It was a ramshackle old building, with three or four compartments arranged shotgun-style between a wide door fronting Main Street and a slightly smaller back door opening onto the alley. In older days, the building had been a farrier’s and blacksmith’s shop, and its dirt floor was hardened to the color and consistency of asphalt from nearly a century of packing by men, livestock and machinery. The interior walls still showed the rough cypress and oak board-and-batten planking of the original construction, and the ceiling above was overlapping cypress shakes.
The building’s exterior, walls and roof alike, had been modernized with a layer of galvanized tin, but the modernization itself was 40 years old and loose sections of tin rattled and banged every time the wind blew. Here and there around the floor, buckets marked the location of the worst leaks. A row of naked 100-watt light bulbs hanging from the ceiling ran the entire length of the building, and the effect was a series of harsh light puddles surrounded by shadows.
To any normal person, the place was a dump. But, in my opinion, it was paradise. It was where the local fur buyer conducted business.
His name was Lester Yarbrough, but everybody pronounced it “Yarber.” He was silver-maned, rotund and bowlegged, and he walked with a rolling limp that looked painful. But the smile on his face was as much a part of him as his blue bib overalls, and I never saw him when he wasn’t wearing both. Mr. Yarbrough’s chief skinner, an ancient, prune-colored man named Scipio, wore a smile just as big and his laugh was like distant thunder. From the first day I entered that building, both men made me feel equal and welcome. Mr. Yarbrough called me “Trapper.” Scipio called me “Nephew.” And I called him “Uncle Skip.”
For the first seven or eight years of my trapping career, I sold my catch — such as it was — to Mr. Yarbrough, all of it “in the round.” During all that time, never, not once, did Mr. Yarbrough and Scipio fail to make me feel important and grown-up when I’d come barging through the door of their smelly paradise with a ’possum or skunk or whatever furry treasure I’d captured that day. During all that time, I never brought a piece of fur in there that Mr. Yarbrough didn’t buy.
I didn’t give much thought to that fact in those early days, when I was a tangle-headed kid with patches on my jeans and a ’possum by the tail. But in January 1970, when I was 22 and a senior in college, I went to the fur house to visit during semester break. We were all gathered around the converted oil drum heater, swapping lies, when the door banged open and in walked … a tangle-headed kid with patches on his jeans and a ’possum by the tail. It was like looking at myself through a 10-year time warp.
Mr. Yarbrough broke off in the middle of his story and swiveled his creaky old body around in the cane-bottomed chair that was as much a part of him as his overalls. He reached out a hand. “Let’s see what you’ve got there, son.”
The boy handed Mr. Yarbrough the ’possum, which was no bigger than a gray squirrel.
“I caught it this morning with a fish head for bait,” he said proudly. “It’s my first one.”
Scipio and I watched quietly as the old fur buyer hefted and turned the ’possum, wearing a serious, businesslike expression on his face. He blew into its fur. He tugged gently at its whiskers, rolled back a lip and looked at its teeth. He snicked its tiny claws against his thumbnail. After a full minute of this nonsense, he looked up at the boy and gave him that grin.
“Well, I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “This is a fine ’possum for your first one. I don’t want to insult you by offering less than it’s worth, but I’m running low on money this week and I was wondering if you’d take 50 cents for it?”
The boy’s eyes flew open under his mop of hair, and a grin that equaled Mr. Yarbrough’s split his face.
“Yessir, I sure would!” he said, and the deal was struck.
After the boy flew out the door with his two quarters, Mr. Yarbrough wordlessly handed the tiny ’possum to Scipio, who turned and tossed it into one of the wheelbarrows they used to hold carcasses until they were carried out back. I raised my eyebrows, and Uncle Skip’s perfect teeth flashed out of that blue-black face.
“You don’t think I skinned all them little bitty ’possums you used to come cartin’ in here, do you?” he asked, the thunder rumbling in the bottom of his voice. “About half of ’em ended up right there in that wheelbarrow.”
“There’s not enough young fellows getting into trapping anymore,” Mr. Yarbrough explained, when I turned my raised eyebrows his way. “If a kid has enough gumption to get out there, I feel like I ought to try to pay him a little something for what he catches. Anyway, it’s an investment. I did that once or twice with you, and maybe it kept you at it. And I make a little money off you now, when you’re not too busy gettin’ educated.”
As it turned out, that was the last year the old fur house was in business. The building burned in the spring, and in the summer, a tiny cancer that had been hiding in Mr. Yarbrough’s lungs blossomed into a malevolent thing that took him quickly to his grave. Uncle Skip went to work for the competing fur buyer in the next town up the road, but his smile was gone, and he only worked for one more season before cancer took him, too.
Every word of that story is true, and I think it explains in large part why trapper numbers are steadily going downhill. The small-town country fur buyer was the lifeblood of trapping for many years, and it gave kids like me, and like the kid with the ’possum in 1970, a place to go with their fur while we learned the tricks and skills of trapping. Until Black Monday and the fur crash of 1987, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a country buyer.
But the crash took most of them off the board, and those incubating chambers where so many young trappers got the initial support they needed suddenly went away. I don’t know how many of them were as generous, encouraging and supportive as Mr. Yarbrough and Uncle Skip — not many, would be my guess — but even so, they gave kids a place to sell their meager catches.
Just as important, the country buyers’ fur sheds gave kids a place to go and be surrounded by the intoxicating subculture that is trapping. Many fur buyers, if not most, also sold a few basic supplies — traps, lures, wire, stuff like that. Country buyers provided a vital link between the large buyer and the first-stage producer, and they helped a lot of young trappers like me, who didn’t have anybody in the family to teach them the ropes, get a toe-hold in this complicated and not very beginner-friendly game.
When you can’t get rid of your catch, it removes a lot of the desire to catch it in the first place. When you have no source of support, inspiration and encouragement, ditto. And trapper numbers go down, down, down.
Oh, sure, the usual culprits are also partly to blame: urbanization of the population, increasing numbers of single-parent families, more extra-curricular activities competing for young people’s time, propaganda from the anti groups, blah, blah, blah. But if you look at a graph of declining trapper numbers, what you see is that the sharpest drops are immediately following market downturns. Partly this is because lower fur prices mean lower interest in trapping, but mostly it’s because every downturn kills off a few more country buyers, and therefore fewer and fewer trappers have ready outlets for their fur, and fewer and fewer potential young trappers have access to the encouragement mentioned above.
Thus far, this piece is sounding pretty gloomy, huh? I don’t really mean it to be that way, but it’s always best to see things the way they are, instead of the way we wish them to be. And the way things are is there aren’t very many country fur buyers around anymore. In my own home state, which in the 1970s and early 1980s had more than 200 licensed fur buyers, less than 20 people bought buyer licenses last season. The situation is similar in other states.
No question about it, trappers and fur hunters have fewer options these days. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t sell our fur. It just means most of us can no longer take the easy way out.
Because Mr. Yarbrough and Uncle Skip were always there, doing business in my small hometown, I never skinned a single furbearer until I went to college and didn’t have a place where I could drop off my catch every day. I’d taken that country fur buyer support system and turned it into a crutch; it had enabled me to become a trapper, but it had also slowed my continuing education as one.
So I started learning to skin, flesh and stretch critters at the same time I started learning things like analytical chemistry and calculus. Both were equally difficult at first, but eventually I got it figured out. Skinning and fleshing and stretching, that is. I never did get on top of calculus and analytical chem.
Skinning your catch is the first step toward becoming a more marketable trapper. If you’re lucky enough to still have a country buyer who will buy your catch in the round, fine. But know two things: If you sell in the round, you’re not getting the best value for your catch and you’re also probably painting yourself into a corner. Because, chances are, you’re eventually going to lose that cooperative country buyer.
That’s why a trapper should learn how to put up his own fur. Learning to do this chore isn’t hard, but it requires practice, and it’s time consuming as well. I know a few trappers who hire other people to put up their fur, usually on a piecework basis, but it’s even harder to find someone to do this than it is to find a country buyer. The advice from this corner is, if you’re not a decent fur handler, get that way.
There’s a certain satisfaction that comes from looking at well-prepared pelts hanging in rows that goes well beyond the satisfaction of trapping them in the first place. I guess it’s corny, but it gives me a sense of self-sufficiency I get from no other activity. It’s not entirely an accurate feeling, and I know it. Let’s face it, fur handling is not one of the most important skills in today’s world. Growing a garden, now, there’s a useful thing to be good at.
But I can no more grow a good garden than I can wiggle my ears and fly to the moon, so I’m content with my fur handling skills — which, while they might not be up to par with the likes of somebody like Greg Schroeder, are still pretty decent. When my trapping partner and I double-team a critter (me skinning, Bill fleshing and whichever of us gets to it first putting the pelt on a board), the end result is usually a pretty decently-handled pelt.
More Selling Options
More important than how it makes me feel, though, is the fact that having my fur stretched and dried gives me a lot more selling options than if I was still selling my catch in the round or skinned and green. Bill and I send the bulk of our catch to the Canadian auction houses, but I usually keep some of my late-season stuff to sell at our state trappers association fur sale, to support the association and to keep from putting all my eggs in one basket. But, since our pelts are fleshed, stretched and dried, Bill and I could hold them over for a year or two if we didn’t think the market was favorable. Try that with critters still in the carcass, or green pelts wrapped in plastic, and you run the risk of damaging them with freezer-burn.
We could also sell to anybody across the country that we choose to sell to, because shipping dried furs is simply a matter of boxing them up and paying the carrier’s freight charge. The fur isn’t going to spoil. You can accept or reject the buyer’s offer, and the pelts will be in the same condition when you get them back as they were when you sent them.
As mentioned earlier, handling your own fur is a time-eating commitment, and it inevitably cuts into the amount of time you have available for catching fur. But I submit to you that if two broken-down old crocks like my trapping partner and I can catch, skin, flesh, stretch and ship 400 ’coons in a season like we did last year, handling your own fur is not an insurmountable task. It’s not something you can do between the weather report and Wheel of Fortune, but if you budget your time well, it’s not going to cost you a lot of sleep, either.
Even so, if I could find another country fur buyer like Mr. Yarbrough, or if I could hire a master fur handler like Uncle Skip, I doubt I’d ever peel another ’coon.
Jim Spencer is executive editor of Trapper & Predator Caller.