Through College Through Taxidermy
SPORTSMEN AROUND Lynchburg, Virginia, and its surrounding counties consider themselves very fortunate in having, within a few miles of their homes, a skilled taxidermist.
This taxidermist doesn't have a workshop on the outskirts of a busy city, with glowing signs and huge display windows. Instead, Melvin Mitchell of Evington, Virginia, has chosen the rustic atmosphere of his parent's farm to pursue his hobby.
It is on this farm that the dream of a small boy has developed into an activity that means money for an education. Should you care to visit him, the trip to his shop will prove very interesting. Driving out the old Salem Turnpike for about ten miles from Lynchburg, you pass through the old village of New London. Turning left immediately past historic New London Academy, and driving several miles toward the village of Evington, you see on the right a small dirt lane that leads to Melvin's home. At the entrance of this lane is a small sign that states, simply, MELVIN MITCHELL—TAXIDERMIST. If you should drive down this lane in the late afternoon, chances are that you would overtake a young fellow laden with books, going in from school. Upon asking for the taxidermist, you would, no doubt, be surprised to discover that this fellow is Melvin Mitchell, the taxidermist. His captivating smile, as well as his enthusiastic words, reveal to you that he finds his hobby not only very interesting, but also very profitable.
MELVIN'S INTEREST in this hobby dates back to January 8, 1948. He remembers the exact day, for it was on that day that he shot down a huge goshawk. So far as he was able to ascertain, it was the only one ever found in this area at that time. Never had a fourteen-year-old had such a thrill! Melvin kept that goshawk as long as the family noses could stand it! He wished desperately that he could keep it forever. If he could only stuff it! But that was a skill he knew absolutely nothing about. The local libraries failed to yield the desired information, so he had to give up his goshawk—all but the wings. Such a wing spread! He still keeps and treasures those wings.
Although Melvin lost his goshawk, there was left within him a sincere determination—a determination that to a lad of that age was akin to desperation. He wanted more than anything in the world to learn taxidermy so that he would never lose a rare animal again.
It was this do-or-die spirit that started Melvin out on the search for information that would be of some help to him. While scanning magazines and newspapers for help, he happened upon the advertisement of the Northwestern School of Taxidermy in Omaha, Nebraska. Their offer of a correspondence course in taxidermy for $10 appealed to Melvin. But, to a boy of fourteen, $10 was a great deal of money. Being an ambitious lad, he soon raised the money, and in February—just one month after he had downed the goshawk—he received his first lesson in taxidermy. He thus began the journey on the road to a very successful hobby.
AFTER ONE peep inside this century-old log cabin, which is Mitchell's workshop, one is easily convinced that this young man speaks from experience when he says he believes any animal, bird, beast or fowl—can be successfully mounted. Across the room from his worktable is his personal exhibit, which consists of a wide range of skillfully mounted animals. He still grieves over the loss of his goshawk, but he is justifiably proud of the accumulation of various animals he has mounted for his own collection, since he began studying taxidermy. Each fall, he holds exhibits at two near-by fairs and at the Lynchburg Farm Show. This is an agricultural show in which about fourteen counties participate, and he feels that it is an exceptionally good way to advertise his work.
When customers bring Mitchell work, he stores the animals in a freezer until he is ready to work on them. He believes that once the work is started on an animal, that it should be carried through to completion as soon as possible to prevent the skins from drying out. The average skin can be softened by a special process, but it is far more preferable to complete the work before such a process is necessary.
Satisfactory storage facilities and a well-lighted worktable are essential for the successful mounting of an animal. Mitchell also feels that a taxidermist needs the following tools and materials: Sharp knives in several sizes, pinning needle, cotton, cleaning tubs, galvanized wire, excelsior, papier mache, salt, potters clay, borax, alum, sulphuric acid, chromatin, strong sewing thread, and needles. Of course, if one cares to do much customer work, an adequate system of bookkeeping, and materials necessary for that, are of utmost importance.
THE ACTUAL taxidermy process falls, logically, into five steps. Each of these steps is important, and each must be carried out with the greatest of care. A slipshod job done on any one of the steps, definitely, will result in an inferior finished job.
Step One—Measurements: Accuracy in taking the measurements of the animal before it is skinned cannot be over-stressed. Failure to record these measurements may result in a completely spoiled mounting, for the finished artificial body must fit the natural skin. Otherwise a very crude looking animal will result, and customers will seek a taxidermist that is more careful.
Step Two—Skinning: One might skin a rabbit or a squirrel for eating purposes, and the manner in which the skin is removed would not be too important, so long as the meat remained in good condition. However, in preparing an animal for mounting, exactly the opposite is true. It is the skin that is important. It must be removed with as few tears and cuts as possible. For remember, the entire skin must be made whole again, showing only a few, if any, flaws. After the skin is removed it must be thoroughly cleaned to remove all flesh; and then it is salted down until the body is made. In the case of birds, borax is used as a preservative and also a moth preventive. Fish heads cannot be skinned, so the entire head is pickled in formaldehyde. Alum is also used as a pickling agent. Sometimes a customer only wishes to have the hides tanned. For this, sulphuric acid and chromatin are used.
