chainsaw and I picked up the stove length pieces and tossed them in a pile to be stacked on the bed of a wagon we borrowed from the farmer who tended the land we rented on.
    Once we got the wood to the house, we tossed it off the wagon in a pile near where I would use a wedge and sledge hammer to split the larger pieces into usable sizes and then stack the pieces in neat rows putting a tarp over the wood to protect it from rain and snow.  This was a chore usually done after school and on the weekends when I couldn’t ride with dad on his trapline.
    During this time, dad worked for the State of Virginia trapping foxes for rabies control.  He would trap the first 23 days of each month and have the last seven to ten days off.  The trappers in this program would trap a different county each month and many times dad was too far from home to commute. 
    After I had changed out of my school clothes, I filled the wood box behind the heater in the living room.  I checked the heater and added a piece of the split oak.  I then went to the fur shed to check the wood box in there.  It would be another late night putting up fur and the heater in there would need to be fed too.
    Upon entering the fur shed, the odor of the drying fur permeated the room.  The smell was not rank, but pleasant to smell.  I particularly liked the sweet fragrance of drying muskrat hides. 
    Hanging from nails driven into the old gray two by four wall studs, which made up the right wall were a dozen or so foxes on stretchers missing their tails.  These were a mix of red and grey foxes that dad had caught during the last few days of his fox trapping job that month.  The reds were turned fur side out showing their well groomed fur and the greys were fur side in showing the well fleshed drying hide. 
    The rabies control trappers had to turn in the tails as proof of catch.  They weren’t supposed to skin and sell the fox hides from their jobs, but dad wasn’t much for wasting fur for no good reason.  So, I was instructed to keep my mouth shut about these foxes and actually about any of the fur we had in the shed.   Years before, dad had a batch of fur stolen, and ever since then, he was very quiet about his catch and he made sure I understood that I was to also be silent.
    Along the back wall and hanging from nails driven into the rough-cut exposed rafters were rows of well-scraped coon in various degrees of drying.  They were mostly on wooden stretchers, but some of the smaller ones were stretched on wire.  The coons that had been on the stretchers the longest were showing beads of oil on their hides.  I would wipe these down with a piece of clean burlap this evening.
    Below the drying coon hides were some narrow boards which held a half dozen mink of different sizes.  These boards were on the floor and leaning against the wall.  Each of the mink’s tails were tacked open with a tack every inch or so, and they looked very neat and symmetrical.
    Jutting out from the left back corner was a fleshing beam, well used, and stained with the oil from thousands of animal hides, worn smooth by years of use.  Dad fabricated it from a piece of oak slab he had found at an abandoned portable saw mill site.  He had taken that piece of oak, removed the remaining bark and shaped it with a small hand plane.  When he was done with it, it was smooth with no bumps or dents to cause damage to pelts when they were being fleshed.  Above the fleshing beam was a single light bulb on the end of a cord.  The cord was wrapped around a nail in a rafter board which supported the light above the fleshing beam.  Under the fleshing beam was a layer of cardboard upon which coon fat was piled from the previous night’s fleshing.
    About half way along the left wall was where the wood-burning heater was set up.  It was sitting on a layer of sand and behind it was a shield of tin nailed against the back wall to protect the wall from the heat of the stove.  A black stove pipe came up from the back of the heater and exited through the wall near the ceiling rafters.
    Hanging from the exposed rafters in the center of the shed were rows of drying muskrat hides.  Because these stretched hides were short in length, being in the middle of the room didn’t interfere with walking around under them.
    An old worn work bench was just inside the door to the left.  This is where the muskrats were skinned, sharpening stones layed as well as rags, knives, coffee cans full of nails, hammer, pliers and any number of odds and ends.             Above this bench was another light set up like the one above the fleshing beam.  Also, an AM radio sat upon this bench.  It was played anytime we were in the skinning shed working on fur.
    After filling the wood box in the skinning shed, I started a fire in the heater.  The shed would be nice and cozy when we went out to put up the day’s fur.  Plus the heat would help the drying process on the fur that was now hanging on the stretchers.
    I went back into the house and asked mom what was for dinner. 
    She said, “Pork chops with mashed potatoes and gravy”.
    The thought of mom’s delicious meal made my mouth water and stomach growl.  I picked up an apple and began devouring it to relieve my hunger till suppertime and headed for my bedroom to check out what I had to do for homework. 
    It was hard doing homework when my mind was on trapping instead.  But I did what had to be done, then waited for dad to get home.
    I didn’t have to wait long.  Hearing the squeaky hinge on the front door signaled his arrival.  He went straight to the kitchen, kissed mom and placed his empty red plaid thermos, showing wear from many years of use, on the counter beside the sink.
    As soon as he sat down at the table, I started asking him what he caught and where.  At the same time, mom was putting the food on the table. 
    Dad said he caught eleven coons, twenty six muskrats and two male mink.  He patiently went through his whole line telling me where he caught each animal.  He would use terms like “at the creek behind the gate with the broken top board”, and “at the Hawthorne place in the back pond” to distinguish locations.   Too frequently the location of a place would be marked by something that happened to me, like “where you fell in”, or  “where you tripped over that log”, or even “where you tripped over the frozen cow pie”.  I had a terrible habit of tripping over cow pies.
    After supper dad would light up his pipe and exhale aromatic smoke that over the years, became an odor that I would always associate with dad.  He then would talk about some of the things he’d seen or experienced while on the line that day.   I loved sitting there listening intently, hanging on to every word.  His adventures were rarely full of drama, but he had a way of telling them that it made a person feel like they were right there with him.
    “Well, lets go unload the car,” dad said.
