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A visit to the fur shed
By Marty Harmon*

I had been hearing tales of the northern trappers who came down to Mississippi for a couple of years. I decided to go over for a visit one night. I knew the man who owned the place they were staying so I called him. Sure, he said, come on over, they usually come in about thirty minutes after dark. I made the thirty minute drive to his house in the pouring rain. It had poured off and on all day, and showed no signs of letting up. I pulled up to his house and looked toward his barn, there was a light coming from the room where Bruce told me they were staying. I exited my pickup and ran for the light through the mud as rain pounded on my back. I arrived at the building and noticed four or five skinned beaver laying on the ground just outside the door. The first thing I noticed about them was they didn’t look like the beaver I skinned, these still had all of the fat on the carcass. When I knocked on the door, a dog immediately started barking from inside.

The door was opened by a fairly tall, long haired man who introduced himself to me as Jerry. He pointed over his shoulder to another tall, slender, darker haired man sitting at a table in the middle of the room, this is my brother Perry. Perry looked up from where he had been patching a pair of hip waders and nodded with a smile. When I entered the room it was almost like going into an oven, the wood-burning stove at the far end of the room had the room at what I figured to be about eighty degrees. The room looked to be about twenty-four feet long, and about fifteen wide. The concrete floor had about twelve or so beaver lying on their backs, lined up just inside the door. I introduced myself and felt welcome right from the start. These were just some “good ole boys” who were doing what they loved to do, and I took a liking to them right from the start. I looked around the room taking in the scenery. Just past all of the animals, stacked in rows on the floor, was the table. It had a few plates and bowls stacked around on it . Perry was just finishing up patching the waders and stood up to carry them over to a corner out of the way. There was a small television on a shelf just to the right of a sink. At the other end of the room was the heater, and it was still heating. Beaver boards were stacked against the wall on the left side, some with beaver nailed on them, some were waiting their turn. There was a fan just in front of the heater blowing the hot air right at the beaver that were already stretched. Just to the right side of the heater was the sleeping quarters, there were two double bunk beds, the frames looked to be made out of two by fours. The mattress had a couple of blankets on each . One of the small dogs jumped off of the bottom bed, ran over to a bowl full of dog feed, taking a bite, he then gave me the evil eye, and ran back over to the bed.

I immediately figured out that Jerry was the talker of the pair, he would talk on and on as I intently listened. Every now and then I’d glance over at Perry and he’d nod his head and smile, as if to say, yep, that’s the way it was. They informed me that they had another brother, John, he had quit coming down after taking a job with the government trapping coyotes. I told Jerry I wanted to see him in action clean-skinning beaver, as I had been told he was one of the best. Walking over to the rows of beaver, he reached down and grabbed a very large dry one, carried it over to another smaller table that set just past the foot of the beds. He informed me that they stack them in order, and that today’s beaver were at the other end, and would be skinned later when they were dry. He laid the beaver on the table, reached over and grabbed a fur comb, and started grooming the beaver. Satisfied that it was combed, he reached and picked up a wooden handled knife with his right hand and a “steel” with his left. He brought the knife down several times almost faster than the eye could keep up. I was amazed, not at how fast he did it, as I’ve seen my Dad do it several times a long time ago. What amazed me was that he never lost eye contact with me, or quit talking the whole time he did it. A quick count of his fingers told me they were all there, to my amazement. He placed the knife, which I later learned was a Green River improved skinner, down and picked up a long, thin bladed knife, repeated the process with the steel, then grabbed one of the back feet of the beaver, ran one swipe around it with the knife, twisted, then cut it off smooth. I also noticed that he knew exactly where to cut inside the joint, helping keep the knife sharp, as he removed the other three feet. After hitting the knife a few times more on the steel, he spun the beaver around, and started the cut from just below the anus to the chin. He then put the thin knife down and picked up the Green River one. I watched in awe as he shaved the fat and meat away from the hide, making the hide almost look dry. After he got about halfway down, he reached on the table and grabbed a stick of firewood, this stick had been split into about a quarter of stick. He propped the beavers back against the wood, making him lay in the position he wanted , and proceeded with his shaving.

I almost giggled to myself at this crude way of improvising a beaver trough, but was once again amazed at the way it functioned. Jerry started down the other side, then stopped long enough to remove the castor and oil sacs. Once again I was amazed at how fast and how clean they were. Once out, he laid them on the table, then continued on talking as he finished up. There was no more work to be done on the hide by this time, he had trimmed the lips off, and right down to the nose. I admired his work one more time as he took a couple of steps and threw it towards the beaver boards. Perry does the nailing, Jerry said as he walked back across the room to get another beaver. A quick glance up at the clock told me he’d taken about fifteen minutes to complete the task, talking to me the whole time! Perry smiled and removed the top off of one of the bowls on the table, do you want some squirrel? I could see that there were several squirrels fried up under the lid. Nope, thanks anyway I replied. He said that the dogs tree lots of squirrels while they’re running traps and they harvest a few for supper at times.

Jerry took the skinned beaver to the door, opened it, and threw it onto the pile I had noticed when I first arrived. He brought another over to the table, and laying it down, he picked up the fur comb and started the whole process over again. This time he went to telling me how a typical year goes for them. We start out in Wyoming, working on a large ranch. They were modern day cowboys, I thought. My mind drifted a little as he continued on with the story, I was looking at the rolling hills of Wyoming, green grass blowing in the wind, man it was beautiful. All of a sudden I heard hoof beats, they were getting closer and closer. Thoughts of what it could be were racing through my mind, buffalo? Just about this time Jerry topped one of the rises on horseback. The horse was lathered up and galloping as fast as it could go. Just behind Jerry was Perry, his horse was also lathered with foam and showed signs of being ridden hard and long. About this time I saw what was up, four Indians were giving chase about fifty yards behind them. They had their lances in the air and were whooping and shouting as they tried to close the gap on the two trappers. Perry turned halfway around in the saddle, holding his squirrel rifle with his right hand as if it were a pistol. As the rifle cracked the Indian on the far left was almost lifted off of his horse. Jerry’s voice bellowed, bringing me back to reality, yep, by the time the winters setting in there, we already know where all of the beaver that need harvesting are. We trap them until bad weather, then move on to our home state of West Virginia. When it starts getting too bad there we move here to Mississippi and close out the year.

I truly enjoyed my visit with these two trappers, and try to get over to see them at least once a year. Trappers like Jerry and Perry may never get the recognition of just how great they are. I know they’ve been around a lot of great trappers, as I’ve heard stories from Jerry of how Mr. Charles Dobbins was the one who taught him how to clean skin. Charles' son Paul Dobbins knows them, and CDR Carl, for he and I had a good talk about them at the south-eastern convention. What I’m talking about is that they don’t write books and articles, nor make movies or videos, even though they could probably fill page after page of trapping knowledge. They do it for the love of it, I can tell that it’s just a way of life to them. I hope this story has brought a little enjoyment to you about two men who are living life to it’s finest. Until then, I’ll just imagine that I’m living the life that they are, for I don’t believe I’m cut out to be, a “modern day cowboy”.

*Marty Harmon is an avid trapper from Mississippi.

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