Step Three—Making the Body: The bodies are made carefully, according to the measurements taken in Step One. Galvanized wire is used for the framework and cotton and excelsior are used to build up the body. Plaster of Paris or potter's clay and papier mache are used for patch work, and also wherever the cotton or excelsior fails to meet the particular demand. Study and experience will enable one to determine when to use each of these materials. The important thing to remember is that the bodies must be made firm and well proportioned. The only way this can be done is to be extremely accurate in following measurements.
Step Four—Stuffing: This step is the one in which the hand-made body is actually stuffed into the natural skin; or the skin is put on over the body, as the case may be. Careful handling in this step is essential in order to prevent tears in the skin; or, in working with birds, the unnecessary ruffling of feathers. When the body and skin are in place, a neat job of sewing is needed to fasten the skin together. A pinning needle is used to smooth any ruffled feathers.
Step Five—Mounting: Regardless of how well the animal is stuffed, if a poor mounting is selected, it will be like putting a beautiful painting into an unsightly frame. The whole effect will be spoiled. Therefore, a suitable mounting must be selected for each animal, keeping in mind the size, color and position of that animal.
MITCHELL REMEMBERS that his first customer work was a great horned owl done in October, 1948. Since that time his work has steadily increased. Sportsmen are always interested in a skilled taxidermist, and they gladly pass the word around that Mitchell's work is tops. A leading sporting goods store in Lynchburg has been most kind in promoting business for him. They are constantly getting calls for that kind of work, and the customers are referred to Mitchell. The exhibits, held each fall, always create a great deal of interest, and orders usually follow. His business has increased to such an extent that his only problem is finding time to fill the orders.
About the smallest fur-bearing animal that Mitchell has ever mounted was a ground squirrel, while a tiny warbler takes the prize for the smallest feathered creature. About the largest animal he has ever mounted was a bobcat for a man in a near-by county. However, as soon as time permits, he has a complete deer to mount for his own exhibit. Most of the orders coming in around the deer hunting season are for deer head and hoof mounts. He has also made several bear-skin rugs with the head and feet attached. When asked what he considers his best work, Mitchell only shakes his head and smiles modestly. However, he does admit that he has a hard time keeping the ring-necked pheasant he has for his own exhibit. Everybody wants it!
An unusual order was filled by this young taxidermist last year. The sporting goods store, previously mentioned, received a group of skins from a hunter in Africa. These skins—a lion, two gazelle, a wildebeest and an impala were turned over to Mitchell who successfully tanned them.
MITCHELL HAS always been able to keep his prices below average. He says he can make more by keeping his prices within reason, and that he just can't help thinking of the fellow who has to pay. Naturally, his prices vary, according to the work to be done. Ordinary tanning orders run from $2 to $3, whereas, he can get from $30 to $50 for a bear-skin rug. Prices on mounting will run anywhere from $5 to $12. Of course, any very large animal, such as a whole deer mount, would probably bring him several hundred dollars; but such orders for this area are unusual. Since the actual materials used are relatively inexpensive, and he has no shop rent to pay, the charges are made mostly for time and labor.
Mitchell has a very old account book—one, in which are written the records of tanning done by his great uncle. It is in this same book that he keeps a careful record of all his taxidermy work. He always lists the name of the customer, the work done for him, the date and the charges made for that work. His records show that the $90.50 income for his first year, 1948, was merely a beginning. Each year since that time his work has steadily increased. For the year ending July 1, 1953, his income was $575, and he has on hand approximately $1,000 worth of work to be done.
One might gather that Mitchell has practically buried himself among his dead animals, but not so! He is quite a versatile young fellow. Naturally, among his first loves are hunting and fishing; but he also finds time for the girls, who find his smile rather nice. He was only an eighth grade youngster in rural New London Academy when the taxidermy bug began to bite. Unlike so many boys of his age Melvin was able to follow his hobby earnestly, and, at the same time, remain an excellent student. He also took an active part in high school athletics. Now he is a student at near-by Lynchburg College, majoring (again, naturally), in biology. His hobby has to be squeezed in between his studies; but, somehow, he has been able to find the time, for he realizes that this hobby is paying his college expenses.
Will Mitchell become a full-time taxidermist when he finishes college? No, that is not his present plan, although he thinks the field is wide open in this area. He hopes to be a game technician and to continue taxidermy as a hobby or perhaps an avocation. His work as a game technician will keep him in the field of wild life, and that is, definitely, his main interest. All of his plans may be interrupted, since he is of the draft age. If that does happen, he can continue to study, perhaps, and to plan for his future while he is in service.
In the meantime, taxidermy has been, and still is, a paying hobby in many ways. Its greatest role, however, is the part it has played in the shaping of a boy's life. It has paid rich dividends in keeping a youngster's mind busy, while engaged in a worthwhile activity. Financially, it is enabling a fine, capable, young man to continue his education—preparing one more better citizen for our country.
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.