    We went out and carried the day’s catch into the fur shed.  The muskrats and mink were wrapped in newspaper.  This was something dad did to help the drying process.  The newspapers would absorb the water from the animal’s fur and be nice and dry when he got home.  The raccoons were inspected for burrs and then hung from rafters in the center of the room to allow them to finish drying.
    “Boy, you’d better get that fire going a bit better.  It’s a bit chilly in here.  Put some of that coon fat in the fire and add a couple more pieces of wood.”  Dad instructed.
    I reached below the fleshing beam and grabbed a piece of semi-hardened coon fat and put it in the fire.  Almost immediately the fire started spitting and sputtering as the fat caught fire.   Soon the fire was intense and the sides of the heater were turning cherry red.
    “That’ll put some heat in here.” Dad said.
    Sometimes when doing that, it put a bit too much heat in the small room, and we would open the door and let some of the heat escape.  There were no windows to open, so the only way to vent the excess heat was through the door.
    “Go ahead and wipe down those coons and I’ll start skinning these rats.  After you get done wiping down the coon, you can start fleshing and stretching the rats” Dad said.
    I got a fresh piece of burlap from a bag of burlap pieces dad had stored under the work bench.  One by one I took the raccoons down and wiped the beads of oil from their drying hides.  Even after wiping them, they had an oily feel to them.  One of them was a sow which I had fleshed and had put a hole in the belly where one her nipples was.  I felt bad about it, because that was one of the things dad always stressed to me about fleshing female coons, but he made light of it and said it was just part of the learning process.  I don’t ever remember him putting a hole in a hide.  He must have learned quicker than I did.
    By the time I had the coons wiped down, dad had almost half of the twenty six muskrats skinned.  I picked up the ones he had done and put them on top of a box near the fleshing beam.
    I reached behind the fleshing beam and removed my fleshing knife, which had been hanging by a lanyard on a nail driven into a wall stud.  My fleshing knife was nothing fancy, but it got the job done.  Dad had fashioned it from a machete.  He taped the last eight inches of the blade with electrical tape over a piece of burlap to cover the sharp edge of the blade.  I got used to using that old machete and it was as good as any of the fancier knives I’ve used since.  I’d use the sharp side for cutting the gristle, like behind the head on a coon and the dull side, I’d use to push off the fat from muskrats and possums.  Dad showed me how to use it and  I became very proficient with it over time.
    As I was fleshing the rats, the radio was playing a station from KDKA, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  Sometimes it would be WOWO, Ft Wayne, Indiana.  Late at night, these stations from far away would come in crystal clear and the local stations would shut down.  I asked dad why these far away stations came in so good at night and he told me it was because they increased their power at night.  He said they couldn’t do it in the daytime because it would drown out the smaller radio stations.
    After fleshing all the rats, I put them on stretchers and hung them from nails driven into the exposed rough-cut ceiling joists.  Some of the rats were too large to put on regular muskrat stretchers and these had to go onto the small wire coon stretchers.  The muskrats were fleshed so that all the fat was removed, but there was still a thin layer of red meat, which covered the muskrat hide from below the leg holes to the bottom of the hide.  While it was tempting to remove this layer of meat, dad made a point to tell me occasionally that its best to leave that on the muskrat hide, and that it wouldn’t hurt the value of the pelt.  He said that’s the way the fur buyers wanted them.
    By the time I was finished stretching the rats, dad had the raccoons all skinned but two.  I gathered up the pile of coon hides and placed them on top of the box near the fleshing beam.  I then commenced fleshing the fat ladened coon hides.  They were usually easy to flesh, but messy.  After the outer layer of heavy fat was pushed off the hide, I would turn the machete around and with the sharp edge, cut the fat and gristle off the head and neck area of the coon.  Then I would turn the machete over and scrape the last layer of fat off the hide.  This was usually a bit runny and I would put a piece of burlap at the bottom to catch the oily fat as it ran down the hide.  The oily semi-liquid would be caught in the burlap and not be as apt to get all over the fur at the bottom of the hide. 
    As I was finishing up the fifth coon hide, dad had finished skinning the last of the coons, skinned the two mink, fleshed them on the narrow mink boards and stretched them.  He then began removing some of the dried coon hides that were hanging from the exposed rafter beams.  He replaced the dried hides with the freshly scraped ones and hung them back where the others had been hanging.
    There was usually little conversation while we were working in the fur shed.  Occasionally dad would talk about something new he was trying, or would talk about something that happened on the trapline that he didn’t cover when at the supper table.  For the most part though, the radio playing on the work bench, the crackling of the fire in the wood heater and the scraping of the fleshing knife were the only sounds heard in the fur shed.
    Before I left the fur shed for the house, dad said, “Boy, mark yourself up two muskrats.”
   This marking up of animals was dad’s way of letting me share in the profits of the fur.  The marks would be nothing more than lines made with a pencil on one of the exposed beams.  These were in groups of five.  Four single lines one after the other would indicate four animals.  The fifth would be indicated by a diagonal line from the top the mark on the right to bottom of the first mark.  This block of marks would be five animals, and the next animal would begin a new series of marks.  There would be a column for Coon and one for Rats.  Sometimes it would be one raccoon, or one muskrat, or one muskrat and one raccoon.  The number of stuff I’d mark would be determined by how much work I did in the fur shed that night.
    I didn’t need to be paid for helping dad, but dad insisted on doing it this way.  I enjoyed being in the shed helping put up the fur.  The proud feeling of putting up a hide without goofing it up, the sweet smell of the drying hides, the story behind each catch and the joy of being in the company of the person who was so important to me was all the pay I needed.  To a young aspiring trapper, this was as good as it got without being out on the line.