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From The Past
A Night in the Fur Shed
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
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
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.