My dream career got plucked and stuffed

I saw a show on cable last week that nearly floored me.  It was about a profession that I, at age 14, thought would fit right into the life I had planned for my future.

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 Langrehr

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6 Responses to My dream career got plucked and stuffed

  1. Brett says:

    This is sort of like taking a course over the internet nowadays. Great way to combine your interests and money making which was much needed in those times. I still remember a lot of taxidermy sitting in your house. Great job

  2. Dona says:

    You have really done it all!! I, too, remember tons of taxidermy all around. I don’t think I knew that you had done them yourself! Cool story.

  3. I enjoyed coming across this article and hearing of your “adventures in taxidermy”. As it happens, J.W. Elwood was my Great-Grandfather and, although I never knew him (he died before I was born) I have been fascinated by the many stories my Mother has shared with me about him. She loved him dearly and his taxidermy business financed her college education. I am especially grateful on that point…for it was as an undergraduate at Stanford that she met her future husband (my Dad). So I have to credit you and all the other students of the Northwest School of Taxidermy for without you, I would probably not even be here. 🙂

  4. Anonymous says:

    This was an interesting story about your early days of lessons received from the Northwest School of Taxidermy. My own experiences with the school are about the same, and I still have the books and diploma. I didn’t have access to as many “specimens” as you did, but sure did a lot of different birds (my favorites) and small game. I lost my taste for the hobby while mounting a rat. The dead rat stared at me, accusingly, as if I were to blame for its predicament, and guilted me right out of the hobby. I took up archery and photography, then computers in 1967. Haven’t thought about taxidermy in a long time. Thanks for the time travel. …Tom in Delaware

  5. Wow what a visit to the past. I just came across my lifetime membership card and decided to google the school, and your blog came up. I took the course about 1967-68. But don’t have the lessons anymore. I did a lot of hunting & fishing, and the training helped when cleaning pheasants we shot. I mounted only a couple of birds and squirrels. But later attended pre-med in college thinking I wanted to be a surgeon. Courses like this meant a lot to many of us kids in those days. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Anonymous says:

    So nice to read all these interesting stories.

    I also took this course in the early 60’s and still do some today but I never made any money as a business to speak of:)

    I am now semi retired and still interested in the old art and looking forward to doing things the old fashion way when I do some mounts.

    One day in Biology class in the Sayre High School in PA a Baltimore Oreo flew into the window and I asked the teacher if I could have it to mount, he said OK so I opened the window but the bird was not dead yet so I explained to the teacher about the most human way to kill it was to squeeze its chest to stop his heart so I did that over the sink since they usually will soil the floor otherwise and one of the older lady teachers was walking by the class and saw me killing the bird and went to the principals office and told him I was drounding a bird in Biology class and the Biology teach and I were called to the principal’s office to explain.

    Tony Mullen

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