I could not consider college, my support was needed for the family and I readily accepted that, with no regret, as was done in those days. Mom’s health was starting to deteriorate and Dad wasn’t able to work steadily or sometimes at all and we still had twin boys who were 7-year-old eating machines .
I loved the out-of-doors, hunted everything that was legal and bass fishing was a passion. I had worked part-time on farms, almost since birth. I’d worked really hard and for long hours with little compensation. I clerked in Kingsville Market, learned to cut meat and smooth-talk irate customers, not a bad job but still working for someone.
Dad had not used any of his gas ration points yet for the summer and it was September, a beautiful time to go for a visit. We invaded Aunt Clara and Uncle Tom’s house on McKewin Avenue early one Sunday morning. We had sent them a note that we would be “down the city “ she was ready for us and we kids gorged ourselves on her waffles and King Syrup.
After a wonderful day of being catered to, we reluctantly departed the city. Just before, Uncle Tom gave me a copy of Popular Mechanics that he had already read.
It was still daylight when we arrived on Old Landing Road and after unloading the old ’34 Ford I sat down at the kitchen table and started leafing thru the Popular Mechanics. Like a voice from Merlin, “Eureka I have found it”…I could be a hunter and preserve all my specimens and make a living doing the same for fellow hunters.
There it was, a full-page ad for The Northwestern School of Taxidermy run by J W Elwood of Omaha Nebraska. It was a correspondence course and after certain tests you would be awarded a diploma which you could display. I was working and all I needed was $2.26 for enrollment and the first lesson, after some begging Mom and Dad agreed.
After two weeks of agonizing wait, a large envelope arrived in the mail, stuffed to the brim with paper. There it was, Lesson #1, listing all the materials I would need, like a scalpel, 20 Mule Team Borax to preserve and moth-proof the bird skins and wood alcohol to preserve the animal skins. Back then, before the advent of expanding foam, you made your own bodies to put back in the skins from excelsior. That’s the shredded wood that with used to pack fragile objects with before styrofoam peanuts were born.
Enthusiastic as ever, I trapped a pigeon, did him in the way they suggested (squeeze him under the wings and stop his heart). Still feel it would have been more merciful to shoot him. It was Squirrel season and the first one I shot, I mounted. It looked pretty good to me so I took a pic of the pigeon and the squirrel and sent them off to old JW, hoping for approval and of course I sent another $2.26 for the next lesson.
Sure enough, he thought they looked good and I had Lesson #2. I did not realize until much later that, as long as payment for the next lesson accompanied the pictures, the test was approved no matter what the specimens, as they called them, looked like. Probably my whole venture into the school run by J W and Rex Elwood ( which was probably his dog) was less than $100.00.
But despite the questionable nature of the school, I did quite well at it. I mounted a lot of ducks and geese and also many pheasants. I also did Deer heads, a Bob Cat, Raccoons, Possums, even a few Chipmunks that the customer said they had found dead (they said). I soon realized that as a life long career it held little possibility.
In 1947, I had been a graduate Taxidermist for 2 years and a brand new graduate of St. Stephen High. I had my High School diploma but had heard nothing from Mr. JW or Rex Elwood about their diploma. Finally in 1952, I received word that I successfully graduated and a diploma would be forthcoming. The company went belly-up in 1970.
My last job before my Career as an Airman was with Gas & Electric. While there, someone got wind of my Taxidermy and featured me in the monthly employee magazine in the Hobby Corner (seen in photo above).
While it wasn’t my career, I am proud of those few years that I preserved some of the beautiful “specimens” that were brought to me. Any other taxidermists in the crowd?
Don LangrehrAre you receiving your free digital subscription to The Zone Magazine? If not, click